Last month, I read Lorenzo Benet’s unauthorized biography of Sarah Palin, “Trailblazer,” and this week I watched John Ziegler’s complete interview with Sarah Palin.
The question I asked myself after finishing both is the same question I’ve been asking myself since August 29, 2008: Who is Sarah Palin?
Many who know her say that she is exactly the person that she appears to be. And, yet, no one is ever quite what they appear because they appear to be many things to many people. A person as complex and intriguing as Sarah Palin is certainly not that simple. However, complexity does not imply cunning or deceptive manipulation. A person can be honest, straightforward, and completely without guile and yet still be complex.
I’ve been fascinated by biographies and biography writing my entire life. One my favorite books on the topic is Janet Malcolm’s “The Silent Woman.” Malcolm tries to get to the truth behind the poet Sylvia Plath, and in my opinion comes closer than anyone else, by revealing the agendas of the biographers writing about Plath. Every biographer molds the biographical subject to fit a vision or agenda. Recognizing that is key to reading a biography objectively. We sign on to the biographer’s vision, and we allow ourselves to either agree or disagree with that vision.
Lorenzo Benet’s “Trailblazer” was compelling, but no thanks to any talent on his part. It was compelling because Palin is compelling. Benet is not a particularly gifted or imaginative writer. The book is little more than a compilation of various news stories supplemented by interviews. That’s certainly not a bad thing. All modern mass market biographies are little more than Nexus Lexus compilations.
Benet is at his best writing about Palin’s years as a mayor because he can understand “mayor stuff.” He clearly doesn’t understand Palin’s work at the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (AOGCC) or the issues that propelled her gubernatorial bid and her work as governor. He is a People Magazine writer after all. I find this weakness amusing because the very people who criticize Palin for being an intellectual light-weight would probably have a hard time navigating the complexities of her job as the governor of our largest energy producing state.
It’s clear that “Trailblazer” was not written by an Alaskan, just as it’s clear that Kaylene Johnson’s Palin biography was. Johnson is at her finest in the chapters beginning with Palin’s chairmanship at the AOGCC and ending with her gubernatorial victory because those chapters describe the events that defined Palin as Alaska’s Joan of Arc. Johnson’s biography, like all biographies, constructs a vision of the biographical subject; and Johnson’s vision effectively evokes the sense of excitement and optimism that Palin inspired in ordinary Alaskans.
Benet doesn’t really get that far, but “Trailblazer” isn’t a complete waste. The supplemental interviews he conducted with key figures in Palin’s life are worth the cover price. His best interviewee, in my opinion, is Judy Patrick. She provides crucial insight into Palin’s years as a mayor. Many stories and rumors which were only partially understood are given clear context.
All of this is well and good. We could learn all of it from the articles currently in print. But who is Sarah Palin? Neither Johnson nor Benet’s biographies satisfied me, and Ziegler’s extensive interview only intrigued me more.
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to take my stab at a biographical sketch of the good Guv. It won’t be exhaustive. I will no doubt return to various themes over time. But here’s a first draft. And it is really only a draft. I haven’t resolved the mystery of her entirely — no one can or perhaps should — but here’s what I think.
Let’s start with her childhood, which is the most crucial section of any biography, and with Sarah Louise Heath Palin we see a childhood that would be quite foreign to most of us. I must commend Benet on his chapter dealing with her early years in Skagway and Wasilla. He really does paint a portrait of Little House on the Tundra.
When Michelle Obama spoke of her childhood in her DNC convention speech, she recalled watching “The Brady Bunch.” Sarah Palin isn’t big on watching TV because she never was. Her parents didn’t encourage it. She grew up as an outdoorsy girl in a world where the outdoors was vast and wild. It’s difficult for those of us in the Lower 48 to imagine the vastness of Alaska. The Mat-Su Valley, where Palin spent most of her childhood, is the size of West Virginia. And there were only 400 people living in Wasilla when her family moved there in 1969. Subsistence really was a part of their lifestyle then. That’s how they ate. They had a garden for vegetables, and they hunted and fished.
If there is one figure in Sarah Palin’s life who I think had the most formative influence on her, it is her father, though he balks at any suggestion that he still has influence on her today. Johnson noted:
When his daughter became governor, Chuck [Heath] found it immensely amusing that acquaintances asked him to sway Sarah on particular issues.
He says he lost that leverage before she was two.
Chuck Heath is everyone’s favorite middle school science teacher. His home is an amateur natural history museum filled with fossils and skulls and antlers. Far from being “anti-intellectual,” Sarah Palin was raised in a home where science was valued and children were expected to bring home good grades and go to college after high school.
Chuck taught his daughter discipline and determination, as well as a love of the outdoors. He treated his son and his daughters the same, and taught them all to be self-reliant — in hunting, fishing, and sports.
