The Magazine

Out of Alaska

Sarah Palin on why she resigned and what it means for her future.

Jul 20, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 41 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Unable or unwilling to grasp her true accomplishments and character, the media shoehorned Palin into a ready-made caricature of the know-nothing Christian PTA mom who enters politics because of "those damned lib'ruls." The reality is far different. Palin is a savvy and charismatic politician whose career has been filled with courageous stands against entrenched authority. Ideological or partisan attachments do not concern her. She has her flaws--who doesn't?--but they should be measured against her strengths. Instead the media ignored the positives and colluded with Palin's adversaries to reduce her to a cartoon.

The attacks did not stop when McCain and Palin lost the election. To the contrary: They shifted location and emphasis. Palin returned to a changed Alaska. Her first year in office had been remarkably successful because she governed with an ad hoc legislative coalition of Democrats and antiestablishment Republicans. That coalition broke down the moment Palin became a force in national politics and the most famous woman (probably the most famous person) in the Republican party. The Democrats in the legislature defected en masse. Compounding the problem: Because she had unseated it, the GOP establishment never liked Palin and wanted her to go away.

Suddenly "people were confronted with policy differences with the governor," Alaska state senator and Palin ally Gene Therriault told me. "The call went out from the national Democratic party to take her down. Some of the Democrats who worked with her previously took their marching orders." Gridlock ensued. Bipartisan comity was no more.

Anybody who had the opportunity to score political points against Palin took a shot. The Alaska judicial council, a body that recommends jurists to the governor, forced the pro-life Palin to appoint a pro-choice judge to the state supreme court. The legislature rejected Palin's choice for state attorney general. The governor and the legislature fought protracted battles over the replacement for Democratic state senator Kim Elton (appointed to the Obama administration) and stimulus money from the federal government. Civility with the legislature became untenable. John Coale, the Washington, D.C.-based Democratic lawyer who set up Palin's political action committee and legal defense fund, told me, "Something had to change."

The problem wasn't so much Palin as it was Alaska. She had become too big for her home state. Bizarrely, her celebrity did not expand her political capital but erased it. The knives were out, and you could hear the sound of still more sharpening in the distance.

The moment warranted a bold move. John Bitney, a former Palin aide who has known the governor since they were in junior high, told me that in times like these Palin seeks spiritual and familial counsel. "Sarah Palin on a personal level is driven by spiritual guidance that has taken her to where she is today," he wrote in an email exchange last week.

Bitney, whom Palin let go over personal differences in 2007, is worth quoting at length. "While she has learned to accept that guidance--she often alludes to it in her statements--she probably can't explain it fully," Bitney wrote. "And I am assuming that guidance is now apparently telling her it's time to heal herself, her family, and get grounded for whatever the future holds. I can tell you that I have learned to respect her guidance (wherever it comes from), for it has given her strength and direction to some unparalleled political heights."

Alaska ties down Palin in multiple ways. The state's distance from the rest of America makes it difficult to travel to major cities (or small caucus and primary states) in the continental United States without a hefty time commitment and scheduling effort. So far this year, every time Palin traveled outside Alaska, her enemies inside the state pilloried her for neglecting her job. This is a standard that applied neither to George W. Bush, who traveled the country campaigning for president while he was still Texas governor, nor to Barack Obama, who spent two of his four years as a U.S. senator from Illinois running for president. Palin chafes at this inconsistency and still isn't used to the idea that a different standard applies to her.

Then there are the ethics complaints. Practically everything Palin has done since returning home has been politicized by her enemies and, in some cases, criminalized. The moment she knew there would be trouble, Palin said, was when she returned to the governor's office in Juneau after the November election. The gaggle of reporters assembled there asked her a few questions about the campaign. Palin answered them. Almost immediately, an ethics charge was filed against her for conducting political business from her state office. "That was part of the Democratic plan to grind her up," state senator Therriault said. "Use the ethics law as a blunt instrument to club the administration."

In her July 3 speech, Palin mentioned 15 ethics complaints leveled against her. The Anchorage Daily News counts 18. The Wall Street Journal reports that Palin's office has been inundated with 150 FOIA requests for information regarding her schedule and contacts. Her staff is spending its time as unwilling participants in a giant fishing expedition. "They knew how to file these," Palin said. "They knew what category to file them under. We got the fake people, we got the people filing online."

