The man who got close to Sarah Palin

Writer Joe McGinniss did what he had to do: he moved in next door. By Rupert Cornwell

Click to follow

F or 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. She could be certain that, whatever book emerged, would not be flattering.

Joe McGinniss moved in on 22 May last year, setting in motion an electronic circus throughout the summer, as both sides chronicled their impressions of each other via blog, 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. On 20 September, the fruits of Mr McGinniss' 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 racist), that she used drugs with her husband, that she had an affair with one of her husband's business partners and that she reads 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, saying the book was "full of disgusting lies, innuendo, and smears".

But it's hard to retain sympathy for the Palins for long. Throughout Sarah's 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 – its 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 the media and the public alike.

Mr McGinniss' track record is complicated. He became the literary equivalent of a child prodigy when he produced The Selling of the President 1968, an account of how Richard Nixon was successfully packaged and "sold" to US voters.

The following year, at the age of 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, too, drank of the inexhaustible celebrity bio 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. In fact, his best recent book may have been the most unlikely one. Mr McGinnis is hooked on what Americans call "soccer" and in 1999 he published The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, the bitter-sweet adventures of a team from a tiny town in the impoverished Abruzzo region of central Italy that had improbably won promotion to Serie B, the national second division. The book was a smash with football aficionados in Britain and Europe, but made little impact in the US.

He told that tale with his trademark zest and fluency. The problem, however, is that in Italy, entanglement of illusion and reality is part of the package. But the mix is more problematic in a biography of a woman who was candidate for vice-president in 2008, and may now run for the White House herself (her latest self-imposed deadline for a decision is the end of this month).

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.