Essay On Sarah Palin
It rained a lot in Alaska this summer—even more than usual—and it was a cold summer, too. The sun doesn’t set on much of the state between mid-June and mid-July, but the weather was such that if you came from Outside, which is how Alaskans refer to the rest of the United States, and you happened to visit on a day that was fair, people would thank you for bringing the sunshine. If you were there to inquire into the political situation, people thanked you for that, too. They thanked you for coming, for hearing them out, and for not treating their story as a national joke. Many Alaskans enjoy being disconnected from the Lower Forty-eight, which is sometimes referred to as if it were a foreign country. There is pride in this sense of apartness, and that pride has been stung repeatedly since 2006, when the F.B.I. began raiding state lawmakers’ offices in an ever-expanding anti-corruption campaign. There have been indictments and guilty pleas. Oil-industry executives who were caught on videotape in the Baranof Hotel, in Juneau, the state capital, giving cash handouts to a state legislator have coöperated in pointing out other state legislators who liked to get paid before voting on oil-industry tax rates. Last year, the F.B.I. hit the home of Ted Stevens, Alaska’s six-term senator, and he became a favorite figure of ridicule on “The Daily Show”: an angry little man, with an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Magoo, who had once made himself seem even older than his eighty-plus years by describing the Internet as “a series of tubes”; Jon Stewart called him a “coot,” and portrayed him as a bully and a crook. As I travelled around Alaska in mid-August, Alaskans wanted me to understand that, sadly, he might well be all of that—and a very good thing for the state, too.
I booked a flight to the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport shortly after Stevens was indicted on, and pleaded not guilty to, seven felony charges for failing to report more than a quarter of a million dollars in gifts from the same oilmen who had bought much of the state legislature. I had to change planes in Las Vegas, but when I got there I was told that my flight to Anchorage had been cancelled, on account of a volcano in the Aleutian Islands that had erupted and “burped”—the technical term—a gigantic cloud of ash into the lower stratosphere. The cloud had drifted in a northeasterly direction and occupied much of the airspace over the Gulf of Alaska. More than five thousand travellers were stranded as a result. The next day, when the cloud moved and I completed my journey, I learned that, after a similar belch of ash choked out all four engines of a K.L.M. flight into Anchorage in 1989, Ted Stevens finagled an earmark on an appropriations bill to secure federal funds for the Alaska Volcano Observatory, whose missions included the monitoring of volcanic activity and its attendant hazards. The Alaska Volcano Observatory became a punch line on “The West Wing,” mocked as a ludicrous example of congressional pork, which is how it might sound until you think about your plane crashing.
So Ted Stevens may have saved my life—and that was something a great many Alaskans could say as they looked about at the roads and bridges, the hospitals and flood-control systems, the satellite weather and global-positioning relay stations, the sprawling Army and Air Force bases, the rural landing strips and postal air-cargo flights that sustain existence in Alaska as it enters its fiftieth year of statehood. Much of this infrastructure was the result of Stevens’s work on the Senate Appropriations and Armed Services Committees and its Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, and he made no apologies for his transactional approach to politics.* On the contrary, as he brought Alaska the highest number of federal dollars per capita in the nation, he boasted that he was doing his job. Still, Stevens’s decision to launch a reëlection campaign in the middle of a federal investigation required more than ordinary moxie.
The oilman at the center of the corruption scandal, Bill Allen, had agreed to testify against Stevens. The two men had once shared ownership of a racehorse, and had counted themselves good friends. Allen, a former welder and oilfield superintendent who came to Alaska from Texas and built a billion-dollar oilfield-services company, Veco Corporation, liked to be around other powerful men. He liked them to need him, and he had already claimed under oath that he had bribed Stevens’s son, Ben, a former state senator with a reputation for profiteering from government contracts his father had a hand in. For instance, Ben Stevens had received seven hundred and fifteen thousand dollars over three years from the Special Olympics, as the chief executive of the 2001 Winter Games in Anchorage, for which his father had brought millions of dollars in federal aid. Conflicted interests also hung heavily over Ben Stevens’s dealings regarding Alaska’s fisheries. He has said that he has done nothing illegal, yet the speculation in Alaska was not whether, but when, indictments would drop on him, and how they might affect his father’s fate. (Everyone was waiting, too, for charges to be filed against the state’s only congressman, Don Young, a man so ornery that he makes Stevens look affable. Young, who is seventy-five and has been in office almost as long as Stevens, was also running for reëlection, and he had so far spent more than a million dollars from his campaign war chest on lawyers, an expense that he would not explain except to say that being investigated gets pricey.)
With so much trouble encompassing Stevens, the desire for a seventh term had a brazen air of unreality about it. At his age? Why not go gently? That would not be the way of Ted Stevens, the dominant figure of Alaska’s fifty-year existence as a state. He is a man given to rages—he has said that they are an effective way to get what he wanted, and “I don’t lose my temper. I always know where it is.” He is also a man used to having enormous clout. On the eve of the millennium, he was named “Alaskan of the century,” and he is known as Alaska’s Senator-for-Life. Before his last run for office, he told the Anchorage newspaperman Michael Carey, “I just want people to understand the commitment I’m making if I stay on. This is a period I could go out and make a million dollars a year, without any question.” Stevens had by then made a lot of people rich. Evidently, he felt underpaid, and Bill Allen had been there to help out. This time around, his humble pitch to voters is: I’ve always been there for you; now I need you to come through for me.
“It’s the most momentous political season I’ve lived through in Alaska,” Pat Dougherty, the editor of the Anchorage Daily News, the state’s largest newspaper, told me—and that was three weeks before the governor, Sarah Palin, became the human cannonball of the Presidential campaign and blasted into overlapping orbits of political and tabloid super-celebrity. Just about everyone in Alaska knew that Palin was on John McCain’s list of potential running mates, but no one in the state’s insular, Republican political world had seen any indication that the campaign was checking her background. That made sense to Dougherty. Palin was forty-four years old and had served only a year and a half as governor, and he said, “The idea of her as Vice-President is ridiculous. She’d be way in over her head.”
Then again, two years ago Dougherty hadn’t considered Palin ready to be governor, even after she prevailed in the Republican primary against the deeply unpopular incumbent, Frank Murkowski, who had previously spent twenty-two years as Alaska’s junior senator. “We endorsed the Democrat in her race,” he said. “We didn’t think she had the experience.” Looking back, Dougherty allowed that he had underestimated Palin. After twenty months in office, she enjoyed an eighty-per-cent approval rating—the highest in the nation—and although he said he wouldn’t yet call himself an admirer, he described her performance as “great spectator sport.” Dougherty was particularly impressed by her tough, you-deal-with-Alaska-on-Alaska’s-terms attitude toward the big oil producers on whom the state’s economy largely depends.
Palin was elected governor just as Alaska’s political establishment was being realigned by the Veco bribery scandal. She had no role in exposing the corruption, but she was swift to see opportunity in the moment of crisis. The tainted politicians were being held to account, but hostility to the oil companies behind the corruption remained high. Since the nineteen-seventies, and the construction of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline, major oil producers had enjoyed extraordinary influence over Alaskan lawmakers, and had pretty much dictated the terms on which they did business with the state. Under Frank Murkowski, the big oil companies had negotiated terms for the construction of a new pipeline that would allow for the extraction and conveyance to market of thirty-five trillion cubic feet of natural gas from Alaska’s North Slope; and it was in the context of the legislature’s votes on the gas pipeline that the F.B.I. had begun its corruption sting. When Palin arrived on the scene, Murkowski’s gas-line deal was dead, and she adopted another approach, cutting out the big oil producers in favor of a Canadian pipeline company. She counted it a great victory when, this summer, the legislature approved a framework for proceeding with the project.