He was her high school track coach, and he pushed her harder than the other kids because he didn’t want to be perceived as showing her favoritism. He was so hard on her that another kid once said, “I’m glad I’m not your daughter.”
The only journalist who seemed to “get” Palin was the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins, perhaps because Jenkins’ background was in sports writing, and she was able to understand the quiet strength, stoic determination and “non-intellectual” intelligence that defines Sarah Palin’s world. She wrote:
Chuck Sr. drove Palin hard, both as a father and a coach. “She gets her steel, her competitiveness, from him,” says Marie Carter Smith, who was the school statistician. Chuck ran alongside on training runs for miles, barking maxims he picked up in his own career as a high school football player in Idaho, under a farm legend named Cotton Barlow. “Lead by example, not with your mouth,” he said. Or: “Run through it! The more pain you’re feeling, the more it will show in the performance.”
When Chuck chewed her out like a football player, she stared back at him and nodded. “She just looked me straight in the eye, didn’t talk back or anything,” he says. “It’s a wonder she didn’t whack me.”
By all accounts, Palin didn’t need an external motivator. She understood she wasn’t a gifted athlete, so she decided to be a tireless worker. “She ran her guts out,” Smith says. And she did it with an obvious edge. “She was small and thin and active,” Heather remembers. “There was no slacking when that girl was practicing or competing.”
Her sister Heather noted that Sarah was “the strong, quiet one,” in the family.
And here we have the first incongruity in the popular perception of Palin.
It seems astonishing, but it is a fact that everyone who knew Sarah Palin growing up describes her as shy and reserved. They also say that she was disciplined, determined, goal oriented, unflinchingly upbeat, and even a natural leader at times, but all agree that she was shy and unassuming. The Sarah Palin who burst confidently onto the national stage like a heroine of old was not the quiet girl who grew up in a small town tucked between two mountain ranges in a distant valley far removed from the avenues of power.
It turns out that the woman who has been mocked for supposedly not reading any newspapers was actually a bookworm. Johnson noted:
From the time she was in elementary school, [Palin] consumed newspapers with a passion. “She read the paper from the very top left hand corner to the bottom right corner to the very last page,” said [her sister] Molly. “She didn’t want to miss a word. She didn’t just read it — she knew every word she had read and analyzed it.”
Still, no one ever thought that politics was in her future. Her future husband said she was shy in high school and not someone he would have pictured having a political career. Her mother said the same:
“She didn’t talk about politics or getting into politics,” said her mother, Sally Heath, adding that her daughter back then was “never one to be in the limelight.”
She was a good student in college, but did not stand out. “She was quiet, she took notes, didn’t speak unless she was called on,” according to one classmate. She was even described as “almost a wallflower type”. But her shyness wasn’t weakness. Her friends recognized an inner strength:
Palin was a calming presence who offered to pray for her when [college classmate Stacia Crocker] Hagerty had boyfriend troubles. “She was so ‘steady Eddie,’ so rock solid,” Hagerty said. “She didn’t make a big deal out of things like other people did. She talked about politics and history and what was going on in the world. I was like, whatever, I don’t care about that stuff.”
It would appear that she was always “intellectually curious”.
According to one leftist narrative, Palin has an “Evita” complex and was always plotting to get away from her hick town upbringing to do bigger and better things. I found no proof of that. In fact, the evidence points to the opposite. She loves Alaska, and when she went away she was homesick. One college friend noted that she would “gaze out their window missing Alaska’s sunsets.”
She didn’t set out to conquer the world. But she did have a competitive streak, despite her shyness:
Her old high school basketball coach had this to say about her:
“We called her Little Sarah. She was sort of a quiet type person, but she was really a competitor and wanted to do her best in anything she went to do,” said Jerry [Russell, her basketball coach].
Jerry says Sarah Heath was usually timid, but he remembers a time when he put Sarah on the bench for not doing as she was told.
“And she turned around and looked at me, and said, ‘You’re always telling us that if we see the opportunity to score, to take it, and that’s what I did, so put me back in.’ It was so out of character for her, I had to turn my head because I just couldn’t keep from laughing,” Jerry said.
But he says Sarah became more outgoing in high school, even becoming known at “Sarah Baracuda” on the basketball team, and her team went on to win the state championship.
“She played that game on a fractured ankle,” said Jerry.
She was short and scrappy and not a natural athlete. She had to work hard to achieve. She didn’t have an overarching ambition in life. Instead she pursued modest goals, one after the other, and built up her confidence. The first goal was winning the state championship, and she succeeded against all expectations. She would later say, “I know it’s hokey, but basketball was a life-changing experience for me. It’s all about setting a goal, about discipline, teamwork and then success.”
