Sarah Palin is not so much a political institution in America as a spectator sport. Ever since she burst, or crashed, on to the national scene as John McCain’s presidential running mate three years ago, she has been the irresistible car wreck the country cannot help but ogle — the polarising, gaffe-prone, attention-seeking gift that just keeps on giving.
Back then, she riveted us with her suddenly pregnant teenage daughter and her knowledge of foreign policy apparently based on being able to see Russia from an island off her home state of Alaska.
What she has given us since is one gloriously flawed but compelling persona after another: Sarah the half-term governor, too busy selling books and raking in speaker fees to serve her full four years; Sarah the revolutionary leader, inspiring the growth of a modern-day Tea Party to push back against “that hope-y, change-y thing” promised by President Obama; Sarah the reality TV star, huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ with her large family for the cameras; and, most recently, Sarah the will-she-or-won’t-she possible presidential candidate for 2012.
Palin is one of those people who cannot help putting herself front and centre, even when she doesn’t want to. Which explains, perhaps, why a clutch of news organisations, including this one, have spent the weekend sifting through 24 199 pages of emails generated during 21 months of her governorship of Alaska, starting about a month into the job, in January 2007, and stretching until after her nomination as the number two on the Republican presidential ticket in the summer of 2008.
The emails were released on Friday in response to a series of open records requests first made at the time of her rise to international prominence. The thinking back then was they could illuminate her candidacy in the 2008 presidential race. Because of bureaucratic delays, protests from Palin herself while she was still in office, lawyers, the redacting of some emails and the suppression of others, that opportunity came and went.
Public records requests are supposed to be satisfied in a matter of days, but in this case the production of the material dragged on for close to three years. The emails have become, instead, a test of other things entirely: her potential in next year’s presidential race, certainly, but also her continuing marketability as grist for the political mill — whether she runs for the Oval Office or simply carries on being Sarah for Sarah’s sake.
Media organisations from the Guardian to the Washington Post, MSNBC and the non-profit investigative journalism outfit ProPublica sent reporters to Juneau, the Alaskan capital, to take possession of paper copies of the emails with one overarching question in mind: would something buried in the six boxes of material be sensational enough to torpedo her credibility once and for all?
The hope was that the documents could at least compete with the many eye-popping stories that have surfaced about Palin already: the political scandal in which she was accused of wanting her former brother-in-law fired as a state trooper and then dismissed the director of the state department of public safety when he would not carry out her wishes; the $150 000 worth of business suits she allegedly walked off with at the end of the presidential campaign, with the Republican National Committee footing the bill; her incoherent meanderings when speaking off the cuff in response to reporters’ questions; or the surreal moment last November when she “pardoned” a Thanksgiving turkey live on television, oblivious to the birds being slaughtered on camera behind her as she talked about the value of freedom.
Testing the waters
It was, of course, a lot to compete with. Just in the past two weeks, as Palin has toured the country in her “One Nation” bus to test the presidential waters (or, as she has insisted, to take her family on an innocent little vacation), she has angered a group of motorbike enthusiasts in Washington who resented her crashing their party and speaking despite their express instructions not to; committed the worst faux pas anyone can conceive of within the New York city limits by eating her sliced pizza with a knife and fork (New Yorkers are strictly hands only); and delivered an impromptu speech in Boston about one of the most famous episodes in American revolutionary history, the midnight ride of Paul Revere, in which she mangled every detail and somehow construed that the struggle to overthrow the British was about gun ownership rights.
Like any other research materials, the emails provide depth and detail more than they make truly shocking revelations — although the extent of Palin’s efforts to build ties with BP are among several aspects of her governorship which merit further scrutiny. Still, some of them are vintage Sarah, full of “unflippinbelievable”s and “holy flippin A”s. They also provide plentiful raw meat for the voracious media machine that has been feasting on them.
We see her ambition: already in January 2008, she was trying to work out a way to meet the two Republican party frontrunners for president, McCain and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (“Is it possible to get hooked up— with someone from the McCain campaign?” she asks). A few weeks later, she is discussing how she wants to play hard to get with her endorsement of McCain in an effort to extract some Alaska-friendly policy positions from him.