“We’re not just gonna concede to three big oil companies of this monopoly—Exxon, B.P., ConocoPhillips—and beg them to do this for Alaska,” Palin told me last month in Juneau. “We’re gonna say, ‘O.K., this is so economic that we don’t have to incentivize you to build this. In fact, this has got to be a mutually beneficial partnership here as we build it. We’re gonna lay out Alaska’s must-haves. Parameters are gonna be set, rules are gonna be laid out, a law will encompass what it is that Alaska needs to protect our sovereignty, to insure it’s jobs first for Alaskans, and in-state use of gas’ ”—her list went on. In the past, she said, “Alaska was conceding too much, and chipping away at our sovereignty. And Alaska—we’re set up, unlike other states in the union, where it’s collectively Alaskans own the resources. So we share in the wealth when the development of these resources occurs.” And she said, “Our state constitution—it lays it out for me, how I’m to conduct business with resource development here as the state C.E.O. It’s to maximize benefits for Alaskans, not an individual company, not some multinational somewhere, but for Alaskans.”
Alaska is sometimes described as America’s socialist state, because of its collective ownership of resources—an arrangement that allows permanent residents to collect a dividend on the state’s oil royalties. It has been Palin’s good fortune to govern the state at a time of record oil prices, which means record dividend checks: two thousand dollars for every Alaskan. And because high oil prices also mean staggering heating bills in such a cold place—and because it’s always good politics to give money to voters—Palin got the legislature this year to send an extra twelve hundred dollars to every Alaskan man, woman, and child.
But, even as Palin enjoyed populist acclaim for her grand gestures—sharing the wealth and standing up to Big Oil—it was far from certain that the natural-gas pipeline, which she claimed as her proudest accomplishment, would ever get built. Palin had committed the state to risking half a billion dollars to help move the project forward, but there was no commitment from the producers to ship their gas through the line; without that, no one was willing to finance its construction. As Palin boasted of putting the big boys in their place, it looked increasingly likely that she would have to plead with them to return. In the meantime, Palin the reformer had been caught up in her own scandal, known as Troopergate.
The allegation was that Palin had dismissed her public-safety commissioner, a respected and well-liked officer named Walter Monegan, because Monegan had resisted pressure from her office to fire a state trooper named Michael Wooten. Wooten was Palin’s ex-brother-in-law, and his divorce from Palin’s sister Molly had involved an ugly custody battle that was not entirely resolved; it appeared that Palin had used her public office to settle a private family score. On July 28th, a bipartisan vote in the state legislature commissioned an investigation into the matter, at a cost of up to a hundred thousand dollars. Palin had invited it. “Hold me accountable,” she said. She promised full coöperation: “We would never prohibit, or be less than enthusiastic about, any kind of investigation. Let’s deal in the facts.”
On the day I stopped by Palin’s office in Juneau, she did not seem bothered that Alaska’s newspapers were filled with stories about Troopergate. Palin had just called a press conference to discuss the latest twist—a tape-recorded phone call from Frank Bailey, one of her closest aides, who could be heard trying to influence an officer to sack Trooper Wooten. “Todd and Sarah are scratching their heads, you know,” Bailey said, referring to the Governor and her husband, Todd Palin. “Why on earth hasn’t—why is this guy still representing the department? He’s a horrible recruiting tool. And, from their perspective, everybody’s protecting him.” Bailey, Palin’s director of boards and commissions, went on to convey the Governor’s displeasure, and urged action against Wooten. “She really likes Walt a lot,” Bailey said on the tape, referring to Monegan. “But on this issue she feels like it’s—she doesn’t know why there’s absolutely no action for a year on this issue. It’s very troubling to her and the family. I can definitely relay that.” At her press conference, Palin said she realized that the recording could be regarded as a “smoking gun.” She claimed that she had never asked Bailey or anyone else to make such calls on her behalf. “However,” she said, “the serial nature of the contacts understandably could be perceived as some kind of pressure, presumably at my direction.”
Palin, who studied journalism in college and worked for a time as a sportscaster, has an informal manner of speech, simultaneously chatty and urgent, and she reinforces her words with winks and nods and wrinklings of her nose that seem meant to telegraph intimacy and ease. Speaking recently at her former church, the Wasilla Assembly of God, she said, “It was so cool growing up in this church and getting saved here, getting baptized by Pastor Riley in Little Beaver Lake Camp, freezing-cold summer days that we had at camp—my whole family getting baptized when we were little.” She sounded the same when we met, high-spirited, irrepressible, and not in the least self-conscious. On the contrary, she is supremely self-confident, in the way of someone who believes that there is nothing she can’t talk her way into, or out of, or around or through. There was never a hesitation before speaking, or between phrases, no time for thought or reflection. The words kept coming—engaging, lulling, distracting—a commanding flow, but without weight. Yet, for all the cozy colloquialism, she cannot be called relaxed. She’s on—full on.
She said that one of her goals had been to combat alcohol abuse in rural Alaska, and she blamed Commissioner Monegan for failing to address the problem. That, she said, was a big reason that she’d let him go—only, by her account, she didn’t fire him, exactly. Rather, she asked him to drop everything else and single-mindedly take on the state’s drinking problem, as the director of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. “It was a job that was open, commensurate in salary pretty much—ten thousand dollars less”—but, she added, Monegan hadn’t wanted the job, so he left state service; he quit.
As for Frank Bailey’s phone call, Palin professed not to understand what it had to do with anything. “We just found out about it a couple of days ago,” she said. “And yeah, it’s very disturbing, and it’s an issue, and”—she began to speak as if Bailey were in the room and she were having it out with him: “You blundered, Bailey, and you know you did.” She said, “I’ll be talking to him,” and the next week she put Bailey on paid leave and ordered him to coöperate with the investigation. But that did not explain Bailey’s phone call. After all, Palin told me, “my husband made a call also. But, you know, there were death threats against a member of my family.” She said, “About my husband, his First Amendment rights, even—was that taken away once his spouse was elected governor?”
Palin continued, “Our security detail, when I first got elected, met with us and said, ‘Do you guys got any issues with any threats?’ ” To which Palin replied, “ ‘Yeah, well, by the way, there happens to be—the only threat that I knew of was one of your own troopers.’ And they’re, like, ‘Geez, this doesn’t sound good, you need to go tell your commissioner that.’ So I did. I shared that with the commissioner. So did Todd, and then Todd followed up to say”—at this point, Palin seemed to be quoting her husband: “ ‘We were interviewed back in ’05 before Sarah was even a candidate—what ever happened to that investigation, that interview? We know that the trooper’ ”—Wooten—“ ‘got to see the interview notes; well, we never have, and that’s kind of a scary position for us to be in. We complied with your request to bring you information on this trooper forward, and did we put our family in jeopardy by letting him see the interview notes about the illegal activities?’ ”
Palin insisted that Wooten “did have illegal activities. We witnessed them, and people have come to us with complaints. He Tasered his eleven-year-old stepson. This trooper, he was pulled over for drinking and driving and a witnessed open container in his car, and he did threaten to kill my dad—I heard him—and illegally shot a moose, which is a big darned deal here in Alaska.”
Trooper Wooten has admitted to Tasering the boy and shooting the moose, and he was disciplined for these things within the department, but, under the union contract, he could not be fired at the Governor’s whim. (He had been cleared of the threat to Palin’s father, but disciplined for drinking and driving, which he still denies.) It was obvious that this continued to frustrate Palin. She also seemed to forget that you should not talk about your affairs when they’re under investigation. Troopergate was the one subject about which she seemed keen to explicate the details. She wanted to persuade me that firing Walt Monegan had nothing to do with Trooper Wooten; that it was in no way a conflict of interest or an abuse of power. But, as she spoke, she seemed to be saying something else—that her vendetta against Wooten was wholly justified.
Compared with Ted Stevens’s impending criminal trial, the Troopergate investigation seemed like a sideshow—an added dash of intrigue in Alaska’s sensational political summer—except for the fact that Palin had always liked to present herself as a new kind of Alaskan politician, the kind who cleaned up after others’ shenanigans, not the kind who needed to be cleaned up after.
