Anti-Palin tell-all speaks volumes about author and its key subject
For a moment, you almost feel sorry for Sarah Palin. There she was, trying to live a normal family life in Wasilla, Alaska, when a bestselling author and would-be biographer rented the house next door. And of one thing she could be certain, whatever book emerged was not going to be flattering.
Joe McGinniss moved in on May 22 last year, setting in motion an electronic circus throughout the summer, as both sides chronicled their impressions of each other via blog and Facebook, and Palin's appearances on the conservative Fox News channel, where she is a regular commentator. Watched by the world's media, husband Todd even put up a 14ft fence to block out the prying eyes of Mr McGinniss.
As publication day approached, a new teaser emerged, a hook-up with the hugely popular Doonesbury cartoon strip. All this week Gary Trudeau, Doonesbury's creator, has had his fictional Fox reporter Roland Hedley leafing through an advance copy, trying to put a positive spin on its most sensational allegations.
And these latter do not disappoint. Next Tuesday, the fruits of Mr McGinniss's labours will finally be available to all, with the publication of 'The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin'. Readers will learn that the real Sarah Palin allegedly had a one-night stand with a black college basketball player (although she is elsewhere said to be a racist), that she used drugs with her husband, that she had an affair with one of her husband's business partners, and that her staple reading is 'People' magazine.
Yesterday, even before publication, the book was roundly panned by a reviewer from 'The New York Times' ("dated and petty", and "too busy being nasty to be lucid", were some of Janet Maslin's comments). Todd Palin himself was even more trenchant, describing the book as "full of disgusting lies, innuendo, and smears".
But it's hard to retain sympathy for the Palins for long. Throughout her bizarre odyssey from obscure governor of Alaska to Republican megastar and global celebrity, there has been one constant: her craving for attention.
For months she has been stoking the "will-she, won't she" speculation about a 2012 presidential bid. The world is none the wiser, but she has grown yet more famous (and, of course, ever richer). But the oldest rule of PR is that if you live for the limelight, you cannot be selective about where that limelight falls. And thus it is with 'The Rogue' -- it's very title a lift from 'Going Rogue', Palin's 2009 autobiography.
In a sense, Mr McGinniss's book is but the latest manifestation of a long American tradition -- the biography of a famous person, spiced with sensational "revelations" (usually hearsay, gossip or allegations by unnamed "friends") that is enabled by the tolerant US libel laws and devoured by a relentless celebrity culture.
Kitty Kelley, skewerer of Nancy Reagan, Frank Sinatra, the British royal family and Oprah Winfrey among others, is a prime example of the genus. Another is C David Heymann, who has made his speciality the Kennedys, especially Bobby and Jackie Kennedy.
Two years ago, Mr Heymann wrote an entire book about an alleged affair between Bobby and his widowed sister-in-law. And did you know that RFK, father of 10 children, was once seen passionately kissing Rudolf Nureyev in a phone booth? True or false, that episode may be found on page 419 of an earlier work, 'RFK: A Candid Biography'.
But Mr McGinniss's track record is more complicated. He became the literary equivalent of a child prodigy when he produced 'The Selling of the President' in 1968, an account of how Richard Nixon was successfully "sold" to US voters.
The following year, aged 26, Mr McGinniss found himself atop 'The New York Times' bestseller list. The book remains in print to this day, an acknowledged classic of political reporting.
That was followed by a first (non-fiction) book on 'Alaska: Going to Extremes', dealing with the state's transformation, and a trilogy of true crime books, all of them turned into television series. In 1993, Mr McGinniss also drank of the inexhaustible celebrity biog fountain that is the Kennedy family, to produce 'The Last Brother: The Rise and Fall of Teddy Kennedy', attracting praise and accusations of plagiarism in equal measure.
Does 'The Rogue' make a Palin presidential bid in 2012 more or less likely?
In a country where politics, the media and celebrity have fused into a bewildering whole, it is impossible to be sure.
But in an odd way, Sarah Palin and Joe McGinniss deserve each other.
Both of them know exactly how publicity works. (© Independent News Service)