The charges are frivolous. Some are just silly. One complaint said Palin violated the law by mentioning her vice presidential candidacy on her state website. Another said that her wearing a T-shirt with the insignia of Todd Palin's sponsor in the Iron Dog snow-machine race constituted a conflict of interest. "It's a cold, outdoor event," Palin said. "I've been wearing Arctic Cat gear for many years. I wear a Carhartt coat and commercial fishing bibs, too." Yet another complaint was filed under the name of a character from a British soap opera. One suspected it was only a matter of time before someone complained on behalf of the turkey who was decapitated in the background as Palin gave a television interview last Thanksgiving.

The state personnel board has dismissed the complaints, one after the other. According to the governor, however, when all is said and done--when one factors in all the wasted time and resources--the cost to Alaska amounts to some $2 million. "Why would I continue to put Alaskans through that?" Palin said. Furthermore, because state ethics law requires the accused to pay for her own defense, the Palins' personal legal bills add up to around $500,000. The Palins aren't poor, but they aren't rich, either. Paying off the debt will take some effort. If Palin remained in office until the end of her term, the bills would just grow.

Some of the charges were so silly that Palin wanted to pay the fines and move on. "I got to the point where I said, 'May I just plead guilty?' " she told me. But pleading guilty would have been political suicide. Palin's opponents in the legislature would have moved to impeach her on the flimsiest of pretexts. She had to fight it out, whether or not it was costing her money and peace of mind. "In politics you're either eating well or sleeping well," Palin said. "I want to be able to sleep well."

The accusations affected Palin emotionally. A rare and necessary talent for a great politician is the capacity to ignore or laugh off the critics' most vicious assaults. FDR had it. So did Reagan. When Palin spoke at the 2008 Republican convention, it seemed as though she had it, too. Her commanding performance gave the impression that the previous week's falsehoods, exaggerations, myths, insults, and smears did not matter to her. Not one bit.

This doesn't seem to be the case anymore, however. Over time, the attacks on Palin--on her character, intellect, appearance, femininity, and family--clearly got to her. One associate told me that, after the election, Palin made a habit of listening to talk radio, attempting to track what pundits were saying about her. Her Momma Grizzly instincts came out whenever her sons and daughters were mentioned. In January, she gave a rare interview to the libertarian documentary filmmaker John Ziegler on media bias. She could hardly give a speech in which she did not mention elite condescension and her ill-treatment at the hands of Katie Couric and leftwing bloggers. Her public performances became personal testimonials to the damage the media can inflict on a person's reputation and career. Palin was right, of course. But these were arguments for polemicists to make, not statesmen.

Palin thought she could respond to every attack. But no one can respond to every attack. Nor should they. Hatred and slander aimed at the people who disagree with you is a lamentable yet unremarkable fact of American politics. The vitriol is the heap of dirty laundry in the corner of a room that everybody pretends to ignore. A politician just has to live with the smell.

Palin is not a normal politician, however. For one thing, she is a newcomer to the national arena. The bulk of her career has been at the local and state level, where the stakes and the tempers are low compared with the rock 'em, sock 'em dramas that play out inside the Beltway and on the cable channels and blogs. "Everyone else in '08 had been in the game for decades," John Coale said. "They all had been there. This was somebody playing for the first time." For Palin, the hostility directed at her was novel and shocking. Because she prides herself on her unconventionality, and because she knows how to win a political knife-fight, she decided to fight back.

The turning point came in June. On June 3, Palin introduced the conservative radio talk-show host Michael Reagan at a dinner in Anchorage. In her introduction, Palin clumsily paraphrased from articles by Newt Gingrich and author Craig Shirley. Palin attributed the statements to Gingrich and Shirley, but she was a little sloppy in doing so. Predictably, a leftwing blogger soon took to the Huffington Post--a virtual coffee klatch for Palin-haters--claiming that the governor was guilty of plagiarism.

The charge did not go unanswered. Palin's lawyer issued a statement saying that the blogger's accusation was ridiculous, which it was, especially considering that both the current president and vice president are known to have lifted passages from other politicians in the past without any attribution whatsoever. Both Gingrich and Shirley said no plagiarism had occurred. The round went to Palin.