Palin’s record as the mayor of Wasilla, a town forty miles north of Anchorage, told a somewhat different story. According to “Sarah,” a biography by Kaylene Johnson, Palin had got into politics after she befriended the man who was then mayor and his police chief at a step-aerobics class. She made them her allies and ran for City Council. Then she challenged them for control of City Hall, and drove them out. As she purged her former friends and patrons, she denounced them as “good ol’ boys,” although her takeover of Wasilla had been aided from the start by Alaska’s Republican Party establishment.
Palin’s style of governing was unorthodox and at times impulsive. Although she boasts of a record as a fiscal conservative, she raised the sales tax while she was in office. She left the town saddled with millions of dollars in debt from the building of a new sports complex, and with legal fees, because she had failed to secure title to the land on which the complex was built. Casting herself in the Ted Stevens mold, however, she had proved herself skilled at collecting federal earmarks for Wasilla, bringing in twenty-seven million dollars for her small town in three years.
Palin’s biggest difference with Alaska’s Republican establishment, then, was not so much fiscal as it was social. Ted Stevens is one of the last of the Rockefeller Republicans—the real thing, as he supported Nelson Rockefeller over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential race. He is essentially secular and skeptical of government, and favors abortion rights—a common profile in Alaska, a state that attracts a strong streak of libertarians and rugged individualists. By contrast, Palin belongs to the state’s small evangelical community, which is centered in the Mat-Su Valley, around Wasilla. She thinks that creationism should be taught in the public schools alongside Darwinian evolution, she was called the town’s “first Christian mayor” by a local TV station, and she asked the town librarian about banning books, but did not follow through.
As governor, Palin has done nothing to impose her religious or social views. Alaska has no death penalty, and during the campaign she said that she would support one, but never made an issue of it; she opposed abortion even for pregnancies caused by rape, but this was a personal opinion, not a legislative cause. In fact, she refused requests to put abortion bills on the agenda during a special legislative session this summer, preferring to discuss the natural-gas pipeline, which she pursued in such a bipartisan manner that she ultimately won more solid support for it from Democrats than from Republicans. While Republicans hold most of the state’s top political posts, only twenty-five per cent of Alaskan voters are registered Republicans. Fifteen per cent are Democrats, and three per cent belong to the Alaska Independence Party—the extremist states’ rights, quasi-secessionist faction to which Todd Palin once pledged his allegiance. A solid majority of Alaska’s electorate claims no party affiliation. Alaskans kept telling me that Alaskans vote for the person, not the party.
So it was startling to see Palin emerge in the last days of August as an icon of the evangelical base of the Republican Party, and as a fierce—often vituperative—partisan scourge, mocking Barack Obama’s character and positions. It was startling, too, to hear her, in her début speech to the Republican National Convention, reading a script that consistently distorted her own record. She said that she had put her predecessor’s jet for sale on eBay, which was true, except that this is how government property was often disposed of in Alaska, and the plane didn’t sell online; it had to be unloaded through a private deal, at a loss of half a million dollars.
Palin also said that she told Congress “thanks but no thanks” for the notorious Bridge to Nowhere—a Ted Stevens and Don Young earmark project that had long been a target of John McCain’s ridicule. (The bridge, which would have cost nearly four hundred million dollars, was intended to provide access from one island to an airport on a smaller island, with a population of fifty people.) In reality, Palin had supported the bridge in her gubernatorial race, even after Congress revoked the earmark, but abandoned it following the election and directed the money Alaska had received to other projects.
And, of course, Palin touted her gas-pipeline project. “I fought to bring about the largest private-sector infrastructure project in North American history,” she said. “And, when that deal was struck, we began a nearly forty-billion-dollar natural-gas pipeline to help lead America to energy independence.” That was not entirely accurate. She was still waiting for the state legislature to release the five hundred million dollars she’d promised the pipeline company to help pay for administrative costs. But the crowd loved it. Many of the delegates wore lapel buttons that said, “Coldest State, Hottest Governor.”
That same week, Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, announced, “This election is not about issues.” What mattered, he said, was the “composite view” that voters would form of the candidates. On a talk show, the Washington bureau chief of Time told Nicole Wallace, a McCain spokesperson, that it was still unclear whether Palin was ready “to answer tough questions about domestic policy, foreign policy.” Wallace laughed. “Like from who? From you?” And she asked, “Who cares if she can talk to Time magazine?”
Attacking the press is nothing new in the playbook of political defense, but it took a bold twist when the McCain campaign contrived to transform a family problem—the pregnancy of Palin’s unmarried seventeen-year-old daughter, Bristol—into a vindication of Palin’s Christian family values. Surely, it had not been part of McCain’s plan for his untested Vice-Presidential pick to start Day Four of her rollout by announcing Bristol’s plans to marry the baby’s father, Levi Johnston, who, as the Times reported, recently dropped out of high school. The campaign said that it was going public in order to quash offensive rumors that were circulating on the Internet: that Sarah Palin’s five-month-old baby, Trig, who has Down syndrome, was not really hers but Bristol’s, and that the Governor had faked her pregnancy in order to cover for her unwed daughter. This Faulknerian story had been making the rounds in Alaska for months—I heard versions of it in Anchorage and Juneau within twenty-four hours of arriving in each city—and it derived from the peculiar circumstances surrounding Trig’s birth.
Sarah Palin had not announced her pregnancy until she was seven months along. A month later, she was in Texas to address a conference when her water broke. She decided to give the speech and then return to Wasilla to deliver the child. By way of explaining this all-day odyssey (most obstetricians advise against air travel in the eighth month, never mind during labor, and most airlines forbid it), Todd Palin later remarked, “You can’t have a fish picker”—a commercial fisherman—“from Texas.”
The Palin family’s press release, congratulating Bristol and welcoming their prospective son-in-law to the family, was a way for the McCain campaign to suggest that the gutter press had so violated this family’s privacy with its calumnies that it was necessary to violate the girl’s privacy to set the record straight. By castigating the press, the campaign was able to broadcast the family melodrama in a self-righteous manner. Even better, the story of the troubled teens of Wasilla, Alaska, managed to change the subject from a debate about John McCain’s seemingly impulsive abandonment of what had been the premise of his campaign: experience and national security.
Sarah Palin’s makeover was just beginning, but the campaign had scored a critical victory: the press, in asking about the least-known potential President in recent memory, had been made to look contemptible. When, at last, Palin appeared at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, most of the forty million Americans who watched her on TV were seeing her for the first time.
The control of Palin by the McCain campaign was one of many ways in which it transformed her into someone largely unrecognizable to people who knew her in Alaska, where she hadn’t shown a great interest in national economic issues other than energy policy, or in international affairs, and where she was viewed as more often seeking the attention of the press than avoiding it. For her first two weeks on the Presidential ticket, Palin was kept cocooned by handlers, except at rallies, where she read an adumbrated version of her Convention speech over and over, even as many of its claims were being debunked. When a Fox News anchor demanded to know when she could be interviewed, Rick Davis explained that he would allow access only to reporters who showed “deference.”
A few weeks earlier, when I telephoned Palin’s office in Juneau and asked for a press officer, I was invited to meet the Governor the next day. The state legislature was in recess at the time, and I found Palin sitting sidesaddle on her receptionist’s desk, studying the receptionist’s family photographs. She wore slacks and a belted sweater-jacket, and her hair was piled and pinned atop her head in her trademark upsweep. She kept up the family chitchat as she led me to her office. Her press person had told me that I could have twenty minutes of the Governor’s time, but, once we were alone, she was in no hurry. We talked for about an hour before an aide poked her head in to announce that someone else was waiting.
Palin wanted to be seen as someone eager to change things fast. “I’m halfway through my term,” she said. “Maybe you saw the clock as you walk in. It tells me how many days we have to make a difference. I’ve got, like, eight hundred and forty-three days to make a difference left? Halfway through!”