Winning that championship was indeed a defining moment for her. The Wasilla Warriors were the scrappy underdogs. They were mocked by the big city team. They were underestimated. And yet they won. This theme would be replayed over and over in her life.
Her next goal was to pay for college, and in order to do that she needed scholarship money. And here we come to an episode in Palin’s biography which she would no doubt wish to forget, but which her critics use as a source of endless mockery: the beauty pageants.
Sally Jenkins’ noted:
In between semesters [Palin] did her famous stint as a beauty queen, which she mainly did for the money. The interesting thing about that is, at roughly the same time, she worked in a fish cannery to make extra money. Glamor and fish slime. Quite a contrast. And somehow very her.
It was never really her thing.
It was the prospect of tuition money, friends said, that led her to compete as Miss Wasilla in the 1984 Miss Alaska pageant — a little surprising, perhaps, since she “wasn’t a high-heels kind of girl,” as one competitor put it, and found the swimsuit competition “painful,” according to her mother.
Yes, I can see that it was painful. In the photo of her swimsuit competition, her shoulders have that slight hunch of a modest girl who feels exposed. And here we have another striking incongruity about Sarah Palin. Lorenzo Benet reveals that she was never the prettiest girl in class. Her future husband thought she was, but he appears to have been struck by love at first sight. As an adolescent she was regarded as rather “dumpy” with her thick black glasses. Sarah Palin was the geeky/jock girl, not the beauty queen type.
I think the reason why she is not vain about her looks is because she doesn’t see herself as beautiful. She sees herself as a jock. Her classmates say that she was never the “coquette” — she was the tomboyish girl who could talk to the boys about sports and fit in just fine.
She’s one of those extraordinary people who grow more attractive with age, but that doesn’t seem to have changed her perception of herself. She doesn’t behave like a beauty queen. This is why I don’t understand women who find her looks “threatening”. The truest sign of vanity is someone who is demeaning to those who are less attractive. Sarah Palin is not that person. Not by a long shot. She was not the “mean girl” in high school. She might have many shortcomings but vanity is not one of them.
No woman who is vain about her looks would dress as…well…oddly…as Sarah Palin occasionally does. (Her “square-ness” endears her to me even more. God bless her.)
It’s true, folks. She hates shopping. She said so in no uncertain terms in a Q&A with the ADN during her gubernatorial race:
ADN: Tell us one thing even your closest friends don’t know about you.
PALIN: My disdain for shopping is pretty extraordinary.
Diane Osborne, one of the sponsors of the Miss Alaska pageant, didn’t think the soft-spoken, unobtrusive, agreeable young Sarah Heath had a prayer of winning the pageant:
“I kind of worried about how she would do up there on stage,” Ms. Osborne said. “You have to have a certain go-get-‘em to get up there and stand up for yourself, and she came across as such a shy, sweet girl.”
Never underestimate her determination. The shy girl pulled it together. She was the second runner up. She got some scholarship money and moved on to the next thing.
Around that time, her college friends discover that she had a hidden talent:
Ketchum discovered…that Palin was a natural in front of a camera, a quality that helped her land her first post-college job as a weekend sports reporter at an Anchorage television station. For a journalism class, they videotaped themselves giving a 30-minute speech for classmates to critique.
“She didn’t have the kind of fear most kids would have had,” Ketchum said. “I could barely handle it.”
She didn’t stand out among her college professors, but she managed to snag two good internships with local television stations by sheer determination. She was “a go-getter,” according to her academic advisor at the University of Idaho, Roy Atwood:
“She may not have stood out as a brilliant student that people remember well in class, but her record suggests she was a student who went way above and beyond and maintained a sense of drive and initiative that was rare,” Atwood said.
She eventually landed a great job at the Anchorage station KTUU as a sports broadcaster. She got good at it. She probably could have gone all the way with it if she wanted to. But she didn’t. She decided it wasn’t for her. She left to raise her kids.
You’ll notice that her family members say that they didn’t know that she was interested in politics. That’s not surprising really. They also say that she was quiet as a child and that she has always been a very private person. Palin and her husband, Todd, are both quiet and private people. She once said of her husband: “There’s that saying, ‘Still waters run deep.’ That’s Todd.” That’s her too.
It’s quite likely that she never mentioned her interest in politics to anyone. Perhaps she never fully articulated it to herself. But she must have thought about it.
The question remains, Why politics? This is where we unlock another key to Sarah Palin’s personality. It’s an aspect of her life which is both deeply personal to her, and yet something which she’s perfectly comfortable speaking about. I’m referring to her simple spiritual faith as (to use her own words) “a bible-believing Christian.”
