I may be one of the few in my circle of friends who actually liked Sarah Palin’s autobiography. I may, in fact, be the only one who has read it. And that’s a shame because the story is so gol darned Mary Poppinsish, you have to ask yourself: What’s not to like?
All political autobiographies take a certain amount of liberty with the truth, especially those written by unknown politicians first emerging on the public stage. Presidential contenders write (or have ghost written) their life stories to give supporters a plausible narrative that explains why they are running. They speak of obstacles overcome that developed their character, formative experiences that gave them insight into how the world works, and brushes with social injustice that inspired them to run.
Sarah Palin’s autobiography may be the first to making running for office itself the story of her life––character, insight and inspiration being pretty much fully formed by the time she left Sunday school. Think of it as Cinderella goes to Washington––almost.
It will come as no surprise she came from humble roots. Her father was a high school science teacher and accomplished hunter, her mother a church volunteer. They arrived in Skagway, Alaska, in 1964 with Sarah still cradled in her mother’s arms. The town was an old prospector’s stopover along the Klondike Trail, “the Las Vegas of the North,” she recalls where “piano music and the laughter of dance hall girls spilled onto the same raised-plank sidewalks that still lined Main Street.”
Five years later, her father moved the family north to a small town outside Anchorage to teach at an elementary school while her mother worked part-time as a school lunch lady. A few years later, they moved up the Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Valley again to “the one-horse town of Wasilla,” and that is where a young Sarah Palin blossomed.
Palin remembers raising chickens, catching fish, digging for clams and picking wild berries as a young girl; hunting moose and caribou with her father, kicking up rooster tails from the back of snowmobiles with her brother, and doing household chores with her sisters, including food canning and stacking firewood for a house that had no other heat. It was a life of 4-H clubs and Campfire Girls, Sunday School and Bible Camp, American Legion poetry contests (Palin won in 3rd grade with a poem about Betsy Ross), books (The Pearl, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Animal Farm), selected television shows (Brady Bunch, Lawrence Welk, 60 Minutes, The Wonderful World of Disney, Saturday Night Live), and lots of “good clean fun.”
“I remember banging on the upright piano in the living room and twirling around the floor to Heather’s first record, The Sound of Music,” she writes.
It was up at Bible Camp in Big Lake one summer that Palin looked around at “the majestic peaks and midnight sun, the wild waters and teeming wildlife” and decided, “If God is powerful and wise enough to make all this and thought also to create a speck like me, there surely must be a plan, and He’d know more than I did about my future and my purpose.”
The Rewards of Faith
A good part of Palin’s appeal is how her faith was rewarded by accomplishment, not extraordinary accomplishment, but the kind of satisfactory life ordinary citizens aspire to. She became a star on her state championship basketball team and began dating her future husband Todd, a Yupik Eskimo whose family ran a string of Salmon fishing lines in Bristol Bay. “He cussed. He chewed. He didn’t go to church,” she recalls, “But when he told me he had become a Christian and had been baptized at a sports camp a few years earlier, that was the clincher for me.”
It took Palin five years at a handful of state and community colleges before she obtained her degree from the University of Idaho. To pay her way, she entered and won the Miss Wasilla beauty pageant and finished second in Miss Alaska (while being named Miss Congeniality). To be near Todd in the summers, she worked messy, obscure jobs on the “slime line” in Bristol Bay, processing crabs, cutting open fish bellies, scraping out eggs, and plopping the roe into packaging.
By the end of her third summer there, “Todd and I didn’t want to spend more time apart. So we took our broke butts down to the Palmer Courthouse and lassoed a magistrate to pronounce us man and wife,” she writes. They celebrated that night with dinner at Wendy’s and moved into an apartment with Palin’s sister in Anchorage. Sarah worked in customer service at the local utility and Todd became a baggage handler by day, snowplow driver by night, until BP oil offered him a permanent job in the oil fields near Prudhoe Bay – just as Sarah was about to deliver their first baby.
Small Town Politics
Palin’s American Life becomes a matter of public interest only when she runs for and wins a seat on the city council of Wasilla, Alaska (pop. 6,300) in 1992. At the time, Wasilla had no police. Many of the roads were dirt. There was no municipal garbage collection. And strip malls were popping up along the highway with no zoning regulation to guide development.
“I wanted to speed things up in our little town, to keep us growing and prospering by embracing laissez-faire principals and promoting Wasilla as a pro-free enterprise kind of town,” she writes.
Four years into her tenure, she decided to challenge the incumbent mayor and won with a total of 616 votes (versus 446 for her opponent.) The stakes were small––the Wasilla city budget was only $6 million covering 53 employees––but she put everything she had into winning the post. (“We lived by the creed that passion is what counts,” she writes about her high school sports career.) gave everything to the campaign. She enlisted Republican legislators to be on her campaign literature
Once in office, Palin had a way of turning every issue into a clash of personalities. “At times I felt like the mayor of Peyton Place,” she says.) Inside of three months, she fired the police chief and museum director (“we didn’t need a full-time cabinet member to ‘curate’ such artifacts as license plates from the town founder’s tractor”), got into a row with the town librarian over censorship, and prompted the local newspaper to editorialize “you’re either with her or against her.”
It’s fair to say Palin’s political worldview was shaped by her ten years on the Wasilla city council. Two key aspects of Palin’s political personality developed there: First, she learned to seamlessly integrate her family life into her political life. She campaigned door-to-door carting her kids along in a red wagon, took her babies to council meetings, and asked their advice on road trips between political functions. And second, she came to see politics as team building. Her political views run along the lines of Reagan Republicanism — a strong defense, lower taxes and less government interference — and not much deeper. But give her a mission, a time clock and a goal to shoot at, and, by God, she’ll get it done — no matter who she has to throw under the bus.
