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Sarah and Her Tribe

Sarah comes in with all this ideological stuff, and I was like, “Whoa.” But that got her elected: abortion, gun rights, term limits and the religious born-again thing. I’m not a churchgoing guy, and that was another issue: “We will have our first Christian mayor.” I thought, Holy cow, what’s happening here?

In Going Rogue, Stein is described as “relatively new to the community.” “He wasn’t a born-here, raised-here, gonna-be-buried-here type of hometown guy.” Those darned wandering Jews.

Palin won by 651 votes to Stein’s 440. Installed in the mayor’s office, she sacked the town planner, police chief, museum director, and librarian (who was later reinstalled after a public protest), and set about her mission of deregulating Wasilla. Business inventory and personal property taxes were abolished; land was rezoned from residential to commercial to meet the needs of incoming big-box chain stores and fast-food outlets, and from single-family to multi-family to encourage speculative condo development; Palin cast the tie-breaking vote in council to stop the city adopting a building code. She held out the invitation to prospective investors in Wasilla to build what they liked, where they liked, out of any materials and to whatever standards that they chose. The long, unlovely, centerless ribbon of commerce that stretches along Alaska’s Highway 3, punctuated by the signage of Subway, I-Hop, Burger King, Arby’s, KFC, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and the like, is a monument to Palin’s cherished vision of the free-market, free-enterprise society. As she boasts—justifiably—of her time in Wasilla, “Basically, we’d gotten government out of the way.”

After her two terms as mayor were up, she gained statewide recognition in her campaign to become lieutenant governor. What followed was pure basketball—swift, sure, and hard to follow without slow-motion action replays. The US Senate seat vacated by Frank Murkowski when he became governor was in his gift, and Palin, who’d campaigned for him, was one of several people he interviewed for the job before he gave it to his daughter, Lisa. Her pride sorely wounded, Palin nonetheless accepted his consolation prize, the chair of the three-person Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, where she sat alongside the chairman of the state Republican Party, Randy Ruedrich, and a geologist, Dan Seamount.

Hearing rumors that Ruedrich was leaking confidential state information to a natural gas company, she and a technician hacked into Ruedrich’s e-mail account one evening and found evidence that he was conducting Republican Party business from his public office—an offense with which Palin was familiar, since she’d sent out flyers promoting herself from the mayor’s office in Wasilla when she was running for lieutenant governor in 2002. She reported Ruedrich to the governor, demanding that he be sacked. When nothing happened, she threatened to resign herself if Ruedrich didn’t go. Murkowski reluctantly told Ruedrich to step down or be dismissed. Two months later, in January 2004, Palin herself resigned from the commission, telling the press that she’d been gagged by the governor from speaking in public about Ruedrich’s ethical violations.

In Going Rogue, this episode is held up as the supreme example of Palin’s courage, independence, sincerity, and passion. “As I typed out the [letter to Murkowski], I thought, This is it. I’m taking on the party and putting it in writing. My career is over. Well, if I die, I die. ” It also illustrates her acute political gumption, her keen ear for the mood of the moment in the strip mall and the stands of the sports arena. Murkowski then was fast turning into Alaska’s most unpopular governor on record, and the Alaska Republican Party was deeply implicated in the ongoing federal probe into the VECO Corporation bribery-and-corruption scandal, which would soon send five Republican lawmakers to jail.

At that time, 53 percent of Alaskan voters were registered as independents. By cutting herself loose from the tainted party, to great applause from the local press, Palin perfectly positioned herself to take on Murkowski in the gubernatorial primary of 2006, which she won by an overwhelming majority, as she went on to win the general election in November. It’s impossible to know how much conscious calculation went into Palin’s extremely smart moves in the Ruedrich affair; probably as much, and as little, as LeBron James needs to make when in possession of the ball.

She takes on the Republican Party again in the 130 pages of Going Rogue that describe her national travels as McCain’s running mate; not McCain himself, but the functionaries who make up the rules of politics-as-usual, a pampered elite, with their fancy clothes, affected speech, and fancy hotels, led by Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace. Schmidt is portrayed like a TV villain; a “rotund” smoker who says “fuck”—or rather “f*“—in front of Palin’s seven-year-old daughter, and is in the habit of wearing sunglasses in the dead of night, perched on top of his bald skull. Wallace is said to be “outwardly very affectionate,” meaning that inwardly she’s mean as hell. Palin’s campaign chief of staff, Andrew Smith, appears briefly as Schmidt’s personal goon, “a tanned, kind of tired-looking guy in a suit” who worked on Wall Street and speaks “in a thick East Coast accent” (enough said). He’s never seen again.

