When I traveled to Alaska last summer to meet an obscure Republican governor named Sarah Palin, I never would have thought that a year later her face would be staring at me as I traipsed through the Anchorage airport yet again, from every tabloid and magazine cover in the country. What I could imagine was that Sarah Palin was exactly the kind of Republican, were she not sequestered in Alaska, who had the potential to breathe new energy into her party. I had chosen Palin during my yearly talent hunt for promising female politicians to feature in our annual women’s leadership issue. Working from a list of female governors---my sample size was all of nine---Palin immediately leapt out: her approval ratings were 90 percent and she was a Republican picking a fight with Big Oil in Alaska. The FBI corruption probe into Alaska's senior leadership---including the once-venerable U.S. Senator Ted Stevens (now under indictment for filing false financial disclosures) was just heating up. Palin seemed to have no qualms about throwing her fellow Republicans under the dogsled. Plus she was only 43 at the time, and the leadership of her own party seemed to hate her. Sounded like a story to me. It's been fascinating over the past 11 days to watch the whole country having the same reaction I did a year ago. "It's 'American Idol' meets 'Northern Exposure'," says University of Alaska historian Stephen Haycox, who, like all Alaska experts, found himself in high demand last week.
Americans have had nearly two years now to grow familiar with the improbable biography of the son of a Kenyan father and a Kansas mother who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia. Now, we are trying to digest the story of a caribou-slaying, Red State mom of five. We can't get enough. Who is she? What does she believe? What does she know? And the ultimate question: in an emergency, how would she do as president of the United States? I have no idea. Flying home from Anchorage last week, the guy in the seat next to me saw that I was carrying a slim new biography of Palin and asked if he could look at it. Soon, I noticed, the woman in the seat behind him was leaning forward for a peak. I've gotten e-mails from friends in Israel and England, from my own mother and her friends, from others I haven't heard from in years; from teachers at my children's school: What's she like?
She's street-smart, she's funny, she's very comfortable in her own skin, she did not strike me as a religious zealot (in hours of conversation, she never invoked God or called anything "blessed," which I cannot say for most of the Democrats I've interviewed), she's authentic, she's hip---in an Alaska sort of way. And she's stylish---unusual for politicians of any party, gender or place of origin (exception: Obama, Barack). I was baffled how Palin so cheerfully managed the work-family balance thing (though I was slightly relieved when her multitasking filter failed, when we pulled into her driveway to pick up some of her brood to go to the Alaska State Fair and she locked us out of her state car, while talking on the phone, yelling for her kids, and changing her shoes). I guess the reason she didn't swear or toss her phone, as I might have, was that she had only to call one of her troopers, who promised to come unlock the car and bring it to her next location.
Until her blockbuster at the Republican National Convention last week, I had no idea she was such a talented big-stage speaker. If anything, her speaking style struck me as young, and a bit girly, though not without its own appeal. In her inaugural address, she promised to "unambiguously, steadfastly and doggedly guard the interests of this great state as a mother naturally guards her own, like a Nanook [Inuit for polar bear] defending her cub."
I confess that at the time I had not fully researched her statements on creationism. (She says she favors teaching creationism alongside evolution, as theories, though she has no legislative record on this of any kind.) Her advocacy of drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) and even her skepticism about the human influence on climate change are not terribly extreme for many Alaska politicians. (This is a state whose delegates wore helmets labeled "DRILL NOW" on the floor of the Republican convention. Eighty-five percent of Alaska's revenues come from oil and gas.) "Troopergate" had not yet happened---I met her sister Molly, but had no idea she was involved in a nasty divorce with a state trooper whom the Palins wanted fired. People tend not to chat about this sort of thing with visiting reporters, especially when we were locked out of the car and late for the fair.
And yes, I was totally taken with the moose-hunting, snow-mobiling, hockey-mom, pit-bull-in-lipstick thing. Much like Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger, Palin has a knack for weaving novel biographical details into an irresistible creation myth. Americans would not be interested in a Sarah Palin from Ohio, even if she had five kids named Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and Trig and a hunky, part-Alaska Native husband. Our response to Palin is not only to the fact that she trampolined like a female Forrest Gump in designer eyewear into the final weeks of an already mind-bending presidential campaign---though that surely is enough to unhinge a lot of jaws. Our response to Palin is also a reaction to the place she comes from: mysterious, mythical---and largely unknown.
