Thursday, July 2, 2009

She's from Wasilla

The pattern is inescapable: she takes disagreements personally, and swiftly deals vengeance on enemies, real or perceived. Illustration by Risko.
After the debacle that was the Reublican presidential campaign (not that it pains me), John McCain went back to being a Senator, and an inconsistent (what is often called a maverick) Republican.

On the other hand, Sara Palin went back to being Alaskan Governor, an unpredictable Republican (not called a maverick), and, unlike her benefactor, the Senator from Arizona, did not lower her profile for long.

Like Richard M. Nixon, who chose the coalfield town of Hyden, Kentucky, for his first post-resignation public appearance, Palin has come to a place where she is guaranteed a hero’s reception. She is not only a staunch foe of abortion but also the mother of a boy, Trig, who was born with Down syndrome just a few months before John McCain chose Palin as his running mate. The souvenir program for this evening’s dinner is full of displays for local politicians and businesses, attesting to their pro-life bona fides. An ad for Hahn Realty Corporation reads, “If you need commercial real estate, call Joe Kiefer! Joe is pro-life and a proud supporter of the Vanderburgh County Right to Life.”

Commercial real estate and opposition to abortion: quite a mix.

Her appeal to people in the party (and in the country) who share her convictions and resentments is profound. The fascination is viral, and global.

And resentment is a key, integral ingredient of the Governor and her admirers.

What does it say about the nature of modern American politics that a public official who often seems proud of what she does not know is not only accepted but applauded? What does her prominence say about the importance of having (or lacking) a record of achievement in public life?

Nothing much good. Parallels can be drawn, inferred, postulated, none flattering.

Palin is unlike any other national figure in modern American life—neither Anna Nicole Smith nor Margaret Chase Smith but a phenomenon all her own. The clouds of tabloid conflict and controversy that swirl around her and her extended clan—the surprise pregnancies, the two-bit blood feuds, the tawdry in-laws and common-law kin caught selling drugs or poaching game—give her family a singular status in the rogues’ gallery of political relatives. By comparison, Billy Carter, Donald Nixon, and Roger Clinton seem like avatars of circumspection.

Tabloid fame is part of modern-day society.

Another aspect of the Palin phenomenon bears examination, even if the mere act of raising it invites intimations of sexism: she is by far the best-looking woman ever to rise to such heights in national politics, the first indisputably fertile female to dare to dance with the big dogs. This pheromonal reality has been a blessing and a curse. It has captivated people who would never have given someone with Palin’s record a second glance if Palin had looked like Susan Boyle. And it has made others reluctant to give her a second chance because she looks like a beauty queen.

Sexism? She plays the sexy card: the winks, the beauty queen look. The first indisputably fertile female to dare to dance with the big dogs is quite a phrase.

The caricature of Sarah Palin that emerged in the presidential campaign, for good and ill, is now ineradicable. The swift journey from her knockout convention speech to Tina Fey’s dead-eyed incarnation of her as Dan Quayle with an updo played out in real time, no less for the bewildered McCain campaign than for the public at large. It is an ironclad axiom of politics that if a campaign looks troubled from the outside the inside reality is far worse, and the McCain-Palin fiasco was no exception.

For the hard-core believers, it is not a caricature; they love her, admire what they see her representing, and believe.

Palin had been on the national Republican radar for barely a year, after a cruise ship of conservative columnists, including The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol, had stopped in Juneau in 2007 and had succumbed to her charms when she invited them to the governor’s house for a luncheon of halibut cheeks.
Wonder if Willie K swooned; seems so.
At least one savvy politician—Barack Obama—believed Palin would never have time to get up to speed. He told his aides that it had taken him four months to learn how to be a national candidate, and added, “I don’t care how talented she is, this is really a leap.”

He was right about that, too.
The paramount strategic goal in picking Palin was that the choice of a running mate had to ensure a successful convention and a competitive race right after; in that limited sense, the choice worked. But no serious vetting had been done before the selection (by either the McCain or the Obama team), and there was trouble in nailing down basic facts about Palin’s life.

Time heals, and people forget over time, but she seems content being who she is, and that helped her lose the election.

There is virtually nothing about Palin’s performance in the fall campaign that should have come as a surprise to John McCain. Had he really attempted to learn something about her before the fateful day of August 29, 2008, when he announced that she was his choice for running mate, he would easily have discerned all the traits that he belatedly came to know.
Choosing her was a move of desperation, what is called a "Hail Mary pass" (toss the football as far as you can, and pray), and he didn't seem to bother finding out who she really was.

In dozens of conversations during a recent visit to Alaska, it was easy to learn that there has always been a counter-narrative about Palin, and indeed it has become the dominant one. It is the story of a political novice with an intuitive feel for the temper of her times, a woman who saw her opportunities and coolly seized them. In every job, she surrounded herself with an insular coterie of trusted friends, took disagreements personally, discarded people who were no longer useful, and swiftly dealt vengeance on enemies, real or perceived.
A man showing such traits might be labeled Machiavellian; she was nicknamed Barracuda.

