WASILLA, ALASKA -- Dan Kennedy hops out of his '92 Chevy Blazer, sprints up the grassy hill and points to a marble slab protruding from the ground. "We have Sarah to thank for that," he says. Engraved is a sentence from the American Constitution, a stone's throw away the Stars and Stripes flutter, in front of the flag is a flowerbed that welcomes visitors. When Sarah Palin was mayor of Wasilla, she saw to it that this garden was created to honor freedom, the military and America. Then Dan Kennedy bubbles over again: "Sarah is a visionary, she'll do exactly what the country needs."
Kennedy is tax advisor, ex-president of the Chamber of Commerce in Wasilla and a passionate fisher. But above all, Kennedy is a glowing admirer of his Governor, who with a bit of luck could be voted vice president of the U.S. in seven weeks. The 51-year-old wants to contribute forces to exactly that. And that is why Kennedy also has no time to lose on his promotional tour, "Sarah's World in 30 Minutes." So, down the hill, into the car, over to the sports complex, to the airport, to the mall along Parks Highway -- past landmarks that Sarah Palin left for the 7000 residents of Wasilla after her six years as mayor. "Here was just a pile of rubble," says Kennedy, as supermarkets, home improvement stores and warehouses fly past the window. "And now -- this," he says. And for a moment his voice has a noble quality to it.
As mayor of Wasilla, Sarah Palin swept through the place like a hurricane. During her time as mayor from 1996 to 2002, building permits were signed, ground-breaking ceremonies were celebrated, taxes cut. And: Sarah Palin was a politician in luck. Projects that had been pushed years earlier came to fruition during her term of office. Wasilla exploded economically -- and the "hockey-mom," who is now preparing to reach for the stars in Washington was the face of that progress. "She shot right through the hierarchies," remembers Kennedy, whom she regularly asked for advice while he was Chamber president. "On the way to the mayor's office she would often come by to ask what she should do next." Once Kennedy said: "Just get rid of the 25 dollar fee for a business license." Or: "Decrease the property tax." And then Palin did exactly that -- and stepped on the feet of Democrats as well as Republicans in doing so.
It is very possible that she overshot her target with her activism. Palin's successor in the mayor's office, Dianne Keller, puts it diplomatically: "We have to be careful that the community does not lose its sense of togetherness," says Keller, who is Republican like Palin. Or in other words: The unrestrained growth of the small city of Wasilla, which today has neither beginning, end nor real center, is not to everyone's liking. And for some people it all happened a bit too quickly.
As a result however, Sarah Palin is still admired for the fact that she turned Wasilla upside down. Palin, at that time in her mid-30s, corresponded to the Alaskan dream in her own way: Be independent, fearless and do not shy away from risk. Live free and preferably without state regulation. For that reason there are only 670,000 people on the icy clod of earth north of Canada and east of the Bering Strait -- because they want to lead the pioneer life that has for so long been buried under civilization in the rest of the U.S. At least that is what the Alaskans like to believe and what they tell of themselves. For example, when they are asked by fellow countrymen from the "Lower 48" why in the world they carve out their existence up here -- then the dream of the 49th state is dug out, even if meanwhile the large majority of Alaskans live just like in any suburb of a large American city.
"There are just as many Starbucks and McDonald's here as anywhere else in the U.S.," says historian, Stephen Haycox of the University of Alaska in Anchorage. "And 70 percent of the people live from their good salary and not from fishing and hunting." But you don't talk about that because it doesn't fit, because the soundtrack to life in Alaska is simply not allowed to sound so horribly banal. When the oil price fell in the mid-80s, neither elk hunts nor fishing tours on the Price William Sound helped. Over 60,000 residents, roughly ten percent of the population disappeared from Alaska because the main incentive to stay had trickled away: The high wages. The Alaskan state economy, which depends primarily on oil and tax donations from Washington, was not able to offer anything comparable. "Alaska is dependent on decisions that are not made here", says the 68-year-old Haycox. So the main brace for Alaskan society is still the pioneer rhetoric.
