Sarah Palin: An Apostle of Alaska

John McCain was not her dream pick. Only a year ago, when the Republican primaries were just beginning, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin told NEWSWEEK that she wasn't enthusiastic about anyone in the GOP field. McCain was languishing at 7 percent in the polls. Mike Huckabee was reduced to playing his electric bass to get attention. Palin, driving with a NEWSWEEK reporter along the highway from Anchorage to Wasilla, said she could understand why the country was enthralled by the race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. "When you talk about the Republican Party needing appealing candidates, darn right they do!" she said. "The Democrats, whether you like them or not … there is some dynamic there, and it's something that the Republicans I think have lacked for some time."

Palin had a lot on her mind in summer, with the kids out of school and a state to run, and didn't think she'd have time to focus on the race for a while. "I'm not overly excited yet," she said. "I will probably do what every American does and that's really get plugged in, tuned in to what's going on, when the field is set and that means there will be someone who stands out."

When the GOP held its Alaska caucus on Feb. 5, Palin didn't bother to endorse a candidate, despite personal appeals from Huckabee and Mitt Romney, her fellow social conservatives. She had never met or spoken to John McCain. But she indignantly dismissed his opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as the politically correct—yet wrong—position of "Eastern politicians." Palin finally got the chance to meet McCain at a gathering of Republican governors in Washington, D.C., in mid-February. Weeks later, even after the other Republican contenders had dropped out of the race, Palin still had not endorsed McCain. Preparing to go onstage March 3 in Los Angeles, at NEWSWEEK's Women's Leadership Forum, Palin was eager to quiz another governor, Janet Napolitano of Arizona, on her impressions of her state's senior senator. Palin said she still had "a lot of questions" to get answered about her party's presumptive nominee before she could back him.

Palin presumably got any lingering questions answered during her secret meeting with McCain at his Sedona ranch, the day he offered her the job as running mate. And McCain, in turn, got at least some of his questions answered, too. He learned days or weeks earlier that Palin's 17-year old daughter was five months pregnant, and that the governor's husband was arrested when he was 22 for drunken driving.

In the wake of her nomination, so many dirt-diggers were clamoring to get into the city hall of Wasilla, Palin's hometown, that the mayor, Dianne Keller, started a number system for out-of-towners to take turns. She also decreed that long-distance calls would not be returned (understandable, given that reporters from Japan, the BBC and Al-Jazeera were on her doorstep). "We are a small city with a small staff, and our residents and business community expect us to fill their needs as well as the needs of the media," said Keller. The media's need for details about Palin, no matter how small, mirrors a national hunger to know more about the 44-year-old governor who has improbably shaken up an already tumultuous race for the White House. The country was introduced to her and her family over the Labor Day weekend and through the Republican National Convention. Now, however, it's time to take the relationship to the next level, and figure out not only who she is but what she's done and what she believes. Palin's personal story taps one of the great American myths—the hardy woman of the frontier, God-fearing and determined to succeed against the odds. Her story could be a Capra film, or a chick flick. But as with most political biographies (or Hollywood films), the rougher edges have been burnished. To her critics, she's also shallow, opportunistic and even corrupt herself.

Palin is not regarded as an introspective or intellectual type—not the sort who likes to mull the deepest nuances of every issue. In that sense, she's the anti-Obama. While Barack Obama of Hawaii, Indonesia, Hawaii, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Cambridge, Mass., Chicago and now Washington has been on a well-chronicled lifelong search for his identity, Sarah Heath Palin seems just fine being a woman of Wasilla. Alaskans regard themselves as a breed apart—more rugged, self-reliant and free than other Americans. Palin shares that sense of exceptionalism. But the myth is contradicted by some inconvenient facts. Only 1 percent of the state's land is in private hands, and the economy is dependent on oil and other natural resources controlled by the federal government or Big Oil. As a result, nearly 50 years after statehood, Alaska remains deeply dependent on the federal government for support. Social ills are rampant. The state's levels of drug abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence and child abuse are above average or among the highest in the country.