The first thing McCain could have learned about Palin is what it means that she is from Alaska. The state capital, Juneau, is 600 miles from the principal city, Anchorage, and is reachable only by air or sea. There is little sense of government as an enduring institution: when the annual 90-day legislative session is over, the legislators pack up their offices, files, and computers, and take everything home. Alaska’s largest newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News, maintains no full-time bureau in Juneau to cover the statehouse.Alaskans of every age and station, of every race and political stripe, unself-consciously refer to every other place on earth with a single word: Outside.
It is in this Alaska—where it is possible to be both a conservative Republican and a pothead, or a foursquare Democrat and a gun nut—that Sarah Palin learned everything she knows about politics, and about life. It was in this environment that her ambition first found an outlet in public office, and where she first tasted the 151-proof Everclear that is power.

Power is an aphrodisiac for men and women.

The second thing McCain could have discovered about Palin is that no political principle or personal relationship is more sacred than her own ambition.

Is that rare in a politician?

When she ran for Governor of Alaska in 2006, her style was already apparent.

Palin’s lack of knowledge turned out not to hurt her. Andrew Halcro later remembered that he and Palin once compared notes about their many encounters, and she said, “Andrew, I watch you at these debates with no notes, no papers, and yet when asked questions, you spout off facts, figures, and policies, and I’m amazed. But then I look out into the audience and I ask myself, Does any of this really matter?”

Sadly, in many cases, no, it does not matter. Yet she did win the race, and rode the wave of rising oil prices to increased royalty payments to Alaskans (wait, is that socialism?).

Palin was able to increase the annual distribution from the state’s Permanent Fund to about $3,000 per resident, almost double the amount received the previous year. She could be a fiscal conservative and a big spender all at the same time.

If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it's not.

Palin’s anti-politician stance had worked so well in her campaign that she carried it over into her dealings with actual politicians in Juneau, who didn’t take kindly to the practice.

Politicians will be politicians.

When Trig was born, Palin wrote an e-mail letter to friends and relatives, describing the belated news of her pregnancy and detailing Trig’s condition; she wrote the e-mail not in her own name but in God’s, and signed it “Trig’s Creator, Your Heavenly Father.”

Say, what?

Then came the announcement of Bristol's pregnancy, Troopergate, and, after the campaign ended, the video of Governor Palin, who had pardoned a turkey and pronounced for local television cameras that the campaign hadn't changed her, standing in front of a worker pushing turkeys through a kind of grinder, what seemed an all too apt metaphor for how Palin’s political fortunes had changed in the wake of her great national adventure, even if her personality had not.

Perhaps nothing has caused a bigger stir than Palin’s nomination of Wayne Anthony Ross to be Alaska’s attorney general. Ross is a two-time gubernatorial candidate and a board member of the National Rifle Association. He had sown controversy over the years by referring to gays and lesbians as “degenerates” (he later sought to downplay the remark, saying his aversion to homosexuals was no different from his aversion to lima beans) and for staunchly opposing subsistence-hunting preferences for native Alaskans. A flamboyant divorce lawyer who drives a big red Hummer with the vanity license plate war, Ross is a good old boy of pithy expression and considerable charm. (“In Alaska,” Ross told me, “a liberal is someone who carries a .357 or smaller.”)

What a guy: equating people with lima beans.

None of McCain’s still-loyal soldiers will say negative things about Palin on the record. Even thinking such thoughts privately is painful for them, because there is ultimately no way to read McCain’s selection of Palin as reflecting anything other than an appalling egotism, heedlessness, and lack of judgment in a man whose courage, tenacity, and character they have extravagantly admired—and as reflecting, too, an unsettling willingness on their own part to aid and abet him. They all know that if their candidate—a 72-year-old cancer survivor—had won the presidency, the vice-presidency would be in the hands of a woman who lacked the knowledge, the preparation, the aptitude, and the temperament for the job.

Not presidential timber.

To ask why none of them dared to just walk away is to ask why Colin Powell did not resign in protest over the Bush administration’s foreign policy, or why none of Bill Clinton’s disillusioned aides resigned after he lied to them about Monica Lewinsky. The question cannot comprehend the intense bonds that the blood sport of modern politics produces. To leave a campaign—especially a struggling, losing campaign—is akin to desertion in wartime, and even as they began to understand her limitations, plenty of McCain aides still saw Palin as the campaign’s best hope. Some still believe that, simply in terms of the electoral math, she helped at least as much as she hurt, and maybe helped more.

Colin Powell staying on is understandable, for a life-long soldier does not abandon his assignment, but as a person he showed an enormous lack of judgment and no political courage. If Palin helped as much as she hurt the campaign, what was the value of her choice?

McCain will not talk about the campaign, or about his VP choice, period. McCain’s daughter Meghan, who has continued the blog she began on the campaign last year, has said that Palin is the one topic on which she will have no public comment. And she discusses everything else.

In Evansville, though, Palin concentrated on the task at hand: an emphatic defense of the anti-abortion cause.

And that is what the cause is: opposed to abortion, not pro-life.

Sarah Palin is a star in Evansville and all the many Evansvilles of America, but there is a big part of the Republican Party—the Wall Street wing, the national-security wing—in which she cuts no ice. She could do well in the Iowa caucuses or South Carolina primary, but it is much harder to imagine her making headway in New Hampshire, where independent voters were turned off by her last fall. It is also difficult to see just how she would expand her appeal beyond the base that already loves her.

Well, politics has a way of moving in unpredictable directions, so handicapping the 2012 election in July 2009 seems absurd.

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