The Tragedy of Sarah Palin

From the moment Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech electrified the Republican convention, she was seen as an unbending, hard-charging, red-meat ideologue—to which soon was added “thin-skinned” and “vindictive.” But a look at what Palin did while in office in Alaska—the only record she has—shows a very different politician: one who worked with Democrats to tame Big Oil and solve the great problem at the heart of the state’s politics. That Sarah Palin might have set the nation on a different course. What went wrong?

What happened to Sarah Palin? How did someone who so effectively dealt with the two great issues vexing Alaska fall from grace so quickly? Anyone looking back at her record can’t help but wonder: How did a popular, reformist governor beloved by Democrats come to embody right-wing resentment?

A big part of the answer is that the qualities that brought her original successes—the relentlessness, the impulse to settle scores—weren’t nearly so admirable when deployed against less worthy foes than Murkowski and the oil companies. In Alaska, she applied those qualities to fulfilling the promises that got her elected, and in her first year was the most popular governor in the country. “It was very, very powerful stuff,” Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist for Knowles, and later for Barack Obama, told me. “She was this dowdy, but very attractive, person who drew a lot of support from progressive women. She was serious business.”

But even before she left the state, she let herself be distracted by the many grievances she harbored against a wide range of enemies. When I was in Juneau, a draft memoir by one of her former aides, Frank Bailey, was leaked to a number of political insiders, and from one of them to me. The manuscript’s memorable quality is its rendering of Palin and what it was like to work with her. Bailey was cast aside after years of loyal service and has an ax to grind. But his portrait is persuasive nonetheless, because he peppers his book with internal e-mails that he kept, from Palin and her staff.

Bailey says their “enemy number one” was a local conservative radio host to whom she would listen for hours, fuming. Ugly rumors of the sort common in politics were another fixation, as this e-mail furnished by Bailey attests:

From: Sarah

To: Scott Heyworth Cc: Todd Palin

Sent: Friday, January 06, 2006 10:19 AM

Subject: Todd’s son

Scott:

Todd just told me you had spoken with him awhile back and reported that some law enforcement friends of yours claimed some dumbass lie about Track not being Todd’s son? This really, really disgusts me and ticks me off.

I want to know right now who said it, who would ever lie about such a thing this is the type of bullshit lie about family that WILL keep me from running for Governor. I hate this kind of crap. I thought it was bad enough that my kids have been lied about recently regarding illegal activities that they had NO part in whatsoever. But a stupid claim like one of our kids isn’t fathered by Todd?

I want to know NOW what this latest b.s. is all about because I want to get to the bottom of this garbage rumor mill. People who lie like this may know me well enough to KNOW THAT I WILL ALWAYS PUT FAMILY FIRST, AND IF UGLY LIES LIKE THIS ARE BELIEVED BY ANYONE AND ADVERSELY AFFECT MY HUSBAND AND KIDS I WILL PULL OUT OF THE RACE BECAUSE IT’S NOT WORTH IT—AT ALL—TO LET MY FAMILY BE VICTIMS OF DARK, UGLY POLITICS LIKE THIS.

Sarah

Palin obsessed over her image, even more than most politicians. According to Bailey, she orchestrated a campaign to inundate newspapers with phony letters praising her. This evidently became a favored tactic. Bailey even includes a letter he says she wrote under another name accusing an opponent, John Binkley, of copying her Web-site design. (Excerpt: “This may not seem like such a big deal, but not having an original idea and taking credit for someone else’s work gives us a clue of how Johne [sic] works.”) In the idiom of the Web, Palin was a troll.

Much of this was harmless (if also pointless) and would not have undermined her political career. Politicians from Nixon to Clinton have been similarly consumed and still flourished. But Palin also committed more-serious ethical breaches. The most notorious of these involved her attempts to get her former brother-in-law, a state trooper, fired, and included Palin’s removal of the trooper’s boss when he didn’t comply with her wish. An investigation by the legislature found that, in some of her actions, she had abused her powers.

Palin seems to have been driven by a will to advance herself and by a virulent animus against anyone who tried to impede her. But this didn’t prevent her from being an uncommonly effective governor, while she lasted. On the big issues, at least, she chose her enemies well, and left the state in better shape than most people, herself included, seem to realize or want to credit her for. It’s odd that someone so preoccupied with her image hasn’t gotten this across better. And it raises the question of what she could have achieved.

“The thing that strikes me again and again is that she was so single-minded when she got here,” Gregg Erickson, a former senior state economist and co-founder of the Alaska Budget Report, an influential political newsletter, told me. “The problem with amateurs in politics is that they often lack that focus. She had it. She was terrible at running a staff, and given that, it’s amazing she was successful. But on the issues she made the focus of her administration—the oil tax and the gas line—she had good staff, listened to them, and backed them up. She was a transformative governor, no question. If it hadn’t been for her stunning ability to confuse personal interests and her role as governor, she could have gone on to be tremendously successful.”

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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