This band of thugs, or “paid operatives” from the “professional political caste,” acting on orders from an invisible headquarters that Palin isn’t permitted to visit, keep her gagged and bound as they attempt to transform this sterling American original into a conventional politician. When she tries to speak to a journalist, “different pairs of hands hustled me into the campaign’s Suburban.” For hours on end, they torture her with facts on flashcards and prewritten evasive answers to tricky questions. “I couldn’t force myself to play it safe and sound like a politician.” Leaks from the campaign, about how Palin is a “diva,” suffering from “postpartum depression,” and “going rogue,” find their way into the press, and Palin traces them to Schmidt himself:

Schmidt issued a threat that was veiled enough for deniability but as clear as day if you were on the receiving end: if there were any more leaks critical of anybody in the handling of Sarah Palin, then a lot more negative stuff would be said about Sarah Palin.

Steve Schmidt has called Palin’s account of the campaign “total fiction”; Nicolle Wallace says it’s “pure fiction.” They’re on well-trodden ground: in February 1997, three months into Palin’s first term as mayor of Wasilla, her local paper, the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, carried an editorial that said, “Mayor Palin fails to have a firm grasp of something very simple: the truth.” Fact-checkers from the Associated Press and several tireless bloggers have uncovered scores of inaccuracies and “lies” in Going Rogue. It’s fair to doubt that any line of direct speech in the book was ever uttered by the person to whom it is attributed, and to assume that every factual detail has probably been either invented or twisted out of shape in order to cast Palin in the best possible light. That said, one might also remember the useful distinction made by the Barbizon painter J.F. Millet between the artist who paints directly from life and the artist who paints the same scene from memory: “…the last may succeed better in giving the character, the physiognomy of the place, though all the details may be inexact.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, this seems to be the case with Going Rogue‘s treatment of Palin’s vice-presidential run. In Sarah from Alaska, Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe, who were embedded reporters on the Palin campaign for CBS and Fox News, and earn for themselves a couple of paragraphs of abuse in Going Rogue, which adds to their credibility, largely confirm Palin’s story in its broad outline and coloring. Their Schmidt and Wallace are characters nearly identical to her Schmidt and Wallace. Read side by side, the two books work like a stereoscope through which to watch the steadily darkening atmosphere of the campaign, the quarantining of Palin from the press, the infighting, the stream of leaks, and the vain attempts to educate the candidate in current affairs. Conroy and Walshe report that when Schmidt gave her a copy of Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, she obediently carried the book around in her purse but chose to read People, Us, and Runner’s World.

By both accounts, Palin was treated with extraordinary condescension from the start; more as a dim and wayward eighth-grader than as a sitting governor, putative vice-president, and the speaker whose rallies drew ten and twenty times the crowds that showed up to hear John McCain. Her admirers will see in these chapters a brutal crash course in the chicanery, pettiness, and sexism of national politics, from which their heroine emerges annealed, but with her spirit unbroken, as “real” and fiercely principled as on the day she took McCain’s phone call on her BlackBerry at the Alaska state fair.

Her detractors rejoiced when, on July 3, 2009, at a hastily assembled press conference outside her Wasilla house, Palin announced that she was going to resign as governor, in a wild and rambling speech, delivered from notes at breakneck speed, about lame ducks, dead fish, selfless troops, basketball, quitters, General MacArthur, the politics of personal destruction, ethics complaints, destiny, the media, putting first things first, and how America was looking north to the future. She appeared to have lost her wits.

Now she’s back: reviving the book business in provincial towns from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Richland, Washington; working on her keynote address to the Tea Party movement’s national convention, to be held in Nashville, Tennessee, in February; tweeting daily, sometimes hourly, to her tribal followers about the state of the nation; and everywhere parading her Down’s syndrome son, Trig, along with her most photogenic daughter, Piper, as living testaments to herself as the model pro-life mother. What she’s running for is not yet clear, but she’s evidently running for something.

