10/05/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Alaska: the Un-American State

Less than a minute after Rudy Giuliani finished tanning himself in the spotlight in St. Paul, Sarah Palin took the stage Wednesday night in the most eagerly anticipated Republican debut since Brenda Frazier made her curtsies before polite society back in '38, (Actually, that's not really fair. For all I know, Brenda may have been a Democrat. Or a Nazi.)

Although the expectations in Brenda's case were rather higher, due to the fact that the Great Depression was at it's peak and war loomed in Europe, our current economic difficulties and military entanglements gave a certain moment to Sarah's appearance. Perhaps she would enlighten, inspire, or distract us (as Brenda did), any one of which would be most welcome.

Can we be honest about a few things at the outset? Palin seemed personable and reasonably (though not wildly, as some would have it) attractive. She spoke clearly and professionally. And the crowd at the RNC is much less freakish and alarming in close-up than the delegates -- or whoever those people are -- at the DNC. Can we admit that? We can't? Okay. Well, at least we're being honest about what we can't be honest about.

Like her running mate John McCain, she's a candidate with a story, not a platform. Politicians have their choice of three types of slender reed to grasp along the steeper parts of the campaign trail: personal sagas, slogans, or solid facts wrought into detailed plans. Since no one's ever gotten anywhere on the last, winners tend to stick with the first two. McCain-Palin are currently about 83% personal stories and 17% slogans by volume, whereas the other guys are closer to half-and-half, thanks to all that "change and hope" stuff.

Having endured a lefty snarkfest about her family, Palin properly waved them in our faces, daring the haters to hurl the first stone at adorable Trig, startlingly bosomed Bristol, or her menfolk, husband Todd, jarheaded Track, and soon-to-be-son-in-law Psycho, who looked like they had had to have their neckties tied for them and been shaved with a chainsaw just before showtime. I had hoped we might get a chance to meet the Palin family pets as well, especially Mr. Squeaky, the guinea pig we've all heard so much about. How cute would it have been to see him sitting in a chair wearing a tiny credential made from construction paper contentedly munching away at a piece of Romaine lettuce?

The generation before Sarah Palin's, the "Not-the-Greatest Generation," as it's known, often spoke of where someone was "coming from" as a metaphor for understanding what that person thought or meant, as in "until he pulled out the gun and stole my drugs, I didn't really get where he was coming from."

In their (okay, our) parlance, last night was a chance to find out where Sarah Palin is coming from: what she thinks, wants, and feels. And what she knows for sure and what she believes on faith. Some of that information is indeed there in the speech, along with that business about selling the governor's plane on eBay, which is too good to bother checking out.

But still we need to know more (and, thanks, Rudy, for pre-empting Palin's introductory and no doubt highly informative video.) Fortunately, there is another way to find out where Sarah Palin is "coming from" and that's to learn more about where she actually is coming from: Alaska.

Being governor of Alaska, a state that is 23 years younger than John McCain, is not exactly like being governor of, say, Arkansas or Texas. Or, for that matter, New York, where the rising star of Governor Eliot Spitzer fell to earth when the balancing act that is familiar to every working mother between work and kids (in his case young prostitutes) proved too much for him. No, being governor of Alaska is a little like being the Sultan of Dubai in that a major task is to come up with new ways to hand out oil money to residents, a little like being prime minister of Sweden in that you preside over a lavishly-funded welfare state where no shame attaches to government handouts, and a little like being the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq because there is no limit to your claim on federal largesse. Sarah Palin hasn't traveled much overseas but she doesn't have to. She's already the governor of the most foreign of the 50 states.

(We can dispense with the issue of Palin's flirtation with the secessionist Alaskan Independence Party, effectively debunked after an embarrassing "9-11 was an inside job" type talking-up in the Blogosphere, briefly by pointing out that nothing is more fundamentally American than wanting to secede from the Union.)

Alaska's heterodox state finances have been much discussed and the details are probably known to anyone who has read this far. In summary, each resident will receive almost $3300 this year in dividends from oil and gas revenues and, when they spend that money, they will pay no state sales taxes. (A personal disclaimer: my recent decision to move myself and my family to Alaska was made long before I heard that they give you money just for living there.) Thrift and saving for a rainy day are not virtues that Alaskans demand of their government; a drunken sailor mentality prevails. When asked by her constituents, "Can I have my allowance early, Mom?" Sarah Palin has always answered yes and thus became the most popular mom in America. Although the frontier closed a century and a half ago in the lower 48, Alaska still takes a certain amount of pride in its reputation as an untamed outlaw outpost despite the fact that it nurses more greedily at the federal teat than any other state, including the broke ones without any energy revenues.

(Again, in the interest of fairness, I'd like to point out that the Bridge to Nowhere actually did go to an island. It didn't drop the cars off in the middle of the Bering Sea as the name might suggest.)

Sarah Palin rules (and, thanks to an unusual consolidation of power in the governor's office, she really does rule) as viceroy over a vast demesne larger in area than all but 18 other countries but, with a mere 680,000 residents, smaller in population than all but three states. From this we might conclude that she will be more effective at dealing with forest fires than she will in coming up with a solution to the health care crisis. Duh, right?

But there are unique details to the Alaska experience from which further-ranging conclusions about what a Palin vice-presidency might bring us can be drawn. For one thing, she is the only governor with extensive experience in governing active volcanoes. There are dozens in Alaska, as opposed to three in Hawaii, and a measly one in California. Throughout her term in office, Palin has been wary, respectful, and non-confrontational in dealing with the volcanoes. We can expect the same in her posture regarding a resurgent Russia and volatile Iran.

Also, Alaska borders a foreign country, Canada, not other states. I would expect Sarah Palin to take no nonsense from the Canadians. While the Russians may bluster, it's those conniving self-effacing Canucks that Palin knows can never be fully trusted.

Despite the ardent faith of its governor, Alaskans are among the least religious people in the country. Sarah Palin has learned to admire the state's 3,000 Jews, who, at least, believe in the "Judeo" part of Judeo-Christian and not the Great Spirit or whatever it is exactly that Mormons believe. I predict strong support for Israel.

Because of Alaska's poorly developed highway system, flying is the norm for all but the most local journeys and railways are extensively used for transport. Vice President Palin is very likely to be receptive to suggestions for commemorative stamps that feature either planes or trains.

And finally there is the small town character of so much of Alaskan life that Gov. Palin mentioned in her speech last night. Her values are those of Wasilla, Soldotna, and Homer not the heartless big city bustle of Fairbanks, Juneau, or Eagle River. Even in higher office, her concerns can be expected to mirror those of small town Americans with expanding movie showtimes and the building of skateboard parks in order to keep young people from moving away expected to be high priorities.

Oh, and the Alaskan custom of an alcohol-induced midwinter "hibernation" through the dark days of the winter solstice is an idea from outside-the-Beltway that Palin has promised to introduce to Washington.