As a public speaker, Palin was known for expressing goals and voicing good intentions with gusto, if with few specifics. As she talked about her hopes for Alaska, she often seemed to skip from slogan to slogan without ever touching solid ground. I mentioned at one point that I had met several Alaskans who described the state’s relationship to Washington as that of a colony—rich in resources, governed from afar, and dependent on that distant power to sustain it—and I asked how the state could survive without the sort of federal appropriations that Ted Stevens had fought for relentlessly and that John McCain has made a cause of denouncing.
“I see us as the most unique state in the union,” Palin replied. “I sure wish that we could be recognized as the head and not the tail of the U.S., because we should be the head—literally and figuratively.” She continued, “Alaska could lead with the energy policy, we should be the head. So I don’t see us as a colony but just extremely unique, and I say Alaskans, too, we have such a love, a respect for our environment, for our lands, for our wildlife, for our clean water and our clean air. We know what we’ve got up here and we want to protect that, so we’re gonna make sure that our developments up here do not adversely affect that environment at all. I don’t want development if there’s going to be that threat to harming our environment.”
She paused for a moment and said that her administration had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in an ongoing lawsuit related to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, in 1989. “We’re putting our money where our mouth is to prove that we’re committed to the safe, responsible, environmentally friendly developments that must take place,” she said. “Otherwise, we’re never gonna convince Congress and the rest of the nation, especially people on the East Coast, who seem to make a lot of decisions for us—we’ll never convince them that we are willing and able to develop to get in that position of being producers and contributors for the rest of the U.S. So we have to prove that. That answers the colonist type of question.”
Palin likes to talk about the environment, but her view on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the opposite of the one held by Congress and by McCain, who said, early in his campaign, “As far as ANWR is concerned, I don’t want to drill in the Grand Canyon, and I don’t want to drill in the Everglades. This is one of the most pristine and beautiful parts of the world.” Palin suggested that McCain might change his mind on the issue, as he has on the subject of offshore drilling. When it came to offshore drilling, she said, “McCain now is evolved.”
At one point, she said, “We love our polar bears.” She had just got through explaining why she opposed a ban on aerial wolf shooting. In the past decade or so, Alaska’s voters have twice rejected this practice—the chasing and gunning down of wolves from small planes—and on both occasions the state reauthorized it. Now the anti-wolf-shooting crowd had forced a third referendum on the issue, and Palin, who kept a pair of wolf pelts hanging on her office wall, behind a cradle swing for Trig, was keen to see the initiative fail.
“It’s not aerial hunting,” she claimed. “What the state has been engaged in for the past four to six years—and I support—is predator control.” Shoot the wolves, she said, and moose and caribou herds will increase, providing more food for Alaskans. That was the argument: “Let the people who live off those herds not buy and import meat.” In Alaska, a state that is equivalent in size to a fifth of the continental United States and doesn’t have much agriculture, such self-reliance—hunting or fishing to feed yourself and your family—is known as subsistence, and subsistence is widely held by Alaskans to be a fundamental right. “It’s an emotional issue,” Palin said.
Polar bears were more of a pocketbook issue. Even as she professed her affection for them, Palin had, in early August, filed suit against Dirk Kempthorne, the United States Secretary of the Interior, seeking to reverse his decision to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The animals were on the list because scientists—working for the federal government—had found that the effects of global warming on arctic ice made it possible that polar bears would become endangered in the foreseeable future. Palin takes a wary view of such science. She has doubts that global warming is caused by human activity. She called the dire polar-bear population projections “just not credible.”
The Interior Department had already allowed for oil and gas exploration in the polar bears’ habitat, but Palin saw the listing of the polar bear as an intolerable precedent. “Then where do we go?” she asked. “It’ll be another species and then another. Next it’s a seal, or next it’s a bird, or it’s a fish, and the next thing you know that would certainly lock up Alaska’s ability to live by its statehood pact to develop its resources and contribute to the rest of the United States.”
In her inaugural address as governor, Palin pledged to put “Alaska first”—and now she is running in a Presidential campaign whose slogan is “Country first.” For a governor from another state, this might be an easy rhetorical adjustment, but Alaska is more like another country—and its most popular politicians, shady as some might otherwise be, are like patriots, Alaska patriots, who navigate the choppy narrows between the fear that the federal government will restrict Alaskans’ freedom and the fear that the federal government will cut them loose.
Ralph Seekins, a former state senator who runs the Ford dealership in Fairbanks and serves on the Republican National Committee, told me, “There’s a natural suspicion among most Alaskans of the federal government, and the leader of the resistance against that federal government is Ted Stevens.” It was a curious description of a man who had done more than any other to wring from the federal budget the funds to make Alaska thrive and grow toward self-sufficiency. But it made sense. Confronted with the choice between subsistence and subsidy, the Alaska patriot has traditionally favored the pragmatic compromise: subsidized subsistence.
Sarah Palin seemed to understand this. Earlier this year, she wrote in a newspaper column, “The federal budget, in its various manifestations, is incredibly important to us, and congressional earmarks are one aspect of this relationship.” And, for all her talk of Alaska fending for itself, she told me, “There isn’t a need to aspire to live without any earmarks. The writing on the wall, though, is that times are changing. Presidential candidates have promised earmark reform, so we gotta deal with it, we gotta live with it, understanding that our senior senator, especially—he’s eighty-four years old, he is not gonna be able to serve in the Senate forever. We will not have that seniority back there anymore.” Suddenly she called out, “Alaskans, wake up!” Then she went on, “That means we have got to get ourselves in a position of seizing opportunities to develop and pay our own bills. ’Cause we’re not gonna see that largesse coming to our state as we had in all these years. Whether we like that or not or support that or not, that’s reality.”
Andrew Davis, her adviser, saw the Palins off, and I met him for coffee later that morning in Midtown Manhattan. Davis is a personable and quick-witted 33-year-old Massachusetts native who was a deputy campaign manager for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in 2004 and later an opposition researcher for the Republican National Committee before working with Palin at the close of the 2008 campaign. He’s nonetheless low-profile in the extreme, like all of Palin’s senior associates. (The New York Times Magazine’s photo editors had been trying to find an image of Davis; he assured me that they would not succeed.) Davis and his colleagues recognize that the issue of trust informs Sarah Palin’s every dealing with the world beyond Wasilla since her circular-firing-squad experience at the close of the 2008 presidential campaign. Her inner circle shuns the media and would speak to me only after Palin authorized it, a process that took months. They are content to labor in a world without hierarchy or even job descriptions — “None of us has titles,” Davis said — and where the adhesive is a personal devotion to Palin rather than the furtherance of her political career.
Davis’s main task this year had been serving as Palin’s point man throughout the endorsement process. He was now tallying her midterm scorecard, which at the time was 50 wins and 32 losses (with 8 not yet decided), including victories by 14 so-called mama grizzly Republican candidates. Some of Palin’s picks were early, bold and pivotal, as in the case of Nikki Haley, who is now South Carolina’s governor-elect. Other picks — like those for Tim Scott (South Carolina’s first Republican African-American congressman in more than a century) and Marco Rubio (the incoming senator from Florida and a rising G.O.P. star on par with Palin) — came too late to be consequential except, perhaps, to her own ambitions. Palin also raised more than $10 million for Republican candidates and committees — including the Republican National Committee, which plastered her image on the center of its Web page at the close of the election cycle. Having crawled from the wreckage of the 2008 presidential campaign and her much-derided resignation as governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin had emerged as arguably the most captivating and influential Republican in America — and therefore a viable contender for the presidential nomination in 2012.
So I asked her political adviser whether there would be a summoning of the troops in the coming days to discuss what the next moves will be. Davis laughed and replied, “That’s not going to happen.” Each of them, he said, would simply be doing the work that was in front of them that day, the way things always operated in Palin World. I brought up an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken three weeks before, which concluded that Palin’s favorability rating among registered voters stood at 39 percent, while 54 percent viewed her unfavorably and a whopping 67 percent saw her as unqualified to be president. “On a staff level, we all think about ways we can improve her numbers,” Davis said. “It’s politics — that’s our job.” But, I pressed, had he discussed the subject with her? “I’m not going to sit around and ask her, ‘What do you think of your approval rating?’ ” Davis said. “I’m just not.” Then he added, “Maybe the family’s talked about it.”