To the extent Palin has a governing philosophy, it was shaped by her political mentor, former governor Wally Hickel. The 89-year-old Hickel is a member of the Alaska Independence Party, which espouses, among other things, greater autonomy or even separation from the United States. (Husband Todd Palin is not a member of the party now, but he was registered as an AIP voter at different periods of his life totaling seven years. Sarah has never been a member but attended a party conference in her hometown of Wasilla.) Hickel advocates an "economy of the commons," which would place the state's vast energy and mineral wealth in the hands of the state government and its citizens. In that vein, Palin this year ordered a one-time $1,200 energy refund distributed to each Alaska resident. (The revenues came from recalculating the tax on oil producers.)

Alaska's young governor is as riven with contradictions and complexities as the state itself. A devoted mother, Palin is now running for national office, exposing her young family to the warping effects of international scrutiny. A reformer, she faces allegations of exerting improper influence in city and state government. A self-styled regular Red State gal, she is relentlessly driven, a politician of epic ambition who is running against a Washington establishment that, if elected, she will inevitably join, and even rule over.

Her sense of personal mission may be rooted in her religious upbringing. She was raised in a tradition that tended to emphasize an intimate connection with God, through the Holy Spirit—a tradition that puts the believer at the center of the spiritual drama, in direct communion with the Lord. Formed in such a milieu, it is not surprising that someone like Palin would have a heightened sense of self, and of the possibilities of self, for she was taught from her earliest days that she could be directly moved by God. Friends say the Ten Commandments imbued her with a strong sense of right and wrong. Even now, when she talks about complex political matters, she sometimes speaks in religious terms. To a church gathering, she described a $30 billion natural-gas pipeline project, backed by state tax money, as "God's will." Similarly, she urged her audience to pray that the war in Iraq was "a task that is from God … That's what we have to make sure that we're praying for—that there is a plan and that that plan is God's plan."

Palin was raised a devout Christian, attending an Assembly of God church from the age of 4 until she was 38, and baptized in the cold waters of Alaska's Little Beaver Lake when she was 12. (She now attends different churches, one in Wasilla and one in Juneau.) As a child, she went to services on Sundays and Bible class on Wednesdays. She participated in after-school religious groups, and sang in the church choir. Her entry in the Wasilla High School yearbook of her senior year included one quote: "He is the Light and in the Light there is Life."

The Assemblies of God puts great importance in the believer's receiving the Holy Spirit. The faithful sometimes show this by the "gift of tongues"—the babble of holy but unintelligible language that emerges when a believer is said to be caught up in the spirit of God. The practice wasn't encouraged in Palin's church when she was young, says her childhood pastor, Paul Riley, who is now retired. He preferred to preach that the Holy Spirit could move believers in other ways, and that tongues, while true, could be a showy "one-time experience." Palin didn't speak in tongues, Riley told NEWSWEEK, "but I do recall her being a gifted leader and a gifted speaker."

Michelle Overstreet, who played basketball with the sharp-elbowed "Sarah Barracuda" at Wasilla High School, says she was "just your regular church girl." All the team members were churchgoers, and they'd pray for five minutes before taking to the court. "It doesn't mean that we didn't go to parties or rock concerts," says Overstreet, "but we were really aware and engaged when it came to the religious community." Palin admits to smoking marijuana years ago (when it was legal in Alaska). She and Todd were high-school sweethearts. They eloped in 1988, and their first baby was born eight months later.

Her father, Chuck Heath, is a retired schoolteacher who took his four children ice-camping when they were young. Today he travels to different schools as a volunteer, teaching "Alaskana"—skills, Palin told NEWSWEEK in August last year, that include "hunting, fishing, avalanche survival, fending off bear attacks and taxidermy." Heath expected his children—three daughters and a son—to be crack shots and expert fishermen. Palin's mother, Sally Heath, was a school secretary. The front yard of the parents' house outside Wasilla is piled high with racks and pelts; walls of the family home are adorned with stuffed moose, antelope and bear heads. When Sarah and Todd were first married, they shot, butchered and cured their own meat. She doesn't have much time to cook now; that's usually Todd's job, though the kids complain about his elk stew.