We see what some of her detractors would describe as her God complex, manifested in a letter she wrote to friends and family about the birth of her Down’s syndrome baby, Trig, which she signs from “Trig’s Creator, Your Heavenly Father”. (“Every child is created special,” she writes, in God’s name. “Trig is no different, except he has one extra chromosome.”)
We see her indignant when investigators in the “Troopergate” case involving her ex-brother-in-law demand to see documents, emails, phone logs and other evidence, all at the time she is being tapped as McCain’s number two. (“Geez, this is crazy,” she fumes when presented with a deadline of one week to hand the materials over.) We see, over and over, how she bristles at criticism in the media, especially the Alaskan media, even when the criticism seems politically marginal — up to and including a draft letter she wrote responding to criticism in the Anchorage Daily News that she had not attended, of all things, the 2008 Miss Alaska Pageant.
We see how she earned her reputation for furious defence of her interests, even in the face of facts. When the media first starts reporting that her teenage daughter, Bristol, is pregnant (all too true), she and her staff discuss how to squash the “rumours”. Palin opines: “I’m callin [sic] them on the flippin [sic] carpet!”
In many ways we see her erratic and sometimes contradictory political position-taking. At one point, she says she does not want to be a crusader for social conservative causes like abortion (even though she is personally against it) or gay marriage (ditto) — a caution she has since thrown to the winds. At another, she expresses interest in rearranging her schedule so she can meet Pastor John Hagee, a hugely controversial evangelical Christian leader with whom McCain was forced to cut public ties after it emerged he had described the Holocaust as “God’s will”.
The emails show she was once concerned about climate change and wanted the McCain campaign to take the issue more seriously. And they show she enjoyed a speech of candidate Barack Obama’s about energy (regretting only that he was the “wrong candidate” to have made it). Anyone who knows Palin’s track record as governor before the Republican nomination will know this is in line with her thinking at the time — in those days, she was known principally as a maverick willing to stand up to the oil companies and force them to pay state taxes in line with their drilling revenues. Still, in the context of the 2012 race for the Republican presidential nomination, these titbits will not go unnoticed by her would-be competitors for the mantle of truest-blue conservative on the ticket.
If there is a whiff of genuine controversy, it probably lies more in the emails that have been redacted or withheld. What was Palin’s answer to the special investigator appointed to look into Troopergate after he proposed an informal get-to-know-you meeting, and why is it deemed too sensitive for public eyes? What was it that Palin wanted to discuss with the office of Dick Cheney, then vice-president, about a gas pipeline and the Endangered Species Act? What did Palin write in response to a complaint that she didn’t understand the science of polar bears and had been wrong to say publicly that the bears were not endangered?
Even more fundamentally, why did Palin resort heavily to a private Yahoo! email account to conduct much of her state business? Was she deliberately seeking to circumvent Alaska’s open records laws, as her critics have alleged? The latest email drop does not answer that question. Emails from her Yahoo! account that went to government officials at their work email addresses are included in the batch, but emails from her private account to other private accounts are not.
The email controversy, like so much in Palin’s heavily examined life, is not exactly new. If anything, this latest twist in her tale has been upstaged by an entirely different email dump that has been leaking into the public domain for months and culminated in the publication of a memoir by a former Palin aide in May. The book, Blind Allegiance to Sarah Palin, chronicles the disillusionment of once-close confidant Frank Bailey who did not find her conservative enough as governor (a common complaint among state Republicans at the time) and was then bowled over by what he saw as her lack of personal scruples and boundless appetite for petty revenge.
Bailey’s political grievances are not nearly as interesting, however, as the 60 000 emails he scrupulously kept during his time in her employment — including many of the undisclosed emails from Palin’s Yahoo! account — and used as the basis of his book. He quotes lavishly to argue for her God complex and her boundless appetite for payback (“two eyes for an eye”, as Bailey characterises her philosophy), and reveals what he says is a campaign-financing scandal concerning her allegedly improper use of support from the Republican Governors Association when she was running for Alaska’s highest office in 2006.