Next, on June 8, the late-night comedian David Letterman made a partisan, crude, and unfunny joke involving baseball star Alex Rodriguez and Palin's underage daughter Willow. The former had "knocked up" the latter, Letterman said, on the Palins' recent trip to New York City. (In his monologue, Letterman also said Palin had a "slutty flight-attendant look.") Palin didn't watch the show, but the next day a reporter asked for her reaction. When the reporter read the joke to her, Palin was taken aback. She called it disgusting. What happened next shocked her even more. "The reaction to my candid and heartfelt response blew me away," Palin said. "I all of a sudden became the bad guy. Who says I don't have the right to give a candid and heartfelt response? The reaction to it really opened my eyes: This is ridiculous. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't."

Palin demanded that Letterman apologize. She defended her position on the airwaves. Less than a week later, Letterman said the nasty crack actually had been directed at Palin's 18-year-old daughter Bristol, as though that made it any less tasteless. Then Letterman admitted he'd been wrong to make the joke in the first place. Palin had won again.

In late June, an Alaska Democratic blogger pasted the face of a pro-Palin radio talk-show host on the body of Palin's son Trig. The governor's camp released a withering statement, saying, "The mere idea of someone doctoring the photo of a special needs baby is appalling. To learn that two Alaskans did it is absolutely sickening. .  .  . Babies and children are off limits." The blogger backtracked. She said she only had intended to ridicule the talk show host, like that made any difference. "What if I hadn't responded?" Palin said. "Well, then, the criticism would be, can't you stand up for the special needs community?" The constant bickering and shifting standards rankled her. "Well, enough is enough," she said. "I would like the opportunity to speak up and speak out."

Palin's new combativeness is pronounced. When she announced her resignation, the Internet rumor mill went into high gear. Lefty bloggers could not countenance the idea that the woman to whom they devote such enmity might actually be resigning for her stated reasons alone. There must be some other story, they wrote, some other snowshoe waiting to drop. The CNN anchor Rick Sanchez speculated on air that Palin might be pregnant. The Alaska blogger Shannyn Moore wrote on the Huffington Post that Palin resigned because she was "under federal investigation" for self-dealing in the construction of a recreation center in Wasilla. Other liberal bloggers parroted Moore's baseless accusations. Palin's team wasted no time in issuing a statement from the governor's lawyer that shot down Moore's blog. "We will be exploring legal options this week to address such defamation," the lawyer wrote. The FBI also came out and said Palin was not the subject of an investigation. Another malicious story batted down.

Palin had made a clear decision to defend her family's honor. "The toll on her family from all the events over the past three years has been extraordinary," John Bitney wrote in his email to me. "She had a baby, Bristol had a baby, Track was sent overseas, and no doubt Piper and Willow have all the day-to-day issues that come from young women growing up." The parade of outrages against her and her children didn't help.

Yet a politician's job is to serve her constituents, not bicker with comedians. Palin has been caught in a bind. Her global celebrity has been in tension with her duties to Alaska. Had she remained in office, the tension would have become more pronounced. Meanwhile, the agenda on which she defeated Frank Murkowski has been enacted into law. One more year in office would mean additional legal bills and constant juggling between the demands of family, work, and fame. The job had become demanding and unpleasant.

So Palin let go.

Palin has begun ramping up her criticism of President Obama. "Somebody's got to start asking President Obama questions" about how he plans to pay for his agenda, Palin said. In her July 3 speech, she blasted "debt-ridden stimulus dollars," said that "today's Big Government spending" is "immoral and doesn't even make economic sense," and called the national debt "obscene." In an interview last week with Time magazine, she called cap-and-trade "cap-and-tax," and said the policy would "drive the cost of consumer goods and cost of energy so extremely high that our nation is going to start exporting even more jobs to China." I asked Palin about President Obama's response to the democratic upheaval in Iran. "Maybe they're tougher behind closed doors," she said. She noted that there were plenty of things "the most powerful man in the world" could do to help bring down Ahmadinejad, including a new round of international sanctions. She went after Obama's rhetoric. "It's not 'meddling' in another country's business when you understand that what happens over there affects us over here," she said. "I wish Obama was tougher in that area."

