On the morning of August 29, 2008, minutes after the stunning news of the Vice Presidential nomination, I wrote a post entitled "What Is McCain Thinking? One Alaskan's Perspective," and my humble little blog was never the same. And now, less than a year later, the strange saga of Sarah Palin, the "hottest governor in the coldest state" is coming to an end.
When the cryptic press release came from the governor's office this morning, heads were scratched. Why on the Friday of a long weekend was she having a press conference at her home in Wasilla, with less than two hours notice? In three days she'd own the news cycle, and wouldn't have messed up everyone's plans to knock off early for the 4th of July weekend. Instead, she chose to release the information at a time when people generally release the news they want to die.
The Anchorage media grumbled and hopped in their vans for the 45 minute drive north to Wasilla. She had a statement. She wouldn't be taking questions. That's all we knew, until reports started trickling in that there were commissioners there, and Lt. Governor Sean Parnell. This was going to be big.
Sure enough, we learned that not only would Palin not be seeking a second term, but that she would not even be finishing her first one. As of July 25, the state would be in the hands of Lt. Governor Sean Parnell, and Palin would resign. Palin who preferred to run the state from her Blackberry during her VP campaign, while simultaneously cramming for debates, looking after her kids, and calling the president a terrorist paller-arounder, rather than turn the state over to Parnell, suddenly hand a change of heart. Why?
Parnell, himself had an unsuccessful bid for Alaska's lone congressional house seat. He ran against the embattled 19-term Republican Don Young in the past election cycle. Young has racked up more than a million dollars in legal fees, and is widely rumored to be facing indictment. He seemed like easy pickins for a Democratic challenger, but Parnell was unable to unseat him in the primary, with a tally so close, a recount was mandated - a recount overseen by the person in the office of Lt. Governor; none other than Parnell himself.
The third in line for the governor, and the man expected to step into Parnell's shoes is Commissioner of Corrections, Joe Schmidt. He was appointed, accompanied by a few raised eyebrows, to the #3 spot in February of this year. His other claim to fame? He dated the governor when they both went to Wasilla High. He replaced embattled Attorney General Talis Colberg, who stepped down under allegations of mishandling the Troopergate investigation and telling state employees that they didn't need to comply with legislative subpoenas.
Palin's long, rambling, fretful speech had all the visible tension and clenched jaw muscles of her appearance when she returned back home to little old Alaska after her failed VP bid. She was interviewed by the press in her Anchorage office and said how glad she was to be back, and how much fun it was to run the state of Alaska. Nobody believed her. It's become more and more apparent that what she likes is the crowds, the attention, and the advocacy for her beliefs. But the day to day running of the state doesn't seem to have much appeal anymore. A common complaint among legislators and top state officials since Palin's return from the campaign trail is that nobody ever sees her. Getting face time with the governor is not an easy thing. Palin has discovered, through her travels, that you don't have to be a politician to get attention.
Today she stood by the shores of Lake Lucille and told us how she was leaving her position for our own good. It's for the best interest of the state, she said. There are too many distractions, too much being picked on, too little time to focus on the matters of state, too many jokes about her kids, and too much money fighting those ethics complaints against her. Strangely, she quoted again the sum of money that ethics complaints against her had cost the state. Millions, she said. Two million. Yesterday's headline in the Anchorage Daily News tallied up the cost at $296,000, with the bulk of that stemming from the Troopergate investigation of last summer.
She's estimated her own personal legal fees at a whopping $600,000, and has actively solicited money for her legal defense fund, hubristically named "The Alaska Fund Trust." She declines to state what the money will be paying for. Presumably much of these costs result from the Troopergate investigation. The Attorney General of the State of Alaska at the behest of the governor, had done a little pre-emptive sleuthing, asking questions of witnesses before they were officially deposed. Allegations by state legislators of witness tampering have so far come to nothing. Normally the AG would have been providing legal counsel for the governor, but Palin chose to hire an attorney of her own. Correspondence between Palin and the Attorney General is subject to public disclosure. Correspondence between Palin and her private attorney is not.
Speculation is rampant about a soon to be declared run for the presidency in 2012. If Palin listens to her core group of supporters, she has reason to believe this run at the White House would land her in the Oval Office. Her resignation speech was full of imagery about Alaska's resources helping the country, about how much we owe our military, about the economy; a wistful retrospective of all her administration had accomplished. She repeated her claim that she wanted to reject the stimulus money to keep government spending low, despite the fact that returned stimulus money would not go back to DC coffers, but into the waiting hands of other governors, looking to boost their own economies. And while the rhetoric sounded national, the mood of the event was anything but celebratory. And Palin continues to stick with the talking points that those who are paying attention have debunked.