Does any of this matter? Will these latest leaks affect Palin’s presidential chances either way? The question may be moot, since her presidential poll numbers have been consistently low and sank even further in a CBS News survey last week in which Republican voters opined, by a 20-point margin, that she should not run. Even Tea Party supporters, her bedrock constituency, think she should stay out of the race for the White House.
If the email leaks do anything, they are likely to act as a reinforcement to the widespread perception, even among her supporters, that there is something unseemly and excessively visible about her public persona. Joshua Green, who wrote a long and fascinating profile of her for the June issue of the Atlantic magazine, likened her reputation in Alaska these days to that of an ex-spouse from a stormy marriage. “She’s a distant bad memory,” he wrote, “and questions about her seem vaguely unwelcome.” It may be that the rest of the country — other than the media, who can’t wait for her next stumble — is tiring of her also.
The email dump has been many things: an irresistible window into the inner world of a prominent politician, an exercise in public voyeurism and something of an experiment in digital-age journalism. Could this also be the moment, though, when the great Sarah Palin beanfeast hits saturation point?
On Troopergate and the ethics investigations against her
“I do applogize if I sound frustrated w this one. I guess I am. Its killing me to realise how misinformed leggies [legislators], reporters and others are on this issue. The accusations and false assumptions are mind boggling.
“He’s still a trooper, and he still carries a gun , and he still tells anyone who will listen that he will ‘never work for that b*itch’ (me) because he has such anger and distain towards family. So consistency is needed here. No one’s above the law. If the law needs to be changed to not allow access to guns for people threatening to kill someone, it must apply to everyone.” — referring to her former brother-in-law, Mike Wooten, who was in a messy divorce with her sister
On God’s guidance
“I have been praying for wisdom on this … God will have to show me what to do on the people’s budget because I don’t yet know the right path … He will show me though.”
On her battles with Alaskan lawmakers over the budget
“I’m back here in DC speaking with Cheney [the vice-president] (sat with him the entire State dinner last night), will try to speak w/Bush [the then president] today … speaking with national reporters and all these governors all about AK’s [Alaska] proof that we can provide sound oversight of resource development, and here while I’m away I find out the legislature may undermine those efforts? It’s unacceptable if the nation is to believe we’re capable of responsible, ethical ramped up development that’s need in our state, for our nation.
“I think that’s the most stupid comment I’ve heard all year … his statement says it all re: his beliefs: ‘What the hell can we do …?’ Nice talk Mr Speaker, Reflects well on your commitment to ethical leadership” — referring to speaker of the Alaskan house, John Harris
On her possible selection to be vice-presidential candidate
“The Pres [George Bush] and I spoke about military. He also spoke about (and we joked about) VP buzz.”
On Barack Obama
“… a guy named Barack Obama.” — email from February 2007
“He gave a great speech this morn in Michigan – mentioned Alaska. Stole ou[r] Energy Rebate $1 000 check idea, stole our TC-Alaska gasline talking points, etc. So … we need to take advantage of this a[nd] write a statement saying he’s right on.”
On false rumour that Trig, Palin’s fifth child, was in fact born by her daughter Bristol
“Hate to pick this one up again, but have heard three different times today the rumor again the Bristol is pregnant or had this baby. Even at Trig’s doc appt this morning his doc said that’s out there (hopefully NOT in their medical community-world, but it’s out there). Bristol called again this afternoon asking if there’s anything we can do to stop this as she receive two girlfriend-type calls today asking if it were true.”
On bear hunting
“I am a hunter. I grew up hunting – some of my best memories growing up are of hunting with my dad to help feel our freezer… I want Alaskans to have access to wildlife… BUT – he’s asking if I support hunting the bears in the sanctuary? No, I don’t… I don’t know any Alaskans who do support hunting the McNeil bears that frequent the viewing area.”
“Keep hunting, keep being a true Alaskan… keep calling it as you see it – we love the mobster in ya.” — to her chief of staff, Michael Nizich
“Tibs [chief of staff Michael Tibbles] is going to be p#*(ed.”
“Holy flipping A.”
On the pressures for her family
“Guys, I may be pretty wimpy about this family stuff, but I feel like I’m at the breaking point with the hurtful gossip — I hate this part of the job and many days I feel like it’s not worth it.” – guardian.co.uk