Going Rogue. It's cute. It's sassy. It's mavericky. The title of Sarah Palin's memoir is designed to sell books. If it had been titled Everything I Need to Know I Learned Playing Point Guard for the Wasilla High School Girls Basketball Team, it might not have had quite the same zing. Perhaps the title is meant to encapsulate the fierce, independent spirit that many had learned to associate with the woman who came closer to the vice presidency than any Republican woman in history. But there are many back here in Alaska who heard Going Rogue and were horrified, struck by the ugly irony of her book title.
When the Lower 48 was still asking "Sarah who?" the GOP was relying on the talking point, "She's the most popular governor in the nation." And she was. While other governors with approval ratings in the high fifties were feeling pretty pleased with themselves, Sarah Palin was luxuriating in approval ratings that at one point approached a stratospheric 90 percent. Without that number, she would likely never have been the vice-presidential nominee.
But as it was, that statistic played a significant role in the magical attraction to this virtually unknown candidate, who appeared to be the best kept secret in the country. If people in her own state were so thrilled, then she obviously must be doing something right, people reasoned. After all, how could 90 percent of Alaskans be wrong? That question has a two-part answer.
1) She was not Frank Murkowski.
Frank Murkowski, the man who preceded Palin in the governorship was, to put it kindly, a disaster. He had been Alaska's senator from 1981 to 2002, when he decided to run for governor. It only took one term of Murkowski actually being present in the state, where everyone could watch him work up close, for Alaskans to conclude that they'd rather have anyone else. The pricey new executive jet he purchased for his own use became known as "The Bald Ego." Bumper stickers with the slogan "Anyone But Frank" appeared on vehicles across the state.
Murkowski was humiliated by Palin in the primary, garnering only 19 percent of the vote. The fact that Palin got the Republican nomination had little to do with any perceived mastery of policy, experience or leadership ability. She got the nomination because she had a great story, and Alaskans needed a hero. Here she was, a relatively inexperienced politician from Alaska's Bible belt, fresh-faced and full of family values, gun toting and adventurous, spunky and energetic, a wife, a mother and a no-nonsense politician who took on the oil companies and the good ol' boys, with some energy credentials to boot. She wowed Alaskans much like she did the rest of the country that fateful day in August of 2009.
Many centrists and moderate progressives in Alaska liked her. They may have disagreed with her social conservatism, but it was quite amazing to watch this young woman step up to the plate out of nowhere, with her slingshot in hand, and conk Frank 'Goliath' Murkowski on the noggin with a big fat rock. When he tipped over and landed on his back in a big dust cloud, the crowd went wild. The bumper stickers changed to "Go, Sarah Go!" She was Everywoman. She was proof that a regular person could take on the system and win. She was Joan of Arc, Political Barbie and Mrs. Smith Goes to Juneau all wrapped into one, with a dash of Charlie's Angels thrown in for good measure. And she was most definitely not Frank Murkowski.
When the gubernatorial race was won, just like after a great football game, we all left smiling and exhausted. We slapped each other on the back and went back to our regular lives, which brings us to reason #2.
2) We weren't paying attention.
Just as we weren't paying much attention to issues during the gubernatorial primary and general election, we kept not paying attention to Palin after she took office.
A developing ethics scandal was in the news, and we watched as a string of Alaska legislators were indicted and convicted on corruption charges. Votes were bought and sold for a few thousand dollars; Alaskan politicians went cheap. Video of money changing hands in a hotel suite in Juneau and incriminating audio of drunken officials using crude language and talking skullduggery surfaced. Alaskans needed their patron saint of clean government and reform. In the cesspool of political corruption surrounding us, she was proof that somebody had integrity. We had Sarah, and we trusted her. If there was something amiss, we didn't want to know.
And then there was Troopergate. This pre-nomination scandal was a wake up call for many Alaskans. Troopergate had all the ingredients of a trashy political novel. Trooper meets girl, trooper marries girl, trooper is a cad, trooper and girl divorce. Custody hearing gets ugly. All the bad stuff trooper did for years, and a bunch of stuff he didn't do as well, suddenly comes out. And girl's sister just happens to be the governor. That's where it got messy. The divorce was elevated to state business, and the considerable power of the governor's office turned to revenge.