“I am,” SarahPalin told me the next day when I asked her if she was already weighing a run for president. “I’m engaged in the internal deliberations candidly, and having that discussion with my family, because my family is the most important consideration here.” Palin went on to say that there weren’t meaningful differences in policy among the field of G.O.P. hopefuls “but that in fact there’s more to the presidency than that” and that her decision would involve evaluating whether she could bring unique qualities to the table.
“Yes, the organization would have to change,” Palin said during an hourlong phone conversation. “I’d have to bring in more people — more people who are trustworthy,” she clarified. Palin said that her experience as John McCain’s running mate was for the most part “amazing, wonderful, do it again in a heartbeat.” But she added, “What Todd and I learned was that the view inside the bus was much better than underneath it, and we knew we got thrown under it by certain aides who weren’t principled” and that “the experience taught us, yes, to be on guard and be very discerning about who we can and can’t trust in the political arena.”
She went on: “I know that a hurdle I would have to cross, that some other potential candidates wouldn’t have to cross right out of the chute, is proving my record. That’s the most frustrating thing for me — the warped and perverted description of my record and what I’ve accomplished over the last two decades. It’s been much more perplexing to me than where the lamestream media has wanted to go about my personal life. And other candidates haven’t faced these criticisms the way I have.”
I asked her if by avoiding the national press, she didn’t bear at least some responsibility for the way the public viewed her. “I’m on television nearly every single day with reporters,” she shot back. “Now granted, that’s mainly through my job at Fox News, and I’m very proud to be associated with them, but I’m not avoiding anything or anybody. I’m on Facebook and Twitter. I’m out there. I want to talk about my record, though.” Palin was referring to “getting in there and cleaning up corruption, taking on the oil companies and the good old boys in the party, things like the natural-gas pipeline” and “getting things out of the government’s hands, like the state-owned dairy creamery in Alaska.” Asked if she believed in 2008 that these accomplishments made her at least as qualified as Barack Obama to be president, her response was immediate: “Absolutely. If I had any doubt in my ability or administrative experience that would’ve been put to good use in a McCain administration, then I never would have accepted the nomination.”
Palin told me that because of the media’s unfairness toward her, “I fear for our democracy.” She cited a recent Anchorage Daily News article that commented on her casual manner of dress at a rally for Joe Miller, as well as a Politico headline that used the word “drama” for an item about Representative Michele Bachmann’s quest for a Republican leadership position. Palin viewed these references as sexist — but also, she said, as “distractions.”
Purposefully distracting, I asked, or just simplistic? “How can it be simplistic?” she scoffed. “They’re the elite,” she said sarcastically of news organizations. “They know much more than I know and other people like me! So, no. They know just what they’re doing.”
Sarah Palin’s withering regard for the media co-exists with the fact that Sarah Palin is a media sensation. Throughout this year’s midterm cycle, no one commanded as much free time on the air as Palin, who of course wasn’t running for office herself. Her mere presence or nonpresence at various campaign events — or the distance that wary Republican candidates kept from her — routinely eclipsed whatever else took place at the events themselves. Concurrently, Palin’s denunciations of the Obama White House via Twitter garnered substantial attention not because the opinions were especially novel but because they were expressed with the brashness of a wily headline-grabber. All of this in addition to the fact that Palin, a former journalism major and sportscaster, happens to be a member of the media herself: a salaried Fox News contributor, the star of her own television series and a best-selling author whose second book, “America by Heart,” will be released by HarperCollins this week with a first printing of 1 million copies and her pick of promotional slots offered up by her adversaries in the press.
Almost everything about Palin is fresh, including her wounds. “She gives as good as she gets,” says the admiring former Republican strategist Mary Matalin. “But I don’t know her well enough to know if she’s developed the thick skin you need to be endlessly resilient, the way Reagan could take things for decades and let them roll off his back.” Like many Republicans, Palin hails Reagan as her political guiding light. But she has yet to channel the Gipper’s soothing sunniness, instead she seems haloed in static electricity — “a walking wedge issue,” as one leading conservative commentator recently described her. The road to a presidential candidacy traditionally involves a carefully sequenced gathering of tribes and marking of territory. Palin has ignored this playbook. Her only-dead-fish-go-with-the-flow improvisatory ethic is certifiably anti-Beltway and confers on Palin an aura of authenticity. It is also erratic and short on self-discipline, reminding us that Sarah Palin’s ascendency is recent and she remains a work in progress — all the while casting a very long shadow over the Republican Party, shaped like a question mark.
One afternoon in June 2009, Gov. Sarah Palin was sitting in the Washington office of her friend Fred Malek, whom she met through McCain during the 2008 campaign. She was listening to the former White House aide to Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford map out logical next steps to her political career. Focus on amassing a good record as governor, he advised her. Run for a second term. Develop some policy expertise. Do some extensive overseas travel. Generate some good will by campaigning for fellow Republicans.
Malek told me that he could tell that this wasn’t what Palin wanted to hear. Here’s the problem, she replied impatiently: I’ve got a long commute from my house to my office. I don’t have the funds to pay for my family to travel with me, and the state won’t pay for it, either. I can’t afford to have security at my home — anybody can come up to my door, and they do. Under the laws of Alaska, anybody can file suit or an ethics charge against me, and I have to defend it on my own. I’m going into debt.
Nothing in her former world as a small-town mayor and the governor of a sparsely populated state prepared Palin for the perverse celebrity that would engulf her after being selected as McCain’s vice-presidential candidate. For better and for worse, she was now a household name, beloved or ridiculed by strangers all across America. The caricature of Palin as a vapid, winking, press-averse clotheshorse proved irresistible to late-night entertainers. Less well known was the Palin who agitated for more access to the media (other than Katie Couric), who was seen more than once passed out on her hotel bed half-buried in briefing books and index cards and whose thriftiness when it came to her wardrobe was so obvious that one senior strategist clucked of the Palins, “These people shop at Dillards!”
The advisers who strenuously advocated for McCain to select Palin seemed as unprepared for her as they would later claim she was for the national stage. They had planned on deploying Palin like a conventional vice-presidential candidate — fund-raisers, secondary markets — but otherwise stowing her away for heavy debate prep. Instead, “because she was a much bigger draw at rallies than McCain himself,” a former adviser says, the budget for her side of the campaign “quadrupled from what they’d anticipated; the amount of personnel had to be ratcheted up, and dealing with the Palin phenomenon came to consume much of [senior strategist Steve] Schmidt’s time.” Adoring fans screamed “Sarah! Sarah!” and wept as she greeted them on rope lines, but away from the crowds she felt increasingly isolated from her Alaska clan and distrustful of the staff members who would soon be anonymously criticizing her in the media. During Palin’s debate prep sessions in Philadelphia, Senator Joe Lieberman was summoned to offer support to the overwhelmed and demoralized candidate. “Schmidt says to me, ‘You’ve got something in common with her that we don’t have: you’re both religious,’ ” Lieberman told me. “He actually said, ‘Why don’t you go in and pray with her? She was on the phone yesterday with [former Gov. Kay Orr of Nebraska], and they’d prayed at the end, and it seemed to make her feel better. ’ ”
Upon losing the election, Palin hoped to return to an Alaska where, as she put it to me, “people were thankful that I was in the governor’s office.” It therefore chagrined her when she learned that Democratic legislators like Hollis French and Beth Kerttula were no longer her allies. McCain’s staff, meanwhile, reneged on a promise to cover the costs for any legal inquiry that arose during the campaign, Palin told me.