Going Rogue is stuffed with dubious quotations from Famous Authors, among them one often attributed, but never reliably sourced, to Pascal: “the God-shaped vacuum in every human heart.” Unfortunately, there does seem to be a Palin-shaped vacuum in the heart of the American electorate, and it’s not hard to see why. After the ritual brandishing of the flag and her shout-outs to her fellow Christian fundamentalists, Palin’s core message is, as it always has been, about fiscal policy.

In our present neo-Keynesian moment, economics has never seemed more bewildering and arcane, or more the exclusive preserve of hated “experts” from the “East Coast elites.” Most people I know, myself included, can’t readily follow the algebraic equations that explain the “Keynesian multiplier,” which, in its turn, is needed to explain TARP and the stimulus package. Belonging to a tribe different from Palin’s, I simply take it on trust as a matter of faith that Paul Krugman, in his columns for TheNew York Times, is more likely to be right about such things than, say, Lou Dobbs or Senator John Thune, but I share in the general apprehensive fogginess about what’s happening.

For Palin, it’s simple. The national economy is a straightforward macrocosm of the domestic economy of the average god-fearing family of four. What’s good for the family is good for the nation, and vice versa; and the idea that the family should spend its way out of recession is an affront to common sense, conservative or otherwise. On December 3, she tweeted: “Baffling/nonsensical: Obama’s talk of yet another debt-ridden ‘stimulus’ pkg. Fight this 1, America, bc after last 1 unemployment rose, debt grew.” Five days later, while Obama was speaking at the Brookings Institution about the economy, Palin wrote, “Quik msg b4 book event: Prez pls pay down massive, obscene U.S debt &/or give ‘stimulus’ $ back to Americans b4 propose spending more of our $.”

Palin’s general economic theory, so snugly adapted to Twitter’s 140- character limit, carries great weight. At a time when everyone should be clipping coupons, tightening belts, and buying generic peanut butter, Obama (Columbia and Harvard), Larry Summers (MIT and Harvard), Tim Geithner (Dartmouth and Johns Hopkins), and Peter Orszag (Princeton and London School of Economics) are out on a spending spree that is “baffling,” “nonsensical,” and “obscene.” But then what did we expect of the East Coast elites?

Against their transparent profligacy should be set the record of Sarah Palin (University of Idaho, School of Journalism and Mass Media). She made Wasilla hum, while putting an end to personal property taxes. As governor of her state, she taxed “Big Oil” and in 2008 mailed out a check for $3,269, drawn against the Alaska Permanent Fund, to every resident. (This payout shrank to $1,305 in 2009, after Palin quit the governorship.) She not only makes economics perfectly comprehensible at the level of the kitchen table, she makes it work brilliantly in practice.

The rage for Palin’s pert simplicities reflects in part the failure of the Obama administration to persuade people of the wisdom and benefits of its far more sophisticated policies. Recently, I came across FDR’s fireside chat of April 14, 1938,2 when, speaking from the bottom of the second trough of the double-dip recession, he delivered a plain and passionate defense of deficit spending; Keynes for the family, and as resonant and topical now as it was seventy years ago. Nothing I’ve heard from the present administration matches its clarity, and where puzzlement and incomprehension exist, Palin leaps to fill the gap with facile and völkisch answers.

She’s much more deeply in touch with her followers than Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee, or any other recent candidate who’s tried to court the same constituency. (Admittedly, they also lacked her flirty sex appeal.) She has the knack of turning public debate sulfurous with a phrase, as she did last summer with her remark that Democrats want “death panels” in their health plan. She is a catalyst around whom the Tea Party movement3 is growing alarmingly in size and strength, PAC on PAC, determined to purge the Republican Party of its surviving moderate candidates, like Carly Fiorina and Charlie Crist, as, with Palin’s help, it purged Dede Scozzafava in New York’s Twenty-third Congressional District. Having hoisted her banner of Commonsense Conservatism, and campaigned across the country by Lear jet and tour bus to promote Going Rogue, she’s unlikely to assuage her compulsion to be a winner merely by selling more books than anyone else during 2009’s holiday season. She is the stuff of democratic—with a small d—bad dreams.


Corrections February 11, 2010

  1. 2

    See www.mhric.org/fdr/chat12.html.

  2. 3

    See Michael Tomasky’s essay, “Something New on the Mall,” The New York Review, October 22, 2009.

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