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July 31, 2009 10:37 pm
On the eve of last September’s meltdown in financial markets, one story was holding the US media’s attention – the meteoric ascent of Sarah Palin. Having been plucked from relative obscurity as a first-term governor of Alaska to be John McCain’s running mate on the Republican presidential ticket, the self-professed “hockey mom” had apparently transformed the race. Barack Obama looked out-celebritied. Mr McCain, who at rallies was starting to resemble a warm-up act, was 3 per cent ahead in the opinion polls.
Then it began to unravel. The economy’s sharp turn for the worse put a new gloss on the “culture war” Ms Palin had declared on Mr Obama. Thousands of blue-collar Americans still turned up to hear Ms Palin speak and chant “USA, USA”. But in a series of interviews, Ms Palin started to look dangerously ill-informed. It emerged that she had only recently acquired a passport. When asked by Katie Couric, the CBS news anchor, which newspapers she read, Ms Palin could not think of one.
Barely 10 months later, Ms Palin is out of office with her credibility in tatters. In her farewell speech as governor last Sunday, following her unexpected resignation in early July, Ms Palin singled out the media as her chief adversary. Contrasting journalists with the US troops fighting overseas, Ms Palin said: “How about in honour of the American soldier, ya quit makin’ things up?”
It was an eccentric speech that did little to explain why she was leaving 18 months early. “It is because I love Alaska this much that I feel it is my duty to avoid the unproductive, typical politics-as-usual, lame-duck session in one’s last year in office,” she said. At another point, Ms Palin suggested she was quitting because she was not a quitter: “We’re fishermen [in Alaska],” she said. “We know that only dead fish go with the flow.”
At another, Ms Palin suggested she was withdrawing to protect her family – her teenage daughter, Bristol, whose pregnancy had fuelled all sorts of vicious rumours, and even her baby son, Trig, who has Down’s Syndrome and became a talisman during the campaign of Ms Palin’s opposition to abortion.
This was in spite of Ms Palin’s constant deployment of her family on the trail. She issues regular Twitter updates on the activities of Todd, her caribou-hunting husband, whom she calls the “First Dude”, and her son, Track, who served in Iraq. “Daughter just returned from NBC basketball tour in Italy full of Coach Fred Crowell’s inspiration; may we all grasp what they learned like,” said a Palin tweet two weeks ago.
People in Alaska see Ms Palin’s decision in another light. “My guess is that she just got bored – rockets burn up on re-entry,” says Ethan Berkowitz, a former state Senate leader who is planning to run for governor next year. “She has not been engaging with the job and Alaska is far away from the limelight.”
Born in the small town of Sandpoint, Idaho, in 1964, Sarah Heath was the third of four children in a blue-collar family that shortly afterwards moved to wintry Alaska – America’s 49th state and its final frontier. From a young age, Sarah set her gaze on distant horizons. Her ascent began when she entered the competition for “Miss Wasilla”, the small-town to which they had moved (later she contested Miss Alaska).
Even then, the traits for which Ms Palin is now well-known were visible – a yen for celebrity and a restless impatience. She quit three degrees before finally majoring in journalism at the University of Idaho and taking a job in Anchorage as a TV sports presenter. From there she became mayor of Wasilla and rapidly worked her way up, through the judicious selection of mentors and their equally judicious ejection, to launch what was widely seen as a hubristic bid for the governorship in 2006. She became the youngest governor in Alaska’s history.
Known at high school as “Barracuda”, Ms Palin always went for the jugular. On her path to stardom, Ms Palin has left a trail of former friends and colleagues. “She is very thin-skinned and she is very impatient,” says a former political ally, who asked not to be named. “My guess is she decided she isn’t going to get any more juice out of Alaska.”
So what beckons? Until her resignation, most Republicans had assumed Ms Palin was preparing her own presidential run in 2012. That now looks a much steeper climb. “It is very hard to build a credible narrative after you have quit your job as governor for reasons you cannot explain,” says a former senior McCain aide. “They would rip you to shreds in the primaries.”
Nor would Ms Palin’s grassroots popularity necessarily overcome scepticism in the fiscal conservative and national security wings of the Republican party, both of which may be gravitating to Mitt Romney, the multi-millionaire former governor of Massachusetts, who is preparing a second presidential bid. “Charisma can only get you so far – you also have to show leadership,” says David Frum, a leading Republican think-tanker. “She never sticks at a job long enough to get it done.”
Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, who also ran for the nomination last year, points to an alternative route, which many believe Ms Palin is already eyeing – her own television show. Mr Huckabee, who, until Ms Palin came along, was the conservative Christian frontrunner, hosts a weekly, guitar-strumming, show on Fox News. Indeed, Ms Palin, who says she has $500,000 in legal bills resulting from a series of ethics charges against her in the past nine months, could do with the cash.
Even admirers concede she adores the limelight. “She is an absolute natural,” says Randy Scheunemann, Mr McCain’s campaign foreign policy adviser, who stood in for Joe Biden in rehearsals for the vice-presidential debate. “If you saw the energy she created at the rallies, you knew this was something that could not be coached. You either have it or you don’t.”
Ms Palin clearly has it. But without the speechwriters and the handlers, celebrity may be a better bet than elected office. In her widely lampooned farewell last Sunday, she said: “Hollywood needs to know: we eat therefore we hunt.” Perhaps Ms Palin was issuing a coded message to her future employers.
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