A few friends from the Beltway rushed to her defense. In December 2008, John Coale, a lawyer and a Democrat whose wife is the Fox News host Greta Van Susteren, offered to set up a political action committee and a legal-defense fund for her. Fred Malek, meanwhile, began connecting Palin to his Beltway cohort. At Malek’s home in McLean, Va., the night before the clubby annual Washington gala known as the Alfalfa Club dinner, he introduced her to Alan Greenspan, Madeleine Albright, Dianne Feinstein, Andrea Mitchell, Mitch McConnell, Walter Isaacson and Dick and Liz Cheney, among others. (To Liz she exclaimed, “It’s so great to meet another mother of five!”) Later Malek hosted a foreign-policy lunch discussion with Palin; Frank Carlucci, a former secretary of defense under Reagan; Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution; and Gregory Newbold, a retired three-star general. Talbott received an appreciative grin from Palin when he told her that he himself had seen Russia from an island off the coast of Alaska — “I defended you on that.”
Three weeks after telling Malek that her life was difficult, Palin abruptly resigned as governor. Determined to reclaim her narrative and settle a few scores along the way, she enlisted the services of the Washington lawyer Robert Barnett, who negotiated lucrative book deals for both Clintons as well as George W. Bush. Palin surprised him with a packet of more than 20,000 words that she had already written about her childhood in Alaska. Palin spent the summer of 2009 hunkered down in a Del Mar, Calif., condominium working on her memoir with her communications director, Meghan Stapleton, and a book collaborator named Lynn Vincent. During the day, Palin took her laptop out by the condo complex’s swimming pool and sat there writing in her sun visor and flip-flops, apparently unrecognized by the other residents. And she would stay up writing until 5 in the morning.
A few months later, while touring to promote her book, “Going Rogue,” Palin’s bus pulled into Roanoke, Va., one Sunday in November, the night before an appearance at a bookstore. The author was astonished to see more than 500 people encamped outside the store, many of them in sleeping bags. “Oh, my God, it’s so cold!” Palin exclaimed as she bounded out of the bus to greet her ecstatic fans. “I can’t believe you’re waiting for me!”
But they had waited, and now she had arrived.
His voice dripping with exasperation, the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said to me one July afternoon in his office: “If I would have told you that I could open up a Facebook account or a Twitter account, simply post quotes, and have the White House asked about those, and to have the entire White House press corps focused on your quote of the day on Facebook — that’s Sarah Palin. She tweets one thing, and all of a sudden you’ve got a room full of people that want to know. . . .”
Gibbs shook his head and continued: “Now, I could say, ‘You know what? I’m not going to deal with that.’ And big headline: Palin Accuses Obama of X. The White House Had No Comment.”
“I just tweet; that’s just the way I roll,” Palin told me. “Just expressing my feelings via Twitter and Facebook. I choose them because they’re convenient for me, especially from Wasilla.” She continued: “The only thing I do consider is when I think of what’s going on in the East Coast, with the difference in time zones. I can tweet before going to bed at midnight or 1 and know that they’re up and at ’em, and they’re going to have to respond.” In this compressed, no-nuance cyberzone, Palin can land a hard punch without ever setting foot in the ring — calling the then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel “as shallow/narrowminded/political/irresponsible as they come” and saying the Politico writer Jonathan Martin is “full of crap.” In July, Palin’s BlackBerry spewed out a much-publicized volley of tweets calling on peaceful Muslims to “refudiate” the “ground zero mosque” and in the process suckering Obama into taking a position for which he was attacked by all sides. Palin wrote these without consulting anyone, her lawyer Thomas Van Flein told me: “I found out like everyone else did. This is her political instinct in action.”
Van Flein said this as we met for coffee one morning in Anchorage a week before the midterm elections. It’s a curious feature of Palin World that none of its charter members knew her before 2008. (Her two longtime Alaska aides, Kris Perry and Meghan Stapleton, left amicably but wearied by the demands involved with working for an overnight celebrity.) Van Flein met Palin in the summer of 2008, recruited by Todd Palin to give legal advice on the Troopergate controversy. He now divides his time between his Anchorage legal practice and his position as one of Palin’s four lieutenants. The others are Andrew Davis, the political director who resides in Sacramento; Tim Crawford, the group’s elder statesman at 58, whose political experience extends back to Goldwater and who in early 2009 was forced out as the R.N.C.’s interim finance director, by which time John Coale had already recruited him to be the treasurer of SarahPAC; and Palin’s 36-year-old Los Angeles-based cybermessenger, Rebecca Mansour. Palin’s broader circle also includes Jason Recher and Doug McMarlin, who handle her travel logistics from, respectively, New Orleans and Columbus, Ohio; Pam Pryor, who works with Crawford at SarahPAC as the liaison to the evangelical and Christian community; and Randy Scheunemann, a prominent neoconservative and former McCain foreign-policy adviser. Crawford, Pryor, Scheunemann and two occasional speechwriters, Chriss Winston and Lindsay Hayes, all live in or around Washington. Among the D.C. consultants, however, only Crawford interacts with Palin on a regular basis. More than once in our discussions, Van Flein referred to “those people who are of the Beltway and those who aren’t” — a binary worldview to which Palin obviously adheres. (Press reports variously name Fred Malek; Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard; and Kim Daniels, a conservative lawyer, as key advisers, when in fact Daniels has not worked for Palin for several months and Malek and Kristol are seldom in contact with her. “It’s nearly every single day we learn a lesson about a person who claims to speak for us or work for us,” Palin told me. “Seems 9 times out of 10, Todd and I look at each other and say, ‘Who is this speaking for us?’ ”)
Along with Recher, McMarlin, Pryor and Scheunemann, the four lieutenants engage in regular conference calls, sans Palin, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 2 p.m. Eastern time. (There’s no set agenda for these calls nor anyone leading them, and they can get “raucous at times,” Davis says.) Palin herself is never far from the loop, Van Flein told me: “Think of it as a tape recorder that’s on all the time. There’s a constant exchange of information between the governor and her team — who’s on top of this, lots of back and forth — and I think I’m not exaggerating to say it’s 24/7. Sometime she’s up e-mailing at 3 in the morning.”
Van Flein, a boyish-looking 46-year-old employment-law specialist who majored in political science at the University of Alaska, receives a $10,000 monthly retainer from SarahPAC. In return, he dispenses more than just legal advice. Van Flein contributes research to some of Palin’s Facebook posts and speeches and is a staunch political advocate. (“Regardless of whoever else does or doesn’t say it, I’m saying that Obamacare is now in jeopardy of repeal because of her,” Van Flein proclaimed to me.)
But it is Rebecca Mansour who especially personifies the amorphous yet fervid network of Palin World. Mansour said to me with undisguised relish, “I majored in English and history and minored in philosophy, but I’ve never been a Beltway person, so that does confuse people.” A graduate of the American Film Institute, Mansour was writing screenplays in L.A. when, following the 2008 election, her disgust over “what I perceived as unfair treatment” of Palin inspired her to start the blog Conservatives4Palin. Mansour’s knowledge of Palin became so encyclopedic that in the summer of 2009, Meghan Stapleton asked her if she would come to Del Mar to help with Palin’s biography. The blogger had never met her subject before. She showed up with binders full of research, and when she was introduced to Palin, “the first thing she did was hug me — I was like, ‘O.K.,’ ” Mansour said with a laugh. “She is the most ordinary person. She’s shorter than I am.” At the same time, Mansour was impressed with Palin’s nimble mind. “I remember sitting with her while she was working on the book; she would be typing furiously, and I’d ask her, ‘Governor, when was the year you did such and such,’ and she’d say, ‘That was the year we did the budget.’ And then she’d be reading the chyron at the bottom of the TV screen while typing and talking to me. And then would read to me what she just wrote, and it was brilliant.”
For her volunteer work on “Going Rogue,” Mansour would soon be rewarded with both a salary and a weighty portfolio. Mansour is Palin’s primary speechwriter, researcher, online communications coordinator and all-purpose adviser. Because Palin often works 20-hour days, so does Mansour, because “the governor reads, checks and approves everything that’s under her name.” Mansour regularly spars with the media on her private Twitter account for perceived inaccuracies about Palin. At the same time, she acknowledged, “I love it when they underestimate her.”