During the custody investigation, the Palins leveled all kinds of accusations at state trooper Mike Wooten. He was investigated on dozens of complaints, disciplined on two counts and allowed to keep his position with the troopers. Case closed, or so he thought. Enter Walt Monegan, Palin's new Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety and head of the troopers. Monegan was well-respected by those who served under him; he did a bang-up job with minimal funding, but somehow he suddenly got axed. Palin was out of town, and Monegan was "offered another job." There was no explanation to Alaskans, and a critical department was left with no leadership. Rumors started to swirl that the highly respected Monegan was dismissed because he had refused to fire the ne'er-do-well ex-brother-in-law Trooper Wooten, who had already been investigated and disciplined.
Palin vehemently denied that she or anyone on her staff had ever talked to Monegan or pressured him in any way to fire Wooten. It came out before her nomination for vice-president, however, that there were literally dozens of conversations in which exactly such pressure was applied. One of the instances took the form of a recorded phone call from a Palin aide to the Alaska State Troopers. Todd Palin himself even talked about it to Monegan in the governor's office while she was away.
It was a difficult journey of discovery for many of us; we had to come to terms with the Sarah Palin that really was. Like the painful revelation that there is no tooth fairy or Easter bunny, we had to learn that the Sarah Palin that we thought we knew, the one that we wanted and needed desperately, existed only in our imaginations. We had been told a beautiful story, which we chose to believe, about the idea of a politician. Most Alaskans chose to remain in denial.
Nobody paid much attention to the rumors that Sarah Palin was on the short list of McCain's potential running mates. Those who followed the news closely felt that surely no campaign in their right mind would choose a politician in the middle of an ethics scandal, especially one with so few credentials and from a state with so few electoral college votes.
So when Sarah Palin stepped on the stage at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, it was surreal. Many Alaskans watched both dumbfounded and elated as the girl next door stood in front of the nation and made Alaska legitimate. No longer would people think we were backwards and backwoods, unworthy of attention. No longer were we simply three sad little frozen electoral votes somewhere off in the middle of nowhere. We would become more than just salmon and mountains and oil. We felt like we were part of the country. We had been invited to the dance, and we said yes.
While much of Alaska was simply enjoying their newfound relevance, it's important to remember that others--who had been paying closer attention and had questioned Palin's qualifications--were horrified. The realization dawned: the McCain campaign had no idea who they chose. They didn't vet her, or they didn't care. They were either incompetent or irresponsible. It was obvious from the very beginning. We knew we had ringside seats to the biggest political disaster imaginable--Sarah Palin a heartbeat away from being the leader of the free world. It was like watching a political horror movie.
One thing became very clear to the McCain campaign after Palin's nomination: Troopergate needed to be managed and managed quickly. All of a sudden it wasn't just the understaffed Anchorage Daily News looking at the scandal. It wasn't just an audience who wanted to believe the best about Sarah Palin. All spotlights shone on Alaska, and the mass migration of mainstream media began. Enter the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek and a host of others from around the world, all poking around, talking to locals, questioning and researching. Something needed to be done.
And so the "rogues" were born. First, it was Wooten. Palin was quick to defend herself by labeling him a "rogue" trooper and said that he was a danger not only to her family, whom she claimed he had threatened, but to the public at large. This was serious business. Wooten's less-than-sympathetic story made the character assassination all that much easier. When the Alaska state legislature looked into the Troopergate affair, a bi-partisan legislative council appointed an independent investigator to examine these claims.
That investigator, Stephen Branchflower, wrote in his report: "I conclude that such claims of fear were not bona fide and were offered to provide cover for the Palins' real motivation: to get Trooper Wooten fired for personal family reasons." But despite this finding, Wooten ended up with a desk job. Palin's accusations that he was a "rogue" and a danger to the public had brought about threats that made it impossible for him to work out in the open as a trooper. Nobody likes a rogue cop.
While Wooten was sometimes difficult to defend, Walt Monegan was another matter. The Commissioner of Public Safety was a former Marine, a former Anchorage Chief of Police, very well-liked and respected. Palin's spokeswoman Meghan Stapleton once again used the word "rogue," but this time to attack Monegan. In a stinging press conference, Stapleton said that Monegan had displayed "egregious rogue behavior." He had a "rogue mentality." What had Monegan done to earn this smear? According to Palin's office, he had resisted the governor's budget policies. He wanted to travel to Washington D.C. to seek funding to help combat sexual assault in a state that leads the nation in that category. Stapleton, who had been a respected news anchor before her association with Palin, suffered withering criticism from Alaskans across the political spectrum. The venom she used while eviscerating Monegan laid bare just how desperate the McCain-Palin campaign was to discredit anyone who might act as a roadblock to victory. Alaska is a small town. Monegan was no "rogue;" everyone knew it, and many felt the use of the term was quite simply disgraceful.