I find a great many similarities between Sarah Palin and Ronald Reagan. There are the obvious similarities: Like Reagan before her, Palin is a gifted public speaker and a former small market sports broadcaster. But there is another less obvious, but integral, similarity: Both Palin and Reagan inherited their simple and solid faith from their mothers.
When Reagan was a boy, his mother gave him a work of religious fiction — a Christian novel used for evangelization. Reagan biographer Edmund Morris described it:
[Reagan] happened to read a novel which his mother had picked up somewhere called “That Printer of Udell’s.” It’s the story of a young man born in a rather ugly industrial midwestern town, who discovers through a series of bitter experiences with an alcoholic father… that he has got the gift of oratory. And through his good looks and his voice and his convictions he manages to create a whole social movement in this town. The young man, Dick Falkner, goes off to Washington to take his message to the world. [Reagan] went to his mother when he finished that book, and he said, “I want to be like that man, and I want to be baptized.”
Young Reagan, whose own father was an alcoholic, obviously identified with the main character. Like Palin, his career path had twists and turns — through sports broadcasting and acting — before he eventually made his way into politics. I doubt if anyone suspected he would be president someday, but the inclination and the calling was always there. His boyhood writing reveals his fascination with politics and even a tell-tale desire to be president one day. His mother’s faith instilled him with a sense of destiny about his place in the vast cosmic scheme of things. There was no hubris in this; it was a matter of one’s calling, and, as Sarah Palin would later say, you pursue your calling with a “servant’s heart.”
At a young age, Sarah Palin first contemplated her calling. Benet notes:
Pastor Riley [of Palin’s childhood church] and his wife like to tell the story of how the church’s former youth pastor, Theren Horn, would remind his adolescent charges that God has a specific calling for them — teaching, parenting, medicine, or politics. Sarah heard the same command, and Horn’s mention of politics stuck in her head. Years later, after Horn had moved to Minnesota and was back in Wasilla for a visit, Sarah, then the city’s mayor, reminded him of the lesson and said, “I was called to politics, and that was the direction I took.”
When she was recruited to run for city council, she took up the charge with all the conviction of her calling. Her sister Heather recalled, “I remember asking her why she was doing this, and Sarah said, ‘I have something to offer, and I want to help. I have some great ideas and a lot of community support.'”
The good old boys who recruited her for city council expected her to sit back and follow their lead. The situation reminds me of the film “Protocol.” They expected her to be the Goldie Hawn character, but just like Hawn’s character in the film, Palin proved that she wasn’t an airhead. Beneath the cheery exterior was a smart and principled politician.
She got into a fight with fellow council member Nick Carney because he wanted to pass a city ordinance mandating garbage pick-up, and his company was the only garbage removal outfit in town. It was an obvious conflict of interest. He recused himself from the vote, but he allowed himself to be called as an “expert witness” to testify on the merits of adopting the ordinance. He was testifying on behalf of his own company for his own financial gain before his colleagues on the council. But he saw no conflict of interest. Palin did. She said that citizens should be allowed to decide whether they want to haul their own garbage to the dump or be forced to pay for the service. Her stubborn insistence on little issues like this didn’t go over well with the good ole boys.
There was also the little matter of Mayor Stein’s sense of entitlement. The citizens had voted for term limits, but Stein didn’t feel that they applied to him because the law was passed after he was elected. That might have been legally true, but he was disregarding the spirit of the law. Palin challenged him at a time when Republicans nationwide were taking back government. This was the era of the “Contract With America,” and Sarah Palin was riding that wave with a message of fiscal responsibility. But the real secret to her success was that she went, literally, door to door campaigning. There’s a reason why vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was a natural at the rope-lines — mayor candidate Sarah Palin had a lot of practice at retail politics.
Her critics now make the absurd claim that she started some kind of right-wing “whisper campaign” during her first mayoral race. This is utter nonsense. The only thing being “whispered” was the fact that this smug Cosmo Spacely look-a-like had a sense of entitlement and was planning on building some Taj Mahal city hall for himself and a history museum worthy of a city ten times the size of Wasilla.
The Benet book is especially helpful when it comes to separating fact from fiction in this period of her life. Our leftwing media somehow dug up every Palin critic out there and gave them a microphone. Most of them were from her years as mayor. The media provided no context to their accusations. They just presented them as fact, and when challenged they would claim that the local newspaper backed them up. Well, the local newspaper hated Palin when she first became mayor because the editors were friends with the former administration. The paper delighted in attacking Palin on any pretense until it became clear that such a strategy was not good for business.
Everything Palin critics fired at her ended up backfiring on them. Like all smug bullies, they retreated when the person they were attacking fought back. Bullies are always rendered impotent when their erstwhile victims are no longer afraid. Palin fought back, and they soon retreated.