In truth, few are underestimating Sarah Palin anymore. In that endearing manner of the Beltway echo chamber, the prevailing narrative of Palin in 2009 was that that she was an incompetent ditz. This year’s story line is that she is a social-media visionary who purposefully circumnavigated the power-alley gasbags and thereby constructed a new campaigning template for the ages. The reality is that Palin’s direction is determined almost entirely by her instincts — or, as Fred Malek puts it, “There is no über-strategy.” She did not game out a path forward when agreeing to two book deals with HarperCollins and then signing on with the Washington Speakers Bureau, Fox and then her television series. That same mind-set explains the lack of cohesion to Palin’s virtual organization. As Crawford, Van Flein, Davis and Mansour concur, the inhabitants of Palin World have loosely defined duties and thus invariably play outside their lanes. “It’s kind of like if you reach out and for whatever reason someone’s not responding, then someone else jumps in,” Crawford says — adding of his own job as the PAC’s fund-raising guru, “I never thought it would be a full-time gig.” (One exception to the fuzzy lines of authority: Barnett, her lawyer, handles all of her business dealings but, being a Democrat, participates in none of her policy and political discussions.) There is no chief of staff — though “there’s been discussion,” Van Flein says, “because the logistics are overwhelming and the demand is phenomenal.” Nor, since Stapleton departed in February, does Palin have a press person — with the result that up to eight or nine of her functionaries will find themselves fielding (and usually pocket-vetoing) media requests at any one time. Just as Palin heavily edits or at times completely writes most of her own speeches and insists on reviewing any statement issued by SarahPAC, she also must approve all media contact by her subordinates, Van Flein told me. With epic understatement he added, “Because she may be busy, [an interview request] might languish for a few days.”
Palin’s guerrilla organization can be maddening for those on the outside who are trying to divine a way in. “I’ve never had so many phone calls in my life,” Davis says. “And the hard part is the answer’s not ‘No’; the answer’s ‘I don’t know.’ But it’s a pure process. These decisions are hers.” Though Palin has obviously done quite well for herself without Karl Rove’s strategic seal of approval, the inefficiency of her network has allowed numerous opportunities to slip through the cracks. Several influential Republican legislators reached out to her in late 2008 and early 2009 but never heard back. Among them, Roy Blunt and Orrin Hatch requested that she attend particular functions and were rebuffed. George W. Bush’s former media strategist, Mark McKinnon, offered to chat. The Beltway doyenne Juleanna Glover volunteered a “low-key media luncheon.” The National Review’s editorial board sent word that Palin should swing by for a get-together during one of her trips to New York. Which of these proposed encounters ever came to Palin’s attention is unclear. But for other possible 2012 Republican candidates — say, Senator John Thune of South Dakota or Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota — most of these opportunities would be worth planning an entire day around.
Then again, Palin confessed to me a tendency to avoid longtime political operatives — “these unprincipled people who are in it for power, money and job titles.” Her wariness extends even to her top lieutenants, who have thus far been excluded from her 2012 considerations. Instead, she relies on Todd — “the one person she trusts,” according to Rick Halford, a longtime friend and a former Alaska state senator. “Todd is somebody that I think really grew and took on the job of being her support system, way beyond his education and where he came from.”
There are few spouses in politics as hard-working as 46-year-old Todd Mitchell Palin — a native of Dillingham, Alaska, who married his Wasilla High School sweetheart and dropped out of college and eventually found work in the North Slope oil fields. He handles her travel. He is at times her sole accompaniment to events. He is — with apologies to the mama grizzly — the family’s chief protector, who has been known to nix interview requests from publications that have previously, in his view, made fun of his children. It has fallen to Todd to mollify alienated aides, interview potential speechwriters and help prep his wife for an interview by Googling subject matter on his BlackBerry. Referring to the ongoing communications in Palin World, Thomas Van Flein told me, “Todd is always part of the information chain.” In the external world it is widely understood that when sending Sarah Palin an e-mail “the best idea is to copy Todd on it,” according to Malek.
As one adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign told me: “It occurred to me on Day 1 that Todd was a very key adviser to her. I quite aggressively developed a relationship with Todd.” Stephen Broden, a Congressional candidate from Dallas, told me that his endorsement by Palin this summer arose after a perfunctory meet-and-greet with the couple. “I pulled Todd aside as the entourage was pulling her away,” Broden recalled, “and I said, ‘Hey, look, man, it’s gonna be hard to get ahold of her.’ And he gave me his number. I talked to him.”
Broden, a conservative African-American pastor and a three-time guest on Glenn Beck’s TV show, was running a quixotic campaign against the nine-term Dallas congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson. Palin became highly enamored of Broden, endorsed him and kept a close eye on the race all the way through election night. (Johnson won, 76 percent to 22.) Nearly all of her 90 or so endorsed candidates were selected in a manner that was vintage Sarah Palin. As her staff members explained it to me, all potential endorsees were vetted by Andrew Davis to ascertain whether they met certain base-line standards (like being anti-abortion, pro-A.N.W.R. drilling and anti-stimulus). Palin, however, would always make the final call, often after doing research herself, as in the case of Broden. As a result, some endorsements took months to be consummated. Besieged by requests to appear with candidates, Palin could accommodate only a few of them. Much of her summer was consumed by her television filming schedule in Alaska, and her contract with the Washington Speakers Bureau forbade her to do any free event at a locale where another paid event was scheduled. Her frenetic schedule meant that Palin could commit only to making an in-person appearance at the 11th hour — which, given the large crowds she tended to attract, would often prove impossible for a small campaign staff to throw together. “She loves the retail stuff — make some phone calls, go to a small event and shake hands,” Davis told me. “Retail is very difficult at this point.”
Idiosyncratic as her in-house endorsement operation may have been, Palin was not above wielding her influence in the manner of a seasoned politician. She rewarded allies (McCain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Carly Fiorina), punished a foe (Lisa Murkowski) by endorsing Joe Miller and gave the nod to a family friend (Vaughan Ward of Idaho). And in the early presidential-primary states, some of Palin’s choices seemed conspicuously strategic. In June, for example, she endorsed Terry Branstad for governor of Iowa, who at that point had never met Palin, had not sought her imprimatur and didn’t particularly need it, being 15 points ahead of his primary opponent, Bob Vander Plaats. Vander Plaats was far more conservative than Branstad but also an ally of the likely 2012 candidate Mike Huckabee. In the New Hampshire Senate race, Palin threw her support behind the establishment candidate Kelly Ayotte rather than a Tea Party favorite who tried to endear himself to Palin by sending her a photograph of himself alongside the carcass of a deer he had just shot. When I asked Andy Smith, the University of New Hampshire Survey Center’s director and pollster, to explain why Palin had chosen Ayotte, he promptly answered: “I think she wanted to back a winner. Like Branstad in Iowa. I think she wanted people who would be in positions to help her out.”
These actions bespeak a calculating shrewdness on Palin’s part. But then what to make of her inactions? Three months after endorsing Branstad, Palin visited Iowa for the first time since 2008 to deliver a speech but then left without scheduling any other events. And since 2008, Palin has yet to travel to New Hampshire, having turned down a triumphalist Tea Party Express rally in Concord the evening before Election Day. In both cases, her aides told me, Palin was overscheduled. But since Sarah Palin is the keeper of her own itinerary, we are left to wonder whether these omissions suggest disorganization, lack of foresight, ambivalence, distrust of politicos or some combination of the above.
One evening in late October, I sat in the Anchorage apartment of Palin’s onetime communications director Bill McAllister, watching old TV footage of his ex-boss during her campaign for governor in 2006. McAllister, a former reporter with the Anchorage NBC affiliate who worked for Palin in 2008 and 2009, wanted me to see with my own eyes the Sarah Palin he knew — bright and easygoing, exceedingly popular with the local press — before the national media had grossly mischaracterized her in a way he found “frustrating and maddening.”