In September of 2008, a rally was held in downtown Anchorage. A crowd of well over one thousand Alaskans (a huge number by Alaskan standards) showed up to protest the administration's handling of "Troopergate," the insinuation of the McCain campaign's attorneys into Alaska's Department of Law and the outrageous behavior of Meghan Stapleton, Attorney General Talis Colberg and Governor Palin herself. One of the speakers at the rally was Betty Monegan, the mother of Walt Monegan, who carried a sign saying, "I am the Mother of the 'rogue' Walt Monegan, and I love him." This tiny, soft-spoken woman stood behind the microphone and spoke her peace. She was choked with emotion, and the crowd soon was too. They cheered for Betty Monegan and for her son. In a state where a street corner political gathering of twenty-five people is generally considered a success, the demonstration made a resounding statement: this was not OK.
The Branchflower Report found Palin guilty of abusing her power as governor under the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act. The Attorney General would ultimately resign his position amid legislative pressure, and Todd Palin and several administration officials would be found guilty of contempt for ignoring legislative subpoenas. Walt Monegan requested a due process hearing before the Alaska Personnel Board to address reputational harm from the administration's labeling him a "rogue." In a rather astounding strategic move, Palin had earlier filed an ethics complaint against herself before that very same board, hoping to negate the findings of the legislative investigation. The three-person governor-appointed board not only found Palin innocent of wrongdoing on November 3, the day before the election, it also refused to give Monegan his hearing.
When she returned home to Alaska after the election, licking her wounds, the mood in Alaska was icy. Suddenly, there was no McCain campaign. The national media was gone. All that was left was the governor having to live and work with the Democrats she had thrown under the bus, and the Republicans who never liked her in the first place. Things began to fall apart. A series of back-and-forth power struggles to fill an empty state senate seat left her defeated. Her selection for Attorney General to replace Colberg proved to so controversial and exhibited such poor judgment, that for the first time in the history of the state a gubernatorial cabinet appointment was rejected by the legislature.
The not-so-glamorous return to work, her unwillingness and inability to use diplomacy to solve problems and heal campaign-inflicted wounds and the lure of a lucrative book deal, were among the factors that led to her shock announcement on the Friday of Fourth of July weekend. She stood in front of her house, on the shore of Lake Lucille, in front of the media and a raft of honking waterfowl, and she quit. She stepped down from the governorship of the state, leaving in her wake a long list of people who were on the receiving end of blame, vitriol and accusation--not just the two "rogue"cops, but citizens who had filed ethics complaints against her administration, Democratic legislators who had helped her in the past, the father of her grandchild, political bloggers on both sides of the aisle who had written about her unfavorably, Republican critics and of course the media in general. And finally, after months of watching her approval ratings sink, and her disapproval ratings rise, the lines crossed. Once the most popular governor in America, she was now viewed unfavorably by the majority of people in her own state.
But that was then, and this is now. A new day is dawning for ex-governor Palin. She is reinventing herself, and her career in the national political sphere is just beginning. Outfitted with handlers, writers and editors, she's ready to take on the world. And by titling her new book "Going Rogue" she hopes to transform the term. Now it is reframed and repackaged to be impish and endearing. But it wasn't endearing when it was used as a finely sharpened tool to malign those who stood in the way of her power scramble to become the vice president of the United States.
Her ghost writer, her book publisher and those in the Lower 48 who buy and read her book may never learn her full story. But the very fact that the title of the book made it past Palin herself is illustrative of her own gaping disconnect with how she is perceived, the consequences of her actions and the indifference with which she regards those who have been ground up in the gears of her political aspirations. And those qualities are the very ones that lost her the title of America's Most Popular Governor. "Rogue" has gone from a lie of desperation to a slab of red meat tossed out to a pack of starving, starry-eyed Republican lions.
This article is adapted from Going Rouge: Sarah Palin--An American Nightmare, available only by direct order from OR Books.