She had many pitched-battles, and if anyone questions her conservative principles, I recommend that they read the chapters in Benet’s book covering her years as mayor. She had to make tough decisions in order to keep her promise of “more efficient government.” You can’t enact real reform without upturning some apple carts. Entrenched interests and bureaucratic entitlements are hallmarks of every city hall.
Take for example Palin’s battle over Wasilla’s historical museum. It was run by a curator and three old ladies, much beloved by the community, but they ran it very inefficiently. Palin asked them to cut $32,000 from their $200,000 budget, and she left it up to the old ladies to decide how to do it:
“Sarah liked them, we all did, and we didn’t want to get rid of them,” said [Judy] Patrick. “We asked them to decide how to [make the cuts]. We didn’t care how they did it — one could leave, or they could work part-time. But we were portrayed as being mean, and once again it became a personal attack.”
Palin made a reasonably request — the sort of tough request a reformer has to make. But instead of cutting back their hours or working with her to find efficiencies, the three old gals decided to all quit in order to make “a political statement.” They broke out their violins and gave their sob stories to the press, and Palin looked like a heartless meanie. But she didn’t back down:
“I think everyone was in agreement that there were ways to make the museum more efficient, to spend taxpayers’ dollars wiser over there,” Sarah said to the Anchorage Daily News, noting the cost of the museum based on foot traffic was around $25 per visitor. “If you talk to someone in Wasilla about where they want their tax dollars to go, nine out of ten say, ‘Fix my road. I still don’t have water in my area. And protect our lakes with a sewer system.'”
With the old gals gone, Palin hired a new curator and a part-time employee, cut back the museums hours, created an annual community holiday celebration sponsored by the museum (to generate revenue and interest), opened new exhibits, and brought it all under budget. The new curator wrote, “[Palin] wanted the history of Wasilla preserved, but with fiscal responsibility.”
Of course, the old curator, John Cooper, couldn’t get to a microphone fast enough to holler about Sarah Palin the minute she sky-rocketed to national fame:
Cooper weighed in from Hawaii, saying he felt his support of [former mayor] Stein and his proposed expansion of the museum led to his dismissal. He packed up his family and moved out of state. “Our lives were really coming together in Wasilla, and Sarah Palin tore it apart,” Cooper said recently from his home in Hilo, Hawaii. He told a reporter in September 2008, that he was a “casualty of Sarah Palin’s rise to political prominence.”
Friends, Cooper deserved to be a political casualty. I want Sarah Palin to be president because I want the Coopers in Washington, D.C. to be slain. I want their political heads stuck on pikes and paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue to the howls of a braying peasant mob. Why do I feel such contempt for this sniveling sanctimonious taxpayer-leech? Judy Patrick explains:
Patrick said John Cooper was a good example of Sarah’s attempt to keep costs under control. “He was making $70,000 a year, and they would get something like one or two visitors a month in the winter. He wanted [to build] a big fancy museum, but we’re talking about Wasilla, Alaska, here. We wanted to turn it into a seasonal museum. She wanted to streamline government and consolidate departments. We were looking for ways to be more efficient.”
And without that intractable leech, she did make it more efficient. Palin learned quickly that you can’t waste your time trying to win over obstructionists. You cut them off. You want to know why Alaska is littered with the bodies of her political opponents? Because she cut them off in order to get the job done.
Palin is a woman of action. She doesn’t suffer fools. There was an anecdote in Sally Jenkin’s profile of Palin that seemed to capture this aspect of her personality perfectly:
A few years ago, [Chuck Heath] watched [Sarah Palin] pilot her husband Todd Palin’s commercial fishing boat in a storm. Todd was working at his oil-field job on the North Slope, and Palin and her father had been fishing on Bristol Bay. “It was the toughest work I’ve ever done, and it wasn’t only hard, it was dangerous,” Chuck says. At the end of the run, they had to get the boat on a trailer amid crashing surf. As cold, metallic-sheened waves tossed the trawler around, Chuck quailed.
“I’m not doing that,” he said.
“Get out of the way,” Palin said. “I’ll do it.”
“Get out of the way, I’ll do it.” That could be the motto of Palin’s political career.
The City of Wasilla had been talking about building an indoor sports complex for years. In a state that loves sports, the winter months are limiting. But what private company would invest money in something like that for such a remote city? No one. It was something the community would have to do themselves if they really wanted it. Palin got it on the ballot and convinced voters to temporarily increase their sales tax to pay for it. There were twists and turns to the sports complex saga, but it did get built. And the community loves it. And every year it gets closer to paying for itself.
Everything in her life is based on incremental steps. She was term-limited out of her job as mayor, and she decided to run for lieutenant governor. She lost, but came in a close second despite being outspent four to one and running against well-known state officials.