The Palin I watched on McAllister’s DVD lived up to his billing. She cut a competent, reasoned, disciplined figure, not taking the bait when one of her opponents dismissed her during a debate as “a bright smile.” There was another characteristic that McAllister hadn’t pointed out. In the footage, Palin declared, “We deserve leaders that aren’t just going to take a partisan approach.” Bemoaning the “gridlock down there in Juneau,” Palin reminded Alaskans, “I have good relationships with these legislators.” An undisputed social conservative who backed a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, Palin nonetheless told an interviewer, “I don’t wear my faith on my sleeve.” And she promised not to let her religious beliefs “bleed into policy — that is my commitment.”
This Sarah Palin began to recede from view in 2008 as she was thrust into the traditional running mate’s role of partisan flamethrower. Nonetheless, while editing a speech she was about to give, the vice-presidential candidate crossed out a disparaging reference to liberals, telling an aide, “We want liberals to vote for us, too.”
I brought up her past efforts at bipartisanship to Palin. “I was so innocent and naïve to believe that I would be able to govern for four years and if I ever moved on beyond the governorship I could carry that with me nationally,” Palin said. “And it was proven when John McCain chose me for the nomination for vice president; what it showed me about the left: they go home. It doesn’t matter what you do. It was the left that came out attacking me. They showed me their hypocrisy; they showed me they weren’t willing to work in a bipartisan way. I learned my lesson. Once bitten, twice shy. I will never trust that they are not hypocrites until they show me they’re sincere.”
Since that time, Palin has gravitated to where the love is. On April 7 of this year, she spoke at a campaign rally in Minneapolis for Michele Bachmann. With a silver cross around her neck and a flag pin on her lapel, Palin spoke approvingly of those who are “proudly clinging to your guns and religion.” Condemning the recently passed health care legislation as “socialized medicine” that “breaks the bank and really violates the U.S. Constitution,” she applauded her party’s stout opposition, declaring, “What’s wrong with being the party of ‘No’?”
The cheering section directly behind Palin was packed with white conservative middle-aged women, a demographic that especially reveres her. Palin’s relationship to women generally is more complicated. On the one hand, her appreciation of pioneers like Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton is unambiguous. On the other, she tends to poll five or more points better among men, and feminists are loath to embrace her.
Palin is of course aware that her sex affords her an opportunity among a crowded, all-male Republican field for 2012. Her Minneapolis rally provided much of the content for her acclaimed “mama grizzly” call-to-arms Web ad released in June. In August, Palin posted a Facebook endorsement of seven women to coincide with the 90th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Though several of her male endorsees also wound up defeating women, Palin has nonetheless emerged from the midterm cycle as America’s most visible advocate of female candidates not named Murkowski.
Whether Palin has what it takes to close the Republican Party’s longstanding gender gap is a question that has loomed since John McCain introduced her to the nation on Aug. 29, 2008. That same afternoon, McCain reached out to Geraldine Ferraro — the first female vice-presidential candidate and a Hillary Clinton supporter — and put her on the phone with his new running mate. The two traded brief, complimentary words. “Every time a woman runs, women win,” Ferraro told me a couple of days after Palin debated Joe Biden.
She felt reluctant to second-guess Palin’s performance against Biden. As Walter Mondale’s running mate, the three-term New York congresswoman possessed more experience with national issues than the Alaska governor — and because of the differing schedules, she was afforded nearly eight weeks more prep time than Palin received. It also helped, Ferraro pointed out, that the Mondale campaign paired her with a young Georgetown professor named Madeleine Albright, who “was attached to my hip from July 12 to the election.” Nevertheless, Ferraro concluded in a lamenting tone, “when you get down to the substance, it wasn’t there.”
“Look, everyone has an opinion about Sarah Palin,” her friend John Coale says. “But suppose when she starts doing the debates during the primaries, she knocks it out of the park. That would cause an entirely different view of things, wouldn’t it?”
Palin has taken steps to close the substance gap. As Davis put it to me, “She works very hard to get things right, because she understands the margin for error — and because it’s the right thing to do.” In Hong Kong 14 months ago, Palin delivered a dense world-affairs speech that she co-drafted with Randy Scheunemann and Rebecca Mansour. This past June in Norfolk, Va., Palin ripped Obama’s “enemy-centric” foreign policy in a spicy but detailed address. (In that speech and elsewhere, she has cited the wisdom of Joe Lieberman — though not on the matter of human-induced climate change, a concept she derides as a “snow job” and this “global warming Goregate stuff.” Lieberman told me, “Well of course I disagree with her and have been disappointed by it.” Lieberman also said: “My impression is that she and Todd are the kind of people I’d like to have as my next-door neighbors. That’s a separate question from whether she’s capable of being president.”) Earlier this month, Palin gave a speech on monetary policy, criticizing the Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke, which, according to Mansour, was written entirely by Palin and herself. Every morning, Palin reads a briefing consisting of a few bullet points prepared by Davis and Mansour. (“I wouldn’t make too much of it,” Davis cautioned me. “It’s like [Politico’s] Playbook, only without the birthdays. Sometimes I throw in a sports score.”) Her public remarks and Facebook posts have been increasingly littered with facts from biographies of Reagan, Thatcher and Lincoln that she has recently digested.
Palin became testy when I asked her about the books I heard she had been reading. “I’ve been reading since I was a little girl,” she snapped. “And my mom is standing 15 feet away from me, and I should put her on the phone with you right now so she can tell you. That’s what happens when you grow up in a house full of teachers — you read; and I always have. Just because — and,” she continued, though in a less blistering tone, “I don’t want to come across sounding caustic or annoyed by this issue: because of one roll-of-the-eye answer to a question I gave, I’m still dealing with this,” she said, referring to her interview with Katie Couric. “There’s nothing different today than there was in the last 43 years of my life since I first started reading. I continue to read all that I can get my hands on — and reading biographies of, yes, Thatcher for instance, and of course Reagan and the John Adams letters, and I’m just thinking of a couple that are on my bedside, I go back to C.S. Lewis for inspiration, there’s such a variety, because books have always been important in my life.” She went on: “I’m reading [the conservative radio host] Mark Levin’s book; I’ll get ahold of Glenn Beck’s new book — and now because I’m opening up,” she finished warily, “I’m afraid I’m going to get reporters saying, Oh, she only reads books by Glenn Beck.”
I explained to Palin that in my view, at least, this line of inquiry wasn’t gratuitous — that questions did in fact linger about her “gravitas gap.” Didn’t she think, for example, that the Republican kingmakers who were now supposedly scheming to kneecap her were mainly just concerned about how voters viewed her? “If that were the case, then they need to be courageous enough to put their names behind their criticisms,” she said, referring to anonymous quotations attacking her. “As I replied to Politico, these fellows want to be trusted to tend to our nation’s economic woes? They want to be trusted to take on the likes of Ahmadinejad, but they won’t take on a hockey mom from Wasilla? Until they do that, I dismiss them.”
But, I reiterated, didn’t she believe that the Republican establishment’s predominant worry was that she would lose to Obama? “Then perhaps they should vent some of their paranoia toward all of the potential G.O.P. candidates,” she said. “Because obviously there’s no guarantee that any one of us would win. But I do believe that much of this is a threat to their hierarchy, because I’ve never shied away from a battle and because I’ll put principle before politics.”
In a sense, Palin views Beltway Republicans as she does the Obama administration: aloof, self-interested and vulnerable to the populist power that she believes she wields. “They’re in an isolated bubble — Barack Obama mentioned that in his press conference, and I agree with him, he is isolated from what average Americans are talking about,” she said, referring to the president’s words after the midterm elections. “But what he was meaning, of course, was that he’s not in touch with average Americans. I am — because that’s who I am. That’s who surrounds me, common-sense Americans who just want government on their side, not riding their backs. And I tweet to reach out to them.”
At the end of our talk, she made note of my Southern accent and urged me, “Don’t lose that.” Then she went back to her world, somewhere in Alaska, where she was winding down the filming of her TV show — where apparently Internet reception was sufficient for her to send out three more Twitter posts that afternoon, joining herself to the rest of America and then leaving it at that, for the moment.Continue reading the main story