Speculation about Sarah Palin's presidential ambitions is premature. She herself probably does not know her next move. There is a strong chance that the unpredictable Palin may decide against running for any office, ever. You never know. But since the presidency so captivates Americans, and since the most recent vice presidential nominee has as much of a claim on the next presidential nomination as anyone, "Palin for President" (Tippecanoe and Piper too!) stories will be around for years to come.

Did Palin's surprise resignation help her chances? The flippant answer is, "Check back in four years, bub." The serious answer is, "There's no strong consensus one way or the other." When Palin announced her resignation, the conventional wisdom immediately gelled behind the position that she could no longer win the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. Maybe. Slowly and haltingly, however, an alternative theory emerged that said the move might not damage Palin as much as the establishment believed it would.

The polling evidence seems to confirm this. So far, Palin's fans have viewed her decision not to seek reelection sympathetically. A Gallup poll released on July 8 recorded that 67 percent of Republicans wanted Palin to have a role as a national political figure. A Rasmussen poll from last week found that Mitt Romney, Palin, and Mike Huckabee are in a statistical tie for the nomination.

Palin has a devoted following. No Republican politician energizes GOP crowds as much as she does. When I saw her speak at the Vanderburgh County Right to Life dinner in Evansville, Indiana, in April, Palin was practically mobbed by well-wishers and autograph seekers. The conservative movement is rudderless, and social conservatives in particular would like a powerful spokesman for their cause. The social issues may not have played much of a role during Palin's governorship, but once she is free from office she can emphasize them as much as she likes.

One lesson from Barack Obama's candidacy is that a politician should seize his (or her) moment. Elite opinion, remember, thought that Barack Obama wasn't ready to run for president in 2008. He should sit back, the argument went. Gain seasoning. Master a few issues. Wait for his turn. But Obama understood that when you do that, you end up being Joe Biden. Obama understood that once the spotlight is on you, it's foolish to let it pass on to someone else. He ignored the naysayers. He launched his campaign. Now he lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Reagan's late campaign manager John Sears had a term to describe what voters look for in a presidential candidate. The term was "appropriateness." Sears meant that John Q. Public wants to support the guy that best fits his mental picture of what a president should be. Does Palin have such "appropriateness"? The verdict is mixed. Certainly there's a latent hunger for a viable female presidential candidate who isn't Hillary Clinton. Palin, moreover, looked authentic and commanding in her speech to the 2008 Republican National Convention. It is not an exaggeration to say that her address there was one of the most effective political communications ever. In the vice presidential debate, Palin went toe-to-toe with Biden, the paradigmatic Beltway insider, and gave as good as--if not better than--she got.

Throughout her career, Palin has seemed most "appropriate" at moments when she senses that the populace is diverging from the political class that rules over it. Palin exploits the split and wins office as the tribune of the people. That is what happened when she saw that Wasillans were tired of the nonideological, nonpartisan, unexciting mayoralty of John Stein; when she saw self-dealing among Republican insiders in Anchorage and Juneau; when she saw that Alaskans were tired of Frank Murkowski and the lobbyist culture he nursed and protected. That is what she and John McCain tried to do last year, when Americans had grown tired of George W. Bush and Republican misrule (things didn't work out the way they'd hoped). The next time Palin sees a gap separating the people and their government, she may try to jump in and fill it.

For now, though, Palin will focus on writing her book, on the midterm elections, and on giving speeches. One certainty is that neither she nor the people who love and hate her are going away. "It's not retreat," Palin said. "It's moving more aggressively than ever to fight for what's right." Today the Palinistas and Palinphobes are as much a part of the national scene as they have been part of Alaska's. Since her debut, Palin has sparked curiosity and revulsion, devotion and illwill, admiration and scorn in equal measure. For whatever reason, the press cannot take its unblinking eye off of her. To the media and her detractors, she is a force of nature. She cannot be ignored.

The obsession is sure to intensify. Be prepared. Hurricane Sarah is about to descend on the Lower 48.

Matthew Continetti is the associate editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD. His The Persecution of Sarah Palin will be published by Penguin Sentinel in 2010.