This is where her biography approaches what I consider the first of the two great tests of her character.
She caught the eye of the new governor, Frank Murkowski, and he appointed her to a plum position as the ethics chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (AOGCC). It was her first big six-figure job. Once again, the good ole boys expected her to be the Goldie Hawn character in “Protocol,” and once again, they were gravely mistaken. We all know the story of how she blew the whistle on Randy Ruedrich, the chair of the Alaska GOP and a fellow member of the AOGCC. Part of her job as the ethics chair was to verify that no wrongdoing was taking place. As one friend, David Murrow, explained:
Once a year all political appointees in Alaska are required to sign a conflict of interest statement. Part of the statement requires commissioners to report any violation by their colleagues. Sarah felt she had no choice but to tell the truth about Reudrich’s abuses, even though she would be turning in a fellow Republican. In the days following her allegations many who follow Alaska politics (myself included) thought Sarah had committed political suicide. But her courageous stand against corruption endeared her to the citizens of Alaska.
Those are the facts. She gave up the job and turned in the leader of her own party, who would later pay the largest ethics fine in the state’s history. She had seemingly committed “political suicide.” It’s dangerous to double-cross the crooks in a crooked state. Palin’s critics now laughably suggest that she quit in order to make herself look good. Yeah, that’s like saying that a firefighter ran into a burning building to rescue an infant because he knew he would get a medal! The firefighter had no idea whether or not he would survive the fire, and Sarah Palin had no idea whether or not she would survive her whistle-blowing.
Let’s look at what her actions must have cost her at the time to consider what it took to quit. She and her husband had recently built a new home. She brought home the larger salary. They were no doubt counting on that money. If she quit, there was no guarantee that she would ever work in the public sector again. In fact, it was almost certain that she wouldn’t, and she might even be black-balled in the private sector as well because Alaska is a small state, and everyone knows everyone. You cross swords with a powerful man, and you make a lot of enemies.
But she did the right thing. She passed the test.
Her gubernatorial race has been written about elsewhere, so I won’t recount it, suffice to say that she was underestimated yet again and she proved her critics wrong.
Now let’s examine the next great test of her life. It was a phone call she received from her doctor in the fall of 2007, telling her that her unborn child had Down Syndrome. She was a busy woman, the governor of her state, the mother of four. How in the world would she have time to raise a baby with Down Syndrome? No one other than herself and her doctor knew about the pregnancy. She could have quietly had an abortion, and no one would have been the wiser, and there are many people who wouldn’t think badly of her for doing so.
But Palin seems to see every human existence as part of the cosmic plan, and she couldn’t end an existence, even though she was terrified of the challenge. Her husband told her, “We shouldn’t be asking, ‘Why us?’ We should be saying, ‘Well, why not us?'”
Indeed, Palin is uniquely suited to raise a child with special needs because she has a special appreciation for the sentiment behind the words, “Blessed are the meek.”
Benet notes that Palin’s sympathies always run with the underdog, the ordinary man, the meek who are supposed to inherit the earth.
As governor, she told the graduating class of her high school alma mater:
“For those of you feeling like you’re middle of the road, lost in the crowd — that’s most of us.” Every graduate “has a specific destiny,” even the most “undistinguished student has an important role in the final cosmic calculus. Seek what it is you are created to do,” she said. “Nothing is an accident.”
A woman who believes such things was meant to raise a child like her little Trig. A crusty cynic like me was moved to tears at seeing a brief video clip from her interview with Matt Lauer. It showed Palin, obviously just home from work, holding her baby with her husband standing next to her, and both of them were beaming at that little boy as if he was the best thing in the world. The love there was so obvious it took my breathe away. Ninety percent of Down Syndrome babies are abort. Ninety percent. I imagine that the parents of those lost children can’t bear to look at the Palins. Sarah Palin re-ignited the culture wars just by showing up.
And show up she did. We learned during the campaign that one of her favorite movies is “Rudy,” and when asked her favorite part of the film, she said the very end “where he gets to run out on the field and he gets to participate and make a difference.”
That day in Dayton, they played the theme music from “Rudy,” and Sarah Palin “ran out on the field” at the end of a tangled two year campaign and got to participate and make a difference.
We should always ponder what it is that motivates our leaders to lead. What drives them? It’s a serious question that should be asked of every leader or potential leader because a leader driven by base motives is a dangerous one.
What motivates Sarah Palin? I think she revealed it in that answer about her favorite film: “to participate and make a difference” — to fulfill her part in the “final cosmic calculus.” She was called to politics, and that’s where she toils with a “servant’s heart.”
We should not be deceived by the apparent ease with which she gave her RNC speech. We all marveled at it and thought she was some kind of moose hunting wonder woman.
