McCain’s Mrs. Right

Sarah Palin posed for a photo spread in Vogue, but that's about as far as the glamour goes. She piles her hair up in a librarian's bun and wears what she calls "schoolmarm" glasses (one blogger compared her to "Tina Fey's sexier sister"). She was at one time a beauty queen, Miss Wasilla 1984, in her hometown, population: 7,000 or so. "We were really surprised when she wanted to do it," her father, Chuck, told the Vogue reporter. "That wasn't her thing." Basketball and hunting were more like it. Palin regretted the whole beauty pageant experience. "They made us line up in bathing suits and turn our backs so the male judges could look at our butts. I couldn't believe it!" she told Vogue.

She tried being a sportscaster for a while, but ended up as a politician, or rather an anti-politician. She seemed to love to take on the good ole boys, to get in the face of the state's Republican political establishment and Big Oil, the two dominant forces in Alaska, at least until Palin came along. She smiles a lot and has a thick skin, laughing off reporters who write about her black go-go boots or leering bloggers, like the Washington, D.C.-based Wonkette, which dubbed her "the hottest governor in all 50 states." She is fearless and natural, and it's no wonder she charmed a fierce contrarian like John McCain. "He saw a lot of himself in her," says campaign manager Rick Davis. Whether she can help or hurt his candidacy is another question. She is not just the first Republican woman to run for vice president. She is about as far from conventional notions of a safe, reassuring No. 2 type as can be imagined.

Palin is an American original. She calls herself a "hockey mom" and manages to juggle the lives of her five children (the last, born with Down syndrome, is less than 5 months old) while running the state of Alaska and routinely antagonizing the powers that be. Last fall a NEWSWEEK reporter visited her office in Anchorage. The governor's office overlooks the sparkling Cook Inlet, ringed by mountains, except right smack in the view is a skyscraper adorned with the name CONOCO PHILLIPS in giant letters, a reminder of the prominence of Big Oil in the state capital. The throw rug on her couch is the skin of a grizzly bear shot by her father, a retired teacher turned "nuisance-control specialist" (varmint hunter for hire) whose pickup truck bears the sticker VEGETARIAN—OLD INDIAN WORD FOR "BAD HUNTER." (Palin herself is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association; for years, she or her husband caught all the fish or shot all the meat that her family eats.) As she spoke to the reporter, she juggled two BlackBerrys and a cell phone, with one always buzzing. She seemed unfazed, indeed to be having fun. As strands of hair fell from her librarian's bun she deftly executed an intricate "don't drop the BlackBerry while fixing the bobby pin" maneuver, several times.

One of Palin's first acts as governor was to sell the governor's jet on eBay. She thought it was wasteful and, besides, couldn't even land on many of the state's short, gravel airstrips. ("It was for out-of-state trips," she said, disapprovingly.) She keeps a float plane, along with some snowmobiles, in her backyard in Wasilla. At the governor's mansion in Juneau, she got rid of the chef. The NEWSWEEK reporter asked her what working mother in her right mind would dismiss someone whose sole job was to cook for her family. She replied, "I don't want them thinking when I'm done being governor that it's normal to have a chef. It's OK for them to have macaroni and cheese."

She also trimmed down her state-trooper detail, which is why, when the NEWSWEEK reporter and the governor drove in a large SUV from her Anchorage office to her lakeside home, she was at the wheel—still talking and tapping on a BlackBerry , while seamlessly discussing the Alaska oil and gas culture; the FBI investigation into same; her views on stem-cell research (anti), abortion (anti) and gay marriage (anti, though she did say she'd uphold the law on gay-partnership rights). At some point she arranged a playdate for one of her daughters, Piper, age 6. Recognizing her, construction workers waved as she drove by. Clutching her cell phone, she cheerfully waved back.

Arriving home, she ran into the house, kicking off her shoes, grabbing her red sandals and yelling for her children. The reporter had to break it to her that she had just locked them out of the state car, and that the reporter's notebook and tape recorder were still inside. She called a state trooper from her cell phone to come unlock the car, but since she was running late (a not uncommon occurrence), they would have to borrow her son's car to head back to the next stop, the Alaska State Fair. She asked her son Track (a high-school hockey player then, now an Army private headed for Iraq) for his keys. Like any normal teenager, he dangled the keys over his head, just out of reach, and extorted a promise of a full gas tank when she returned. She took it all good-naturedly and was soon barreling off to the fair in her son's jalopy (a Toyota Camry with a cracked windshield), electronic gadgets buzzing in her pockets, still spouting her conservative theories on social policy to the reporter.