The family was not political, or well connected. Palin told NEWSWEEK that she had no idea how her parents or siblings voted. "I never even really got a gist of their political affiliations or their leanings at all," she said. "There was never any kind of partisan talk." But Palin had an interest in politics, and first registered as a Republican in 1982.

She won her first election as Wasilla mayor with 616 votes, getting help and financial support from conservative groups. Some of her positions are clear: she's pro-life, opposing abortion in all cases except when the mother's life is in danger. She opposes same-sex marriage and favors teaching creationism alongside evolution in schools. But she hasn't pushed for legislative changes in any of those areas. Her reputation is built largely on standing up to corruption. But she's also regarded by political opponents as vindictive and petty. She's been known to mix personal interests in her own political life, leading to charges of hypocrisy.

Her toughness—or, to her critics, ruthlessness—was apparent from the start. Almost as soon as she won election as mayor of Wasilla, she started firing senior city officials, including the top librarian (who was soon rehired), the museum director and the police chief. (The officials served at the pleasure of the mayor, so she was within her rights to let them go.) There were newspaper stories at the time about whether Palin thought she could work with people who had supported her political opponents and who disagreed with her on issues. She vowed to change the law and bar political activity by local government workers, and imposed a gag order to keep city personnel from talking to the press. According to one local report, Palin floated the possibility of taking some books deemed to be offensive off the library shelves. The Frontiersman newspaper quoted Palin saying "many issues were discussed" with the librarian, "both rhetorical and realistic in nature"—suggesting the censorship issue was not serious. It quickly disappeared from public discussion.

The issue likely to get the most press in the coming months is "Troopergate." This concerns Palin's former brother-in-law, Mike Wooten, and her alleged attempts to get him kicked off the state police force. Critics say she abused her power. Defenders say she was trying to protect her family against someone who posed a danger. The story is perhaps emblematic of how in Alaska, a state populated by fewer than 700,000 people, the personal can become political, and relationships are the common currency of public policy. Like many family feuds, it begins in happier times.

Palin didn't always regard Wooten as a bad guy. NEWSWEEK has obtained a reference letter she wrote for Wooten in January 2000. She described his good works as a volunteer in local police and youth auxiliary programs, including a stint as a football coach for 7- to 9-year-olds: "I have witnessed Mike's gift of calm and kindness toward many young kids here in Wasilla. I have never seen him raise his voice, nor lose patience, nor become aggitated [sic] in the presence of any child." She called him a "fine role model."

With Palin's reference and other recommendations, Wooten got a job as a state trooper. The following year, he married Palin's sister Molly. But the couple broke up in April 2005 and fought a bitter custody battle. Governor Palin, her husband, Todd, and close aides are now embroiled in what has become a public controversy: they're the subject of an official investigation, ordered by the Alaska State Legislature, into allegations that they may have made improper or possibly illegal efforts to get Wooten disciplined, and even fired. (Palin says she is innocent of any wrongdoing.)

Palin herself, before she was governor, sent an e-mail to the uniformed head of the Alaska state police complaining about Wooten's behavior. The message included many allegations: that Wooten drank alcohol excessively, drove drunk, beat his wife, Tasered his 10-year-old stepson, threatened to kill Palin's father and illegally shot a moose. She concluded that the troopers had a "loose cannon on their hands." An internal-affairs investigation found some of the allegations to be true—including that Wooten had Tasered his stepson (at the boy's request, Wooten said, and in "a training capacity" that wasn't a full charge). But other lurid allegations, including wife beating, were dismissed. Wooten was penalized with 10 days of unpaid leave, later reduced to five. (In an interview last week with CNN, Wooten said he "made mistakes" and was "punished appropriately." "I'm trying to move on and be the best dad I can to my children," he said, adding that McCain's choice of Palin was "absolutely wonderful for the state of Alaska.")