Because Palin was not vetted in the traditional sense, the scene last week in Alaska's airports and car-rental counters as McCain staffers, Democratic oppo artists and reporters practically clobbered each other in a scramble to see who could get info on the governor first was more like the Klondike gold rush than a presidential campaign. Forget about Hillary's YouTube campaign song contest, melting snowmen posing debate questions and Obama's point-and-click money machine. The ultimate Internet campaign moment of 2008 is the vetting of Sarah Palin: open-sourced and bottom-up, and happening in real time. McCain and Palin are on history's ultimate blind date---and the rest of us are strapped in the back seat, wondering how it's all going to turn out.
Like her state, Palin is the perfect scrim for all of our fevered projections. Alaska's otherness is extreme. Canada is to the south; California lies to the east. It takes less time to get to Seoul or Tokyo than to New York. Anyone born before 1959 knew Alaska before statehood. Instead of paying taxes, the 670,000 inhabitants of Alaska are used to collecting an annual check just for waking up every morning. This year, the payout from Alaska's Permanent Fund---an annual oil dividend---together with a one-time, $1,200 energy rebate, came to $3,269 per man woman and child. For a family of seven, like the Palins, that means $22,883. "Everyone has to justify being here," says historian Haycox. "Alaskans have to say, 'We're a different breed. We love freedom more'." Ironically, the myth of the rugged, hyperindividualistic culture is contradicted by a few inconvenient facts. Alaska still has a colonial economy, says Haycox, narrowly dependent on oil and other extraction industries, without the population to support manufacturing, or the climate to allow agriculture. There is no reason to think the state will get off the federal dole anytime soon. While "Uncle Ted" Stevens is now ridiculed as the Senate's most profligate pork-slinger, to many rural Alaskans, he is the man who brought health care, electricity, telephone lines, roads---and air links to their impoverished communities.
Though Alaska is geographically its own subcontinent, politically and socially it is the world's largest small town. At last count, Alaska had 670,000 or so residents---including about 100,000 natives who live in rural and polar villages. It has an electorate of 390,000, fewer people than the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Most interesting, more than half of Alaska's voters---52 percent---describe themselves as independents. They are the people who elected Sarah Palin, and whose approval has kept her ratings in the stratosphere. (According to her pollster, Dave Dittman, only 25 percent of Alaska voters are Republican and another 16 percent are Democrats.) Palin won the 2006 governor's race with 110,000 votes. She won her mayoral race in Wasilla with 616 votes, less than it can take to be student-council president elsewhere. The state capitol, Juneau, population approximately 30,000, on the southeastern coast, isn't connected by road to the rest of the state. Lawmakers have to fly in and out, and Palin worries, like any working parent, about being stranded by bad weather or flight delays. She held her inauguration in Fairbanks, where this week her son's Army unit will be deployed to Iraq, so that more citizens could reach the ceremony.
There is always the sense in Alaska that someone is watching. Last summer, when Palin arrived late for an appearance at the Alaska State Fair, an attendant recognized her through the cracked windshield of her son's Toyota Camry and waved her to a special parking spot on the grass: "I feel so guilty," Palin said---and it seemed genuine. "If my parents saw this, they wouldn't be happy. I've been coming here all my life."
During several days of reporting, I kept returning to the same neighborhood to interview sources. The picturesque Bootlegger's Cove neighborhood of Anchorage, where sprawling homes overlook the Knik arm of Cook Inlet is a microcosm of Alaska's peculiar social network. On one corner, in a house the neighbors complain looks like an offshore-drilling platform, lives Bill Allen, the lead defendant in a federal corruption scandal that rattled the state's ruling elite, making Palin's election as governor possible. (Allen pleaded guilty last year to charges of extortion and bribery in a case involving payoffs to state lawmakers who did favors for his oil-services company---and blew the whistle on Sen. Ted Stevens and other leading Republicans.) Allen's neighbor across the street is the federal judge who presided over his corruption trial, and who will sentence him in a few months. Former governor Tony Knowles, a Democrat, lives down the block, an Obama sign planted in his front yard. Ted Stevens's brother in law lives around the corner. "The number of people who handle power and money in Alaska is very small," says Haycox, who happens to live on the same block. These days, they all have plenty to say.