America by Heart
Reflections on Family, Faith and Flag
By Sarah Palin
Harper. 272 pp. $25.99
by Michael D. Schaffer
Sarah Palin has a way of making things seem simple.
Her fans will hail her new book, America by Heart, as another folksy and forthright Palin put-down of the liberal elite. Her critics will dismiss it as tendentious tripe.
And many people probably won't care one way or the other.
That's too bad, because the book does tell us a lot - some of it good, some not so good - about a woman many believe has an eye on the White House.
It tells us she's a loving wife and mother, professes deep respect for our American ideals of equality and freedom, and voices legitimate concern about the world we're leaving our children.
It also tells us she has the courage of her convictions for standing by her antiabortion principles and giving birth to a baby with Down syndrome, even though she admits the prospect scared her until she actually held the baby. She writes that the experience, plus her teenage daughter Bristol's pregnancy, helped her "understand much better why a woman might be tempted to take what seems like the easy way out. . . . I understand what goes through her mind, even if for a brief moment, a split second, because I've been there."
The political Palin who emerges from America by Heart is less appealing. That Palin is prone to unsupported generalizations, wants simple answers to complex questions, has no sympathy with bipartisanship, mistakes sarcasm for wit, prefers derision to debate, and, like other zealots of both the right and the left, fails to realize that the great heart of America is moderate, alternating pragmatically between just-right-of-center and just-left-of-center.
One of the most interesting things America by Heart reveals about Palin is that she seems to know less than she ought about our history.
This is not a minor point, because Palin makes a very big deal of using the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution as warrants for her political agenda.
Without judging her platform, a reader can legitimately ask: If she doesn't know history as well as she should, what else doesn't she know?
Palin informs us twice, on Pages 110 and 189, that John Adams took part in the Constitutional Convention and was "a leading participant."
Adams wasn't at the Constitutional Convention. He wasn't even in the country; he was in England as U.S. minister to the Court of St. James's.
This is like writing a history of early Christianity and saying that St. Peter was at the foot of the cross or St. Paul was at the Last Supper.
In another instance, Palin gets a piece of history partly right but, misleadingly, leaves out the ending.
Casting herself as a defender of religion in the public square, which she claims is under liberal attack, Palin tells us how Benjamin Franklin suggested that the Constitutional Convention begin each session with a prayer. She ends the story there, leaving the impression that the delegates adopted Franklin's motion.
They did not.
Alexander Hamilton warned that if word got out that the delegates, after weeks of deliberation, had turned to prayer, the public would attribute it to "embarrassments and dissensions within the convention." (Apparently, in the Hamiltonian view, prayer is OK as long as it doesn't make you look weak.) Hugh Williamson, a North Carolina delegate, said the convention didn't have the money to pay a chaplain. According to a notation on a manuscript copy of Franklin's speech in the Library of Congress, "The Convention, except three or four persons, thought Prayers unnecessary."
Franklin's proposal never got to a vote. When it comes to religion in American public life, history tells us that there are no simple answers.
Nor are there simple answers when it comes to applying the great American belief that we're all created equal, the bedrock of our national identity.
Palin says that liberals unfairly accuse "patriotic Americans" of racism for opposing President Obama's policies and for wanting "a smaller federal government and a return to federalism - otherwise known as states' rights."
Her defensiveness is understandable, but states' rights does have a long, dishonorable, and undeniable connection with racial injustice. Supporters of slavery and racial segregation routinely hid behind states' rights. Anyone who would have waited for the Southern states to end slavery or segregation on their own would have waited a mighty long time. Palin acknowledges as much on Page 78, when she writes: "Ending discrimination against African Americans by some American states was one instance in which the federal government rightly stepped in and forced change." (She then goes on to charge that "since then, advocates of increased federal authority have abused this noble cause to advance a big-government agenda.")
Palin praises the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, both of them federal laws, as "great human achievements." We hope everybody agrees with her.
America by Heart is a mix of autobiography and political propaganda, padded with long quotations from a host of luminaries including Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge, Margaret Thatcher, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Milton Friedman, John McCain, George Washington, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Alexis de Tocqueville.
It's a little disingenuous, because Palin cherry-picks congenial quotations from people who would otherwise disagree with her. Dr. King would vehemently disagree with Palin over the use of federal programs to address social problems. And it's hard to imagine that Lincoln would have sympathy for her states' rights position.
Then there's Thomas Paine, the great Revolutionary War pamphleteer. Palin uses a quotation from Paine's celebrated 1776 tract "The Crisis" as her book's epigraph: "If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace."
You can't go wrong quoting Paine if you're trying to stir things up.
Palin also refers to her own political philosophy as "Commonsense Constitutional Conservatism." That's either a nod to "Common Sense," Paine's famous tract arguing for American independence, or to Glenn Beck.
But little else connects Paine and Palin.
Paine, an adherent of the French Revolution, was about as far left as you could get in the late 18th century. Though he believed in God, he did not believe in divine revelation and attacked revealed religion in Age of Reason (1794), and advocated in Agrarian Justice (1797) the creation of a national fund that would provide lump-sum payments to every adult and pensions for the elderly.
A poster boy for Palin's "patriotic Americans"? Only if they're willing to overlook the liberal warts.
Things are not always as simple as we'd like them to be.
Inquirer book review editor Michael D. Schaffer has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University. Contact him at 215-854-2537 or firstname.lastname@example.org.