But the acrimonious custody squabbles continued. Then two things happened: Palin was elected governor, and the police union opened negotiations with the new administration lobbying for more funding. The Wooten controversy resurfaced in Palin's first security briefing, when the head of the governor's bodyguard unit asked if she and Todd were aware of any threats. They mentioned Wooten. Later, Palin and her husband allegedly contacted Public Safety director and state police supervisor Walter Monegan. According to Monegan's account, as told to The Washington Post, Todd Palin met with him in January 2007. Todd asked Monegan to re-examine the Wooten affair, and Monegan said the matter was closed. Then Sarah herself called Monegan on his cell phone; according to his account, he repeated what he had told Todd: no deal.

In a telephone conversation on Feb. 29 of this year, recorded by state police, one of the governor's top aides raised the Wooten issue yet again. Frank Bailey noted to a senior police official that there had been tensions between the union and the Palin campaign. "I know we're not supposed to hold grudges and I don't think the governor does, but those around her certainly remember," Bailey said. He then denounced Wooten, and complained that the governor and her husband had heard nothing on that case except "stay away, there's nothing we can do … And that's very frustrating because, you know … this guy is the ultimate poor recruiting model."

The issue became a serious public controversy only in July, when Palin fired Monegan. She maintains that the firing was due to policy differences and says that she never pressured him regarding Wooten; he has claimed otherwise. Palin subsequently released the tape of Bailey's conversation, which she says she did not instigate. Unanimously, a bipartisan panel of legislators voted to hire a former prosecutor to investigate whether Palin used her power inappropriately to settle a private score.

The investigation was due to wrap up a few days before the presidential election. But after Palin was nominated, Democratic legislator Hollis French—who supervises the investigation—moved the deadline to Oct. 10. Then a McCain ally last week sought to derail the probe altogether, saying French had "politicized" it by suggesting it could amount to an "October surprise." A McCain campaign spokesman endorsed the move: "An investigation that was supposed to be nonpartisan has become a political circus and has gotten out of control," said Taylor Griffin.

From early in her career, Palin got ahead by working the system as well if not better than others. She hired a Washington lobbyist and won $27 million in earmarks for tiny Wasilla. Then she worked to get big federal money for the state. Though she now says she stood up to those who wanted to build the $223 million "Bridge to Nowhere" (which actually involved two bridges), she was once a strong supporter. Responding to a questionnaire in 2006, Palin said she wanted the projects done "sooner rather than later … while our congressional delegation is in a strong position to assist." At the time, another prominent politician had called people living in the area of one of the proposed projects "valley trash." That gave Palin an opening. Campaigning in the area, she used some of her trademark humor to make her pitch: "OK, you've got valley trash standing here in the middle of nowhere," she declared to residents of Ketchikan. "I think we're going to make a good team as we progress [with] that bridge."

As Alaskan corruption scandals grew, and the Bridge to Nowhere became synonymous with out-of-control federal spending, Palin switched positions. In an astonishing pivot, she began using the rhetoric of the projects' opponents. Now she talks as if she always opposed the funding. She used one of her stock lines in her nomination acceptance speech: "I told the Congress, 'Thanks but no thanks' for that Bridge to Nowhere."

In Juneau, Palin has given jobs to friends and appointed lobbyists to oversee industries they used to represent. There's nothing illegal about it—that's business as usual in politics. But part of Palin's appeal is that she markets herself as a reformer who fights against cronyism, when in fact her record shows her to be, in many ways, a typical politician who rewards her friends and punishes her enemies.

She appointed Cora Crome as her fisheries-policy adviser—a very powerful post in a state where fishing is a major industry. Crome formerly worked for the United Fishermen of Alaska, an industry lobbying group, and was married to a commercial fisherman who made more than $600,000 in 2006. (They are divorced; a McCain aide, who didn't want to be identified discussing personal matters, says the divorce occurred before she joined the Palin administration.) In a brief conversation, Crome said she was in a meeting and didn't have time to comment; the McCain campaign declined to comment.