She’s not a super heroine. She’s disciplined. I see the old clips of her early years as a weekend sports anchor, and then I see her now, and I realize that she has worked to be as good as she is. I see her working a room and a rope line like a pro, and I think of her shyness and wonder how she overcame it.
She wasn’t afraid to give that speech at the RNC. Her confidence is astonishing, and I think it’s something she fought hard to achieve.
She seems to posses the double-edged asset and weakness of every driven person. She has extraordinary reserves of energy, but when they’re unfocused she can seem almost hyperkinetic. She wastes no time. She works late and rises early. “Todd jokes I can sleep when I die,” she says.
Her husband understands her better than anyone and is naturally very protective of her. He knows how gifted she is, and yet he must also understand her weaknesses. Her friend and aide Kris Perry also understand this. During the campaign, Newsweek noted:
Next to Todd, says one former aide who did not want to be named discussing sensitive personnel matters, Perry was the person most responsible for “creating a sense of peace around Sarah.” Despite recent media reports of a wild temper, those who know Palin say she is more prone to anxiety and frantic overdrive than tantrums. “She’s the world’s worst multitasker,” says the aide. “She’ll have a cell phone in one hand, the BlackBerry in the other while she is reading two position papers. You have to tell her prior to the debate, ‘Put that down, breathe deep.’ They [the McCain staff] are not going to know that.”
Right before the vice presidential debate, the LA Times ran a story on Palin that relied heavily on two anonymous campaigns aides from her gubernatorial race. Their comments were unwittingly amusing to me because they were familiar. They could easily have been written by anonymous Reagan aides in the 1980s.
Palin, the former aides said, had a sharply limited attention span for absorbing the facts and policy angles required for all-topics debate preparation. Staffers were rarely able to get her to sit for more than half an hour of background work at a time before her concentration waned, hindered by cellphone calls and family affairs. “We were always fighting for her attention,” said one of the aides.
“If you can sit her down, she has a talent for listening to a policy presentation that is so boring it would bring tears to your eyes,” the aide said. “Then — boom — she will nail it down to its essence.”
In her memoir of her days in the Reagan administration, “What I Saw at the Revolution,” Peggy Noonan wrote:
Those who grew impatient with [Reagan] or frustrated or resentful tried to cover it up. But sooner or later – and you really saw this in the Reagan years – what they were thinking could be seen in a sentence shot out, in a look or a shake of the head. They were thinking something like what Sergeant Warden said of the captain in From Here to Eternity: “He’d choke on his own spit if I weren’t here to clear his throat for him.” They’d say, with a certain edge, “The president isn’t a detail man” (the fool doesn’t know Antarctica’s the one on the bottom!); they’d say, “The president is a big picture man” (He wouldn’t know a fact if it ran up his nose!). You could see it in Deaver’s book, all the unexpressed hostility seeping out in those ‘The president of course has an amiable temperament, but he’s usually content to allow someone else to make the decisions’ sentences.
Even Palin’s enemies admit that she’s positively “Reaganesque” in her ability to win over voters.
And like Reagan after his primary defeat in 1976, Palin lost a race and was sent home to heal.
We shouldn’t overlook how hard her defeat must have been for her. Her critics see her as some sort of Nixonian character filled with class resentment. But that’s not true. I don’t think that’s who she is.
That sad night of November 4, 2008, I watched her closely. The look on her face was familiar, but it was weeks before I made the connection.
What did I see?
A shy girl of humble origin from the back of beyond with no obvious distinction other than courage, determination and faith.
Am I describing Sarah Palin? No, actually, I’m describing Joan of Arc. But the description fits our Joan of Arc of the Tundra quite well.
The look on her face that night reminded me of a scene in Jacques Rivette’s film “Joan the Maid.” On the final day of the Battle of Orleans, Joan removed herself to the quiet shade of a tree and poured out her pain and frustration to God. She was recovering from an arrow wound that nearly killed her earlier that day. Her face was pale, her expression weary and stoic, as she said, “I have no strength. I ache. I am sick. I don’t know what to do. Tell me what to do.”
She rested a while, and then she got her answer. Before evening fell, she rode back to the battlements, lifted her banner high, rallied her weary soldiers and told them, “When my banner touches the walls, victory shall be ours.” And before the sun set, the Maid of Orleans was victorious.
Our Alaskan Joan prays before her battles too:
I know He hears me when I just call out to Him, which I do a lot. Oh, yes, I pray. I talk to God every day. I’ve put my life, so I put my day, into God’s hands, and I just ask for guidance and wisdom and grace to get through one situation after another.
