There are a lot of posts up already in response to Vanity Fair’s long expose by Michael Joseph Gross on Sarah Palin. Ben Smith and Dave Weigel have spotted on small factual error, though both seem to take it as a basis to dismiss the entire work. Dismissing a piece of many quotes and anonymous stories because one of them is wrong is as absurd as basing an entire story around one anonymous anecdote – something that Gross does not do. What makes Gross’s piece so terrifying is how many stories of the same vein he is able to get people to talk about, particularly ones which suggest that Palin may have some sort of personality disorder akin to being manic or bipolar.
When I was living in Alaska, I heard a lot of stories about Palin. Many of those stories ended up being told by various reporters and political operatives during the 2008 general election. In my experience with what went public, most of the rumors had a much higher basis in truth in Alaska than they do in the Lower 48. It’s a small state and people know each other well – including their dirty laundry. Of course, the shotgun wedding story that Smith and Weigel highlight as debunked is something that didn’t originate in Alaska, but with McCain campaign aides.
Obviously there are other Palin rumors that never panned out – specifically the rumor that Sarah was not in fact Trig’s mother. That rumor was started by Republican opponents of Palin’s in Alaska. The problem with this as it stands now is that the rumor went after a bogus issue. The real hit on Palin for Trig’s birth was how she made reckless choices to take multiple long flights and a long drive to give birth to Trig not just in Alaska, but in Wasilla.
Gross’s piece is really scary and damning. If you have a problem with the number of anonymous quotes or stories conveyed in it, his reasoning is there to explain it: people are scared of Palin’s wrath for speaking out on the record about her to reporters. This is a real phenomenon and not one to be overlooked. If a subject can intimidate those around her into not talking to the press, it has a deliberate chilling effect on journalists who seek to cover her.
Ben Smith’s conclusion is that “you can really write anything about Palin.” Sure, you can – she’s an interesting figure who a lot of people want to read about either because they hate her or they love her. But that’s not to say that everything written about her is falsified or sensationalistic. She did get hundreds of thousands of dollars for her and her family paid for by the RNC. She did have essentially zero grasp of contemporary current affairs, foreign affairs, economics, or political history. She did and does continue to have an open disdain for intellectualism. She is crafting an Us versus Them narrative, wherein she occupies a major leadership role in the course of American events. She does have an (arguably typically) dysfunctional family. And, perhaps most importantly, she quit her job as Governor of Alaska after only two years to pursue media and speaking opportunities that are netting her upwards of $13 million per year. She may well have presidential ambitions, though I will believe she will voluntarily step off the Conservative Icon gravy train when I see it.
There may be one or more bad anecdotes in Gross’s piece. But dismissing it out of hand seems nuts to me given everything that is documented about Palin in the public record.