Other friends and allies have gotten good jobs. Palin appointed close friend and political fund-raiser Deborah Richter as director of the Permanent Fund Dividend Division—the state agency that hands out yearly oil-dividend checks to Alaskans. As her attorney general, Palin chose Talis Colberg, a friend who specializes in insurance law. Some legal experts warned that Palin would do better to select someone with more experience in the oil and gas field—a big part of the Alaska attorney general's caseload—but "she chose someone she trusted," says Dave Dittman, her pollster.

As a governor, Palin wasn't focused on the issues of the wider world. Her first trip ever out of North America was to the desert of Kuwait. It was the summer of 2007, and the Alaskan governor was visiting the Alaska Army National Guard's Third Battalion, 297th Infantry. In blast-furnace heat of 127 degrees, Palin gamely met with soldiers and participated in target practice with an M4 machine gun. It was like taking a daylong steam bath, she told reporters on a conference call, particularly for Alaskans "used to zero degrees or 10 and 20 below zero." The insurgency next door in Iraq still raged, and politicians in Washington were wrangling over what to do. But Palin had no opinion. "I'm not here to judge the idea of withdrawing, or the timeline," she said. "I'm not going to judge even the surge. I'm here to find out what Alaskans need of me as their governor."

That was as it should have been. A governor of a state of 670,000 people probably should not be making pronouncements about a complicated war 6,000 miles away. Instead, Palin was listening to her constituents, and trying to determine how best to help them. One matter that came up was the hunting season. Soldiers, many of whom hunted to feed their families, were concerned that they were missing their opportunity, and wondered if she could help. Shortly after her return to Alaska, Governor Palin announced new measures. "While I can't grant our troops the chance to hunt in [restricted] areas … I do want to recognize them and help them hunt this late fall or winter when they get home."

That all-politics-is-local approach has made Palin the most popular governor in the country for the nearly two years she's been in the job. (Her support has dropped in recent months, but still stands at an enviable 76 percent.) She took the qualities she had as the mayor of the small town of Wasilla and applied them to state politics. Those attributes include a focus on ordinary people and a willingness to stand up to political fat cats and incumbents (unless she happens to be the incumbent). She doesn't put on airs, or pretend she knows more than she does. She seems authentic, and gives many voters a sense that she's one of them. "Palin grew up embracing the Alaskan ideal," says historian Stephen Haycox. "Self-reliance, individualism, outdoorsmanship and conservative economic and social values."

She has shown that she can keep a secret, even from her loyal inner circle. Close aides had no idea she was pregnant earlier this year, and Palin didn't announce her pregnancy until she was nearly seven months along. Even then, she never commented on why she kept it confidential. Some close to Palin speculate that she chose not to reveal the pregnancy until the last moment because she was wary of being seen as vulnerable or delicate during her second legislative season.

The story of the birth is either heroic or irresponsible, depending on your views. Palin was in Dallas, about to give a speech to an oil and gas convention, when she noticed that her amniotic fluid was leaking. She gave a 30-minute speech, much of it improvised, then headed for the airport with her husband. (She hates official entourages, finding them wasteful, and didn't have anyone else with her.) With the approval of her doctor in Alaska, the couple flew eight hours to Anchorage, then drove 45 minutes to a regional hospital in Wasilla. She gave birth to Trig, a baby with Down syndrome, nearly eight hours later. "I am not a glutton for pain and punishment … After four kids I knew what labor felt like, and I wasn't in labor [when she boarded the plane]," she later explained.

Palin has developed a thick skin about the scrutiny surrounding her parenting. While running for governor in 2006, she told NEWSWEEK LAST year, "They'd say, 'How in the world are you going to be governor when you have four kids?' and I said, 'How in the world did any other governor do it with four kids … or six kids or however many kids they had?' " Palin relies on her large, extended family for child care. Todd works a one-week-on, one-week-off schedule on the North Slope. When he is home, he manages the household. When he's away, the governor's parents and sisters help out. In Juneau, where Palin brings her kids for the three-month legislative session, she walks out of her office to pick up 7-year-old Piper at the schoolbus stop. Aides have grown accustomed to playdates in the governor's office suite or the nearby mansion.