She fought valiantly and was wounded. She told Ziegler:
Throughout the entire campaign we were quite insulated and isolated from what was going on in the world of the media. We would catch snippets here and there either on the campaign bus or looking at a headline in a newspaper as we walked by and we would see some coverage that way, but we were quite isolated really from what was being said about our candidacy in the media… Once I returned from the campaign, got back home, and then realized what had been said throughout, it was very overwhelming and very disappointing.
But she is not whining about it — that would be a capital offense in her mind:
[I] try not to personalize it, or sound whiny about it or sound like I am a victim, I don’t want to participate in that.
She admits that she was naïve in thinking that her opponents would play by the Marquis of Queensbury Rules. In an interview with LaDonna Hale Curzon, Ziegler said:
The only thing I would say about [Sarah Palin] — and she acknowledges this twice in my interview — is that she’s a little bit on the naïve side… probably not so much anymore, but… I think that people are naïve either because they’re stupid, which clearly she’s not, or because they are a good person and they just can’t understand how much evil is potentially possible in others.
In this weakness she is also like Reagan, whose son described him as a guy “who always thinks the best of people”:
[He] can’t believe that anybody who’s… ever met him would ever want to do anything bad to him, would ever want to go behind his back, would ever want to stab him in the back… that’s just not within his realm of thinking. He just can’t conceive of it.
Reagan had his Nancy to watch his back. I think Palin has her Todd for that role.
And now she begins the slow process of healing and regrouping. Make no mistake, the beating she took during the campaign was wounding. She’s not as confident as she once was. You can see it in the difference between her pre-campaign interviews and her post-campaign interviews. There’s a stuttering nervousness about her now. She’s trying to get back on her game. We built her up to be wonder woman, but she’s really something much more admirable and courageous — she’s the shy girl who used discipline and determination to conquer her reticence, who set incremental goals for herself and distinguished herself in the service of her community despite being dismissed by people who thought they were her betters.
Joan of Arc used to say, “I would much rather be home sewing by the fire with my mother” than leading armies. Sarah Palin would probably rather be home reading to her kids than giving interviews.
She’s lost some of her self-assurance. She’s even cautious with the ankle-biting back benchers in Juneau now. But in time, she’ll heal — though I’m sure she was harder on herself than any of her critics were. How do I know this? Call it a hunch. She used to stand silent and unflinching as her father chewed her out over a poor performance on the track field. Imagine how she must have chewed herself out over her performance in that interview with you know who.
She told Charlie Gibson last September that she felt a huge responsibility not to “let women down” during the election. I think that, more than anything else, is what lead to the tears on election night — the fear that she had let women down. I don’t think she let anyone down. I think we let her down. Our “Mrs. Smith” was ready to go to Washington, but instead of rallying behind her, many of us watched silently as she fainted on the Senate floor, and worse yet — some of us joined the crooks and the cynics who laughed at her fallen form.
The most interesting and revelatory part of the Ziegler interview, to me, was when she said:
I’ve questioned — when I’ve taken the time to even question, because I’m busy as a governor and busy as a mom, and I don’t want to have to spend too much time trying to figure out “what the heck just happened” via the media in these last few months — but when I do take the time, I have not concluded yet in my own mind what has taken place. Has this been an exercise — again being under such a microscope and so scrutinized — was that sexism? Was that political? Was this an issue of class differences? What has it been? Obviously something big took place in the media and in many in mainstream media deciding that we’re going to seek and we’re going to destroy this candidacy of Sarah Palin because of what it is that she represents — not me personally, not the mom from Wasilla, Alaska — but what it is that she represents in a conservative movement.
You represent us, Sarah. That’s what you represent in a conservative movement. When they attacked you, it felt like they were attacking us because you’re one of us. That’s why so many of us believed in you almost instinctively.
Ziegler asked her if she would she do it again? Oh, yes, it’s her calling:
There is great need for reform… and if there is an opportunity that I could seize to help, I would do it again — just, you know, [I’ve] got to keep growing that thick skin and try not to personalize the attacks too greatly — very tough to do when the attacks come on my family though. That’s just inherent, I think, in any mom, but I’d do it again if there was opportunity to help.
And what about us, her loyal foot soldiers? What can we do in the meantime to help our Arctic Joan of the Arc?
She sent out a call to arms for us:
I wish that there was opportunity for people — especially in the Lower 48 — to look at my record and my administration’s record — what we were able to accomplish here…those things that I have done in my administration… I wish people in the Lower 48 who perhaps would be tempted to be influenced by this media saying that we’re just incompetent or ill-intended up here — I wish that they could just see our record, let it speak for itself, and perhaps believe the facts there versus being sucked into believing what it is that too many in the mainstream media would want them to believe.
C4P has your back, Governor.
And when you finally ride out from the north with your banner lifted high, we’ll rally.