The title of Sarah Palin's memoir, Going Rogue, is a little misleading. The gerund suggests that the woman who went from obscurity to the GOP ticket to the exit door of the Alaska governor's mansion in less than a year is still on a journey toward rogue-dom.
In fact, when Palin emerged from a self-imposed semi-exile on Nov. 6 to speak before 4,000 fans just outside Milwaukee at what organizers called the largest pro-life gathering in Wisconsin history, two things were abundantly clear: Palin is now a thoroughly professional rogue and she is going to sell a ton of books. She has become her own reality show.
The line began forming at the state fairgrounds more than three hours before the main event and stretched longer than half a mile. The crowd wore buttons bearing her image and passed the time making jokes about the media while eagerly snatching up T-shirts a local talk-radio station was giving away that labeled Palin "America's Conservative Conscience." Once inside the cavernous exhibition hall, they chanted, "Sarah!" with growing fervor until their heroine appeared, flexing her distinctive charisma in a killer red dress, high heels and her trademark glasses. The event was closed to the press, and cameras were barred from the hall, not only to preserve the mystery and anticipation before her formal debut but also to protect against unflattering YouTube postings. I bought a public ticket for admittance, as did several other journalists.
Although Palin occasionally faltered and tied herself in verbal knots, the adoring listeners could not have cared less. They laughed at every joke, cheered in all the right places, hushed when Palin suggested a pro-abortion-rights mind-set could lead Democrats to neglect special-needs children or older people. She brought the audience members to their feet with a defiant charge: "Don't let anyone ever tell you to sit down and shut up."
She denounced America's abortion rate with vehemence and told the group that anyone who supports legalized partial-birth abortion is a "coldhearted extremist" or a "coward." While abortion was her principal target, she sprinkled her outrage all over the place. She went after President Obama, mocking his signature phrase "Change we can believe in" and suggesting he had authorized moving the words "In God we trust" from the face of a new $1 coin to its edge. (In fact, the coin's format was re-engineered several years ago by Republicans in Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush.)
If her facts were off target, her tone hit the spot. Palin is expertly channeling the disenfranchised and disgruntled of the Republican base. As Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa told TIME, "She's the only thing between 2004 and 2009 that's ever given any energy to the Republican Party No. 1, because she's a woman, and No. 2, because she expresses herself well."
The next night, after the House passed its health care bill, she took to her Facebook page (her favored communication tool since leaving the statehouse) and warned, "Look closely at the provisions mandating bureaucratic panels that will be calling the shots regarding who will receive government health care. Look closely at provisions addressing illegal aliens' health care coverage too." Not too specific, but undeniably provocative.
Soon she will hit the road and make her pitch to anyone who will buy it. Her three-week book tour launches in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Nov. 18 and takes her to places such as Roanoke, Va.; Bloomington, Minn.; Noblesville, Ind.; Rochester, N.Y.; Fort Bragg, N.C.; Washington, Pa.; and the Villages in Florida, where she drew a crowd of 60,000 in September 2008. Publisher HarperCollins, which paid Palin a seven-figure advance for her memoir, plans an initial print run of 1.5 million copies. There are plenty of ways to move the product. Pledge cards placed on every seat at the event last week promoted a deal: a contribution of $1,000 or more to Wisconsin Right to Life in return for an autographed copy of Palin's book and membership in a new and as-yet-undefined group, Sarah's Rogues.
Palin will travel mostly by bus, with her now famous family expected to be along for some of the ride. She will start off the tour with TV interviews with Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Walters, followed by sit-downs on Fox News with Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren, a three-pronged conservative kick that will keep the cash registers whirring. Some close to Palin believe she quit the governor's job to trade the crushing legal bills stemming from the various ethics complaints filed against her for the cash that comes with speaking engagements and book deals. For now, she's all about polishing her brand for its purchasing not its political power.
That's probably a smart choice, since a huge gap remains between the grass-roots activists who fervently want Palin to run for President and the party's elected officials, major fundraisers and strategists, many of whom think she is unready or unfit for the Oval Office. Many have noticed that Palin isn't acting like a candidate: after her clumsy exit from the governorship last summer, she declined to hire an experienced staff or manage her public profile deftly. All that, plus her tawdry public feud with ersatz son-in-law Levi Johnston, has most of the smart money betting that Palin won't be a contender for 2012.
But she could yet be a factor. Palin has told friends she stands ready to help candidates in the 2010 elections, despite her negligible influence in the Nov. 3 off-year showings newly elected GOP governors in New Jersey and Virginia largely rejected her help, and her chosen candidate in a special election for a New York congressional race lost a seat that had been reliably Republican since the Civil War. Nevertheless, she exerts a particular sway on her party's officeholders, goading them to avoid compromise with the President, making it more difficult for Obama to achieve his campaign pledge of bipartisanship in Washington. That's the part of Palin's rogue message her supporters love most of all.