When term limits forced Palin to leave in 2002, she took a flier on a race for lieutenant governor (and lost). She turned out to be such a gung-ho campaigner for the Republican gubernatorial candidate that fall that he appointed her to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, where she earned her maverick spurs. She challenged a fellow commissioner (the Governor’s chief fundraiser) over his conflict-of-interest as both an oil company contractor and state Republican Party chairman provoking what she calls “a head-on confrontation with the forces of corruption in the highest levels of the state.” He resigned, she resigned, but “the fire in my belly” for public service remained. Cradling her baby Willow by the fireside, feeling “a longing inside me. . . a sense of purpose hovering beyond my vision,” Palin decided to heed the advice of Jeremiah 29: “For I know the plans that I have for you” and run for governor. She won in 2006 on a promise to clean house in the state Capitol.
McCain Comes A Calling
When John McCain came knocking in 2008, Palin had been in the governorship all of 20 months. She’d had some quick successes with ethics legislation (on the heels of federal indictments), budget vetoes, and new oil and gas exploration efforts. Her approval rating with the public were soaring as high as 80 percent. What Palin understood (that McCain’s people never quite grasped) was these successes came in a very unique political climate
Although Alaska is the largest state in the union by land mass, it has only 683,000 residents, so it the 4th smallest state in the population. Juneau, its capital, is over 500 miles from the major population centers in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and all but inaccessible by road. The state legislature consists of only 40 members of the House and 20 Senators, who meet for 90 days a year. And $10 billion of the $14 billion annual state budget (roughly 25% of New York City’s) comes from oil and gas fees and royalties.
When Palin received the call from McCain asking her to be his running mate, she was touring the Alaska state fairgrounds with her children. They were in the right-to-life booth next to a poster featuring a young Piper with angel wings attached to her shoulders that Palin had contributed to the cause. She thought it might be her son Trak calling from Iraq. Instead it was McCain. But she wasn’t shocked, she writes. “I certainly didn’t think, Well, of course, this would happen. But neither did I think, What an astonishing idea. It seemed more comfortable than that, like a natural progression.”
Living in a Bubble
The Cinderella story Palin sets out to tell takes a detour in the last 200 pages of “Going Rogue” as Palin recounts what it was like on the presidential campaign trail. Her writing is alternately catty, combative and fiercely proud as she flails about knocking her handlers, chastising the press, defending her every misstep, and reveling in the adoration of the crowds that gathered to hear her speak. She is quick to blame anyone but herself for the Republican ticket’s disastrous showing.
When first called to Arizona, Palin is encouraged by her vetting session with campaign aides. They knew everything about her, including Bristol’s pregnancy. She warms quickly to McCain and his wife Cindy. When McCain asks whether her husband was prepared for the rigors of a campaign, she boasts that “our very normalcy, our status as ordinary Americans, could be a much needed fresh breeze blowing into Washington, D.C.”
In that answer lies the substance of Palin’s appeal and the reason why it will never be great enough to get her to the presidency. As much as politicians speak the glories of the common man, we the electorate do not really want an ordinary president. That’s why we don’t draw straws to see who goes next. We want someone who can command our respect, dazzle us with their oratory, or impress us with the breadth of their knowledge. Intelligence, experience and judgment do count when we choose our leaders and, flawed as it is, the overly-long process through which contenders must now navigate their way to the presidency all but assures the last two finalists will have demonstrated all three. Picked from obscurity four days before joining McCain’s campaign, Palin had little to show on those counts.
Although her introduction to party faithful at the Republican convention was good political theater, Republican operatives assigned to her campaign went to extraordinary lengths to shield her from the media. Reporters could dig in Alaska for past accomplishments, but there were slim pickings outside Wasilla’s tight-knit gossip circles. So direct access to the candidate by reporters was the only other way to reveal her positions. For whatever reasons (and we’ll have to wait for his book to find out) McCain’s campaign manager Steve Schmidt built a bubble around Palin, and both she and the public suffered from the isolation.
Had she more experience herself in national politics, or a network of wired-in contacts outside the campaign, she might have reached beyond it. As it was, she was squired from one world leader to the next, fitted into clothes that were not her own, and handed index cards during debate prep with questions on one-side and “non-answers” on the other, as she says. She could come up with her own one-liners -– “palling around with terrorists” – but needed approval from headquarters to let ‘em rip. The divide only got worse as the prospects worsened. By election night, Palin had carefully prepared a concession speech to thank McCain for his effort, but Schmidt put the kibosh on it.
“I wanted to tell Americans to keep on fighting for what is right––and not to let anyone tell them to sit down and shut up,” she writes.
“Absolutely not,” Schmidt said. “I don’t even know why you wrote a speech. Nobody told you to.”
“Going Rogue” has a hard time coming to an end. Palin seems to have written at least three final chapters (and keeps writing them in Facebook.) She doesn’t want to leave off with bad taste of the campaign, so she moves on her reasons for resigning the governorship. (She got tired of “fighting the bull” and wanted to break “the bureaucratic shackles that were now paralyzing our state.”)
She wants to let her fans know vision for America in one chapter. She wants to get in one last jab at the mediain another by inviting them up to work a slime line during the salmon hunt in Bristol Bay. And she wants to leave the door open to run for president in 2012, on her own terms. She wants a lot of things, for herself and the country. But most of all, she doesn’t want the fairy tale to end.