Bringing family into the office suits Palin's populist style. She's no-nonsense, and doesn't twitch in the face of adversity. When she took over the governor's mansion, she quickly got rid of the perks. She put the governor's airplane up for sale on eBay, and when it didn't sell there, she unloaded it to a wealthy Alaskan for $2.1 million. She also released the cook. Those gestures won wide support—reinforcing the idea that she was bringing change to the ole boys' network in Juneau—and have helped keep her popularity ratings high.

Little of her experience will help Palin with the questions she's sure to face in the days and weeks to come. The media (and presumably voters) will aim to find out what Palin believes, what her expertise is and whether she's really prepared to be next in line for the most powerful job on the planet. At last week's Republican convention, the former sportscaster proved she can deliver a terrific speech (written by Matthew Scully, who wrote some of George W. Bush's more memorable lines). But journalists are clamoring for a chance to question her directly. She'll need to have cogent views on Iraq, to know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites (which McCain himself has occasionally confused) and the distinctions between Hizbullah and Al Qaeda. She'll be asked about Iran's nuclear program and China's growing power, about the national debt, the subprime mortgage crisis, America's trade imbalance and the value of the dollar against foreign currencies.

Palin started intense tutorials last week in a suite of the Hilton Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. Stephen Biegun, a longtime foreign-policy hand who last worked on George W. Bush's National Security Council, ran what one participant called a "boot camp on McCain world." Biegun and others briefed her on international issues. McCain's top domestic-policy adviser, economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, led other sessions. Before Holtz-Eakin even got started, Palin let him know that she likes to get her study points on large index cards. "What we have to do is take all our accumulated policy and John McCain's entire Senate history and get her comfortable with the campaign," Holtz-Eakin told NEWSWEEK.

Others involved in the process say Palin has a long way to go, and they are watching closely to make sure she doesn't get overwhelmed. Over the weekend before the convention, campaign aides made the uncomfortable decision to urge her to go public with her unmarried 17-year-old daughter's pregnancy in order to rebut salacious Internet rumors that the teen was actually the mother of Palin's own newborn child. An aide, speaking anonymously because the matter is sensitive, says that Palin and her husband grew angry about the allegations. "Do I have to show them my stretch marks?" she asked one campaign official. In the midst of the drama, Palin had little time to interact with her family because she was shuffling from one briefing or prep session to another. (In St. Louis, a campaign aide took Todd shopping at a Saks Fifth Avenue, where he bought a new suit to wear to the convention.) At one point McCain, himself tied up in campaign duties, asked an adviser, "Can you make sure she's OK?"

Despite the worries, she struck many campaign officials as more calm and cerebral than expected. She was quick to ask questions, and to "engage in a back and forth" with briefers. One aide describes her as "quick on her feet"—like "a lawyer who didn't go to law school." (As an undergrad, she bounced among five different colleges in Hawaii, Alaska and Idaho, and eventually got a degree in journalism from the University of Idaho.) She's particularly knowledgeable about energy issues. The campaign will try to make that look like foreign-policy expertise. Holtz-Eakin expects the hardest tutorials to be on health care. ("Anybody whose eyes don't glaze over when it comes to health policy has got a serious disorder," he joked.) More broadly, briefers have assembled a book of every speech McCain gave during the campaign as an introduction to "McCain world."

In the battle with Obama and Joe Biden, the McCain campaign will emphasize Palin's executive responsibilities, her judgment, her instincts, her reformist credentials and her fighting spirit. Aides might encourage her to take the lead on energy issues, emphasizing one policy area she's very familiar with. They'll also play up her small-town roots, trying to draw comparisons to Harry Truman. Palin herself made two references to Truman in her nomination speech. "Long ago, a young former haberdasher from Missouri followed an unlikely path to the vice presidency," she said. Then she quoted the writer Westbrook Pegler: "We grow good people in our small towns with honesty, sincerity and dignity." The analogy is strained. Truman served for 10 years in Congress before becoming vice president. But Palin does have similar spunk, and she does come from a small town. For better or worse, she'd bring those small-town values to Washington.