Sarah Palin's response to Friday's Troopergate report—which found that she had violated Alaska's Executive Branch Ethics Law in firing Public Safety Commisioner Walter Monegan—has been a brilliant one-two punch of putting on the happy face and throwing down the gauntlet. Step one is to chirpily deny the obvious: "I’m very, very pleased to be cleared of any legal wrongdoing, any hint of any kind of unethical activity there. Very pleased to be cleared of any of that," she told reporters on Saturday. Step two is a public challenge: "If you read the report you'll see that there was nothing unlawful or unethical about replacing a cabinet member," she told reporters on the same day. "You gotta read the report."
The report is 263 pages long, and Sarah Palin neither wants nor expects anyone to read it. Unable to get the best of Alaskan investigators, she is trying to get the best of American reading habits. For all I know this might succeed. All I can say is that I ruined my weekend and took her challenge, and I did not arrive at page 263 with the impression that Palin should be pleased—much less "very, very pleased"—about the results of the report.
Sarah Palin fired her public safety commissioner in part because the commissioner refused to sack the ex-husband of Palin's sister, following a rocky and possibly violent divorce. That's the first and central finding of the report. Palin is lying outright when she claims the report found nothing "unethical." The report states very clearly and very early that she violated Alaska's Executive Branch Ethics Act, which says that a public officer's attempt to "benefit a personal or financial interest" is a violation of the public trust. The best you can say for her is that she's only spinning when she claims that the report found nothing "unlawful," since the state Constitution says that cabinet members can be fired for any reason at all—including, presumably, insufficient enthusiasm for hockey or aerial wolf hunting. (It’s not the most flattering line of the defense.)
But the McCain campaign's debate over nomenclature—unethical, illegal, and unlawful—seems like a bizarrely punctilious exercise in missing the point. Those categories will matter when the Alaska legislature decides, weeks from now, what to do with the Troopergate report. But for the next two weeks the only adjective the McCain campaign needs to worry about is "unelectable," and we can determine whether that adjective applies without worrying about whether Palin's activities were illegal, or unlawful, or illicit, or whatever. No one is claiming they qualify her for the vice presidency.
In support of its contention that Palin acted unethically, the report cites 18 separate events in which Palin, her husband Todd, or one of her employees put pressure on Public Safety Commissioner Walter Monegan to fire Trooper Michael Wooten, the ex-husband of Palin's sister. Of these my favorite is an occasion in fall of 2007 in which Wooten "was seen [by Todd Palin] dropping off one of his children at school" in his patrol car. Palin called Wooten's supervisor and complained in the hopes of getting him fired. Months later a top Palin aide saw Wooten "driving around the Good Shepherd Church early in the morning dropping off one of his kids in a marked patrol vehicle." The aide also called and complained. Both calls were made in the fervent hope that dropping children at school or church in one's work vehicle was a sackable offense. And on both occasions it was found that Trooper Wooten had obtained permission to drop off his kids.
The McCain campaign tries gamely to put the law-and-order spin on this sort of thing by noting that the Palin family was "Understandably concerned about a pattern of behavior demonstrated by someone entrusted with the responsibilities of law enforcement," and thus "reported the behavior to the appropriate authorities." Nice try. Perhaps the Palins really thought Trooper Wooten was a threat to Alaska's first family and an embarrassment to the state, but if you're afraid of someone it's probably not a great idea to hang around outside the school to understand the manner in which he drops off the offspring.
The obvious upshot of the report is that Sarah and Todd Palin wanted Wooten fired not out of fear but because of the messy divorce. This matters to me in part because she violated an ethics statute, but mostly because I don't want a vice president who is petty and vindictive.
Perhaps I'm wrong about the facts of the case. The McCain campaign's own analysis of the firing says that "Emails show a pattern of Mr. Monegan refusing to take administration direction and ignoring attempts by members of Governor Palin’s staff to reach a working consensus on budgetary issues." Maybe that's true, but Palin seems to have little interest in proving it. She did not provide a sworn statement to the Troopergate investigation, and the report makes clear that Palin's attorney general, citing executive privilege, did not hand over 209 emails related to the Monegan firing, a hold-up for which "No satisfactory reason or explanation has been given." Maybe mavericks don't need to give explanations, but I’d like to think that vice presidents do.