The time in front of the cameras was also used, many felt, to "play the victim card." Palin spent a considerable amount of time castigating the very media that was there covering the event, for being too critical. But the principle objects of Palin's venom were private citizens who had filed ethics complaints against her. She also referenced a photoshopped image on a local blog that showed her snuggling a baby with the head of a local radio shock jock that Palin and her lawyer favor with appearances. Palin said the photo was making fun of her son Trig. She seems unable, even when delivering a speech that is destined for national coverage, to rise above the fray, and refrain from sounding petty.
It is said that it's not the mountain ahead that wears you down, it's the grain of sand in your shoe. Was it one too many grains of sand that wore her down? And if so, how would she be able to handle the job as President of the United States? Most of the ethics complaints have been dismissed. But, Alaska has no Ethics Board. Ethics complaints are handled by a three-member governor appointed Personnel Board, whose jobs depend on the sitting governor who can fire them at will. Was the deck stacked? Many say yes. But despite the dismissal of the majority of complaints, there were ethics complaints that resulted in a finding by the Legislature that she had abused her power and violated the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act in the Troopergate fiasco, a directive for a high level staffer to undergo ethics training due to a string of "troubling emails" and a recent payment from Palin to the state for almost $10,000 to reimburse for her charging the state for her children's travel expenses. So, were all the ethics complaints "frivolous?" Even if we take the results of the Personnel Board at face value, the answer is no. But all this may not matter much soon. The rule of law still applies to private citizens, but there is no "Private Citizens' Ethics Act."
Then there is the other matter. In Alaska it's become known as "the iceberg." The iceberg is rumored to be a piece of news that's so damaging, and so big, it will sink the S.S. Palin. The rumors also exist that it's coming soon. Speculation about IRS problems, issues with other three-letter organizations, more ethics complaints, and embezzlement abound. Questions have been raised about the construction of Palin's house by a bunch of Todd's buddies, at the same time that a giant sports complex was being built just down the road in Wasilla, and right after building codes had been abolished by the then mayor of Wasilla, one Sarah Palin. Do we know anything for sure? No. But the recent claim that the breaking of this scandal is imminent seems coincidental to say the least. Alaskans hesitate to get too excited about rumored indictments, though. Despite the indictment and conviction of several state legislators, and the indictment-conviction and now un-conviction of former Senator Ted Stevens, the slow process has taught us patience. We still await rumored indictments of Congressman Don Young, and former State Senate President Ben Stevens (son of Ted Stevens.) You can't make this stuff up.
Other breaking items in the news recently, include an unflattering 5000-word article in Vanity Fair, and a CBS News release of an email exchange between Palin and McCain strategist Steve Schmidt, which gave a glimpse of "the real Sarah Palin," and how she thinks. The exchage involved Palin asking the McCain campaign to make a statement that her husband Todd had only accidentally been a member of a secessionist political party, because he checked the wrong box. And didn't notice it for seven years. Schmidt cut her off by stating that the McCain campaign had no intention of making it more of an issue than the media was, a habit that Palin has had for a long time. And they weren't going to lie for her.
The final piece to this intriguing puzzle is the book deal. Palin has recently signed with Harper-Collins to write her memoir. Inside sources say the deal is in the $2 million range, with much more if the book sells well. She chose her ghost writer, but vowed that she'd be doing most of the work herself. What about being governor? No worries, she told us. She'd only be authoring the memoir when she was off the clock. There's no doubt that she'll have more time to get the book done, and go on the requisite (but problematic if you're the governor) book tour, now that she's quit her day job.
So, what's her next move? Her script says "national office." Her body language says "uh-oh." Reports are coming in that she's told those close to her she's finished with politics. Some think she has no choice. If there's one thing we've all learned about Sarah Palin, it's that it can be difficult to predict what she's going to do.
But one thing is certain. Alaska will have a new governor. Many will mourn. Many will openly celebrate. Her once 90% approval rating has plummeted as we have gotten to know her. Her approval now is in the low 50s, and the bar graph is polarized. You love her, or you hate her. And if she does fade away, becoming a blip on the radar of pop culture, and a footnote in political history, it won't be for lack of trying to remain in the spotlight.
I drove through Wasilla today, about a half hour after she told us she'd be stepping down. It felt strange passing Lake Lucille. I wondered about the Parnell administration, and about what may follow in 2010. What lies ahead for Alaska? After July 25, the attention of the nation will fade. I don't think we'll go back to living in obscurity any more; not in this generation anyway. But when the governor looked at the camera and said that her resignation would be good for the state of Alaska, it's the first time in a long time I've agreed with her.