As a high-school basketball player, she was nicknamed "Sarah Barracuda." (The name makes her wince now, and she halfheartedly insisted it wasn't true.) She was an aggressive—some would say rough—point guard who never, ever, gave up until her team won the state championship. She became a kind of local goddess by the time she was 18, named "Miss Congeniality" at the same time she won the Wasilla Beauty contest (the off-putting bathing-suit competition didn't occur until she ran, unsuccessfully, to become Miss Alaska). She eloped with her high-school sweetheart to spare their families the cost of a wedding. Her husband, Todd, who is part native Alaskan, is a part-time commercial fisherman (a brutal undertaking in some Alaska weather) and has been a production manager in the North Slope oilfields. Palin has won the Iron Dog snowmobile race from Wasilla to Nome to Fairbanks—the world's longest—four times. The press now refers to him as "First Dude."

After a fitful career as a sportscaster (she imagined ESPN, but didn't want to leave Alaska), she was elected mayor of Wasilla, where her basketball-champion-beauty-pageant glow lived on, at the age of 32. "It was a sleepy town, run by good old boys. I ran as the anti-incumbent," she recalled to NEWSWEEK. Her daughter Piper was born while she was mayor. "She was born on Monday, and I went back to work on Tuesday," she said. It didn't take her long to run for lieutenant governor (she ran a respectable second in 2002) and garner a good job from the then Gov. Frank Murkowski, who made her head of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

It was in this job that Palin had her true political awakening. She says she was shocked by the corruption she saw. She left after less than a year, but not before she had blown the whistle on another commissioner, Randy Ruedrich, for doing party business on state time. Ruedrich, who also happened to be the Republican state chairman, agreed to pay a $12,000 fine for breaking state ethics laws (he's still in the job). She and others then lodged an ethics complaint against state Attorney General Gregg Ranks, who had been an adviser to Murkowski. Murkowski reprimanded Ranks, and Ranks resigned. Then she turned on Murkowski, who was running for re-election as governor, and beat him by almost 2-1 in 2006. To be sure, she was not always able to juggle family and political obligations successfully along the way. She missed so many scheduled campaign events in the governor's race that reporters began calling her "No Show Sarah." (Palin said during her run that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in schools. She was baptized in an Assembly of God church, a Pentecostal denomination that believes God created the world at every step. Maria Comella, a spokeswoman for the McCain-Palin campaign, said Palin attends different churches and does not consider herself Pentecostal.)

"Being a mom of four [now five] is an unorthodox training ground, but a great training ground," Palin told NEWSWEEK in 2007. "You have to be judge and jury in conflicts. You have to figure out a budget and how to prioritize. To be a mom you have to have more time management than any other CEO." Palin stays up late packing lunches; she gets up every day at 4:30 a.m. "Todd jokes I can sleep when I die," she says. She seems to enjoy that role of strung-out supermom, sustained by wisecracking ("What's the difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom?" she asks. " It's lipstick").

By 2007 Palin was a hero to many in the state, the scourge of the Republican establishment. "Political analysts in Alaska refer to the 'body count' of Palin's rivals," wrote Fred Barnes in The Weekly Standard, the conservative magazine that identified Palin as "the GOP's newest star." A pollster, Dave Dittman, told Barnes, "The landscape is littered with the bodies of those who crossed Sarah." The FBI was doing its part at the same time, investigating ties between the oil companies and various lawmakers who were allegedly bribed to cut taxes for the oil companies. So far, three state legislators have gone to jail, and earlier this year the Feds indicted Sen. Ted Stevens. "Uncle Ted," the great Republican patriarch, had been bringing home the bacon for years to Alaska as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. (Stevens has pleaded not guilty to charges that he failed to report $250,000 in home renovations and gifts from an oil-services company.) Though Palin speaks respectfully of Senator Stevens, she has gone to war on pork-barrel projects, vetoing about 15 percent of the state's capital budget set aside for the pet projects of legislators. Her attack on pork helped endear her to McCain, who has been the leading foe of "earmarking" in the federal budget. Both McCain and Palin were vocal critics of the Bridge to Nowhere (she expressed initial support), a $223 million project in a remote Alaskan community, sponsored by Stevens and Congressman Don Young.

Palin says she is embarrassed by Alaska's national reputation as a corrupt backwater. She believes that the only way Alaska can get off the federal teat and break the domination of the big oil companies is for the state to take control of its vast natural resources, most of which are now controlled by the federal government or leased to Big Oil. She is all for drilling for oil and gas, but she wants more competition from smaller companies. Her critics have lately taken to comparing her to Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan strongman known for seizing oil companies.

She likes to get her way. "I got that Miss Congeniality out of my system back then," she told NEWSWEEK of her beauty pageant days. Inevitably, she has made some enemies. She is currently under investigation by the state legislature in a tawdry little scandal involving alleged domestic abuse. Palin's younger sister, Molly, had been married to a state trooper named Mike Wooten. In 2005, Palin charged that Wooten had mistreated her sister and her family, including using a Taser stun gun on his 10-year-old stepson, according to state documents reported in The Wall Street Journal. Palin told state investigators that she overheard Trooper Wooten threatening her sister, "I'm gonna f–––ing shoot your dad. He's gonna get a lead bullet." An internal police investigation found that Wooten had used the stun gun on the boy (at the boy's request, according to Wooten) but threw out other charges. Wooten was suspended for five days—but not fired.

In mid-July of this year, Palin fired the Alaska Department of Public Safety commissioner, Walt Monegan. Questioned by reporters, Monegan claimed that he had been fired because he had withstood pressure from Palin and her husband to fire Trooper Wooten. "Outrageous," said Palin. But on Aug. 13, a tape recording emerged showing that a top aide to Palin, Frank Bailey, had invoked the governor's name in talking to a state police lieutenant about Monegan's failure to fire Wooten. "Todd and Sarah are scratching their heads, 'Why on earth hasn't this, why is this guy [Monegan] still representing the department? She [Palin] doesn't know why there is absolutely no action for a year on this issue." The state legislature launched an investigation into Palin for abusing the power of her office. "This is a serious investigation," says Beth Kerttula, the Alaska House Democratic leader. "It's not a witch hunt."

The investigation is scheduled to release its findings on Oct. 31—the Friday before the Tuesday presidential election. But Palin brushes off the seriousness of the investigation. "She conceded that she had an aide who went off the reservation and made a phone call that was inappropriate," said the governor's spokesman, Bill McAllister, at a press conference last Friday. But, he went on, "she is saying she never intended or thought she placed any pressure on Walt Monegan." Palin's approval ratings among Alaskans, once as high as 90 percent, have dropped to a still robust 76 percent in a recent poll.

The McCain campaign did not appear too concerned that the investigation would turn into a nasty October surprise. Asked about Palin's troubles back home, a senior McCain adviser, who declined to be named discussing private strategy, said the campaign had looked very closely at the allegations involving Palin's ex-brother-in-law and was "comfortable" that there are no shoes to drop that could complicate the campaign. The adviser declined to say if McCain had asked Palin about it directly.

Palin was a dark horse in the veepstakes, and made a late run. One of McCain's closest advisers, Sen. Lindsay Graham, had been partial to Sen. Joe Lieberman, McCain's close friend and fellow maverick in the Senate. But as a nominal Democrat who is also pro-choice, Lieberman was too unpopular with the GOP's powerful right flank. McCain had scorned Mitt Romney as a possible running mate, regarding him as too slick and opportunistic. But McCain does not like to be seen as a grudge-bearer, and he understood the former businessman Romney could bolster his own somewhat weak economic bona fides. In the end, says a McCain adviser who did not want to be quoted discussing the selection process, McCain and his aides feared that all those videos of McCain and Romney sniping at each other in the debates would be endlessly replayed by the Democrats. Still touchy about his failure to recollect how many houses he and his wife owned, McCain knew that Romney owned at least four.

McCain barely knew Palin. He had briefly met her last winter, when he spoke before the National Governors' Association conference in Washington. But he liked what he learned about her from others, especially her willingness to take on her own party, as McCain himself often does. He liked her when they spoke by phone on the night of Sunday, Aug. 24, and by Wednesday night she was secretly winging down to Arizona. The face-to-face with McCain and his wife, Cindy, on Thursday went well; McCain made the offer.

Then it came time to fake out the press and build suspense—to take the cameras away from Barack Obama almost as soon as he finished his speech Thursday night. While cable TV played a breathless guessing game, Palin was sneaked into Middletown, Ohio, where she spent the night in an $89 room in the Manchester Inn. "Very unposh," says Nicolle Wallace, a McCain communications adviser who flew in secretly to meet the nominee. The Palin clan arrived from Alaska on a private jet, along with several McCain staffers, and checked in under the name the "Uptons." "A family reunion," an advance staffer explained to the hotel clerk.

The choice of Palin was a shocker to some conservative pundits, like Charles Krauthammer, who had hoped that McCain would play it safe and choose an unremarkable but solid running mate like Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota. The choice of Palin is historic, but it undercuts McCain's attack on Obama as a greenhorn lacking in experience, especially abroad. Palin is going to have to essentially take a crash course in foreign affairs before the Oct. 2 vice presidential debate against Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Her best hope may be that Biden says something condescending or goofy—actually, a possibility, given his past history. (At one Washington think tank, staffers were joking that Palin's best strategy in the debate would be to cede all her time to Biden.)

Still, McCain allies were spinning as madly and creatively as they could. "If she can stand up to Ted Stevens, she can stand up to the Russians," says Graham. "She's the commander of the Alaska National Guard. What the hell has Biden commanded?" The Obama campaign came out sneering: "Today, John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency," said spokesman Bill Burton. But later, Obama told reporters, "She seems like a compelling person, with a terrific personal story." He seemed to dismiss his own spokesman's "hair trigger" comments. Obama may have just been playing the good cop. Or maybe he was just telling the truth.

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