The pioneer lifestyle is inarguably still maintained and lived out by some people such as Martin Buser from Big Lake. The native Swiss has lived in the tundra a half hour north of Wasilla for about 30 years. He has known Sarah Palin for years -- and he too admires her. "You meet her, talk to her, observe her and then you go and think, this woman really means it." Like Palin's husband Todd, Buser also plows through the ice desert of Alaska at least once a year. However, not on a snowmobile but rather with a sled and huskies -- 1100 miles and about three weeks long on the trail "Iditarod" from Anchorage to the destination Nome in the east. That is where the 50-year-old learned to judge people based on what they do. "There are ten percent doers in a society," says Buser. "And Sarah ranks among them."
Doing, deciding -- they love that in Alaska. "Did you hesitate with an answer when John McCain asked you if you would like to be Vice?" asked ABC-Moderater Charlie Gibson of Sarah Palin at the end of last week. And in her first big interview after her nomination, Palin said exactly what you would say in such a situation in Alaska: "No, I did not hesitate, because you have to be so committed to the mission, the mission that we're on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can't blink." Later, Palin rants about Russia and NATO, says some crude things about the Bush doctrine and displays a lot of rehearsed material about the Middle East. But for Alaska this sentence was the deciding factor: Not hesitating, not wavering. That Palin understands little about foreign and security policy does not surprise anyone in the far north. But for most people that is not really important.
Palin sits in her interview with Charlie Gibson as if she were taking a test. Her body language shows how nervous the Governor is when she thrusts her chin forward and clenches her fists. Palin really has to pull herself together when Gibson asks for her positions again and again and she loses her composure. Those who know her feel it: Palin really does not want to pontificate. She wants to do, to create something new together with John McCain and what that is, has yet to show itself. She does not have to let the old-style TV journalist in on it. She never had to in Alaska; there it was enough when she promised to do away with old rituals and here she does the same. With John McCain she wants to stir up the Washington establishment. But Gibson is not content with that, asks questions impatiently, his foot seesaws harshly in the air and Palin fidgets in her chair. Ahmadinejad, Putin and Saakashvili, all of these names seem to tangle into one big knot and one can plainly see that Sarah Palin just wants to get away from this awful Mr. Gibson, whom she intimately calls "Charlie" far too often even though she does not know him at all.
In the familiar Alaska everything was different: It was the doers and the decision-makers from the business world who appreciated her and curried favor with Sarah Palin. The 44-year-old changed not only Wasilla, but rather the entire Matanuska-Susitna-Valley. The valley, called Mat-Su for short, became Alaska's most rapidly growing region economically. Those who found Anchorage, 40 miles away, to be too expensive, too controlled and too American, moved to Mat-Su. Only a few years prior, Ben Stevens, son of Republican senator, Ted Stevens, who is under investigation of corruption, had verbally attacked the residents there. Those who lived there were poor and uneducated and belonged to the "valley trash," provoked Stevens. When he made this attack in 2004, Ben Stevens was president of the Alaskan Senate. But he did not reckon with Sarah Palin, who was preparing to become governor -- against opposition in her own ranks and against democratic rivals. In the summer and fall of 2006, Palin defeated her friend from the Republican Party, incumbent Frank Murkowski, in the primary elections and then the democrat Tony Knowles in the main elections. She had fought her way through: With support of the religious Right and with the willpower of a highly ambitious politician who you do not want to get in the way of. At 42 years of age Sarah Palin was the youngest female governor in the history of Alaska.
And just as during her time as mayor of Wasilla, Palin was at the right place at the right time. While the rest of the U.S. suffered under the rapidly increasing oil prices, the budget in Alaska filled in 2005. The "black gold" that shoots out of the oil wells in Prudhoe Bay was worth that much more after the price explosion -- and through historical luck it did not belong to Washington but rather to the State of Alaska. Sarah Palin then sent not only the standard annual check of around 2000 dollars to every citizen of Alaska. She added another 1200 dollars -- as compensation for the higher gas prices. Every citizen, regardless of age, was given a financial shot of 3200 dollars. And now all that money needs an outlet: People go shopping, sales tax is paid and Target Superstores and Wal-Marts sprout from the ground in Sarah Palin's Mat-Su-Valley. A solid 80 percent of the people have loved Sarah Palin ever since then. 80 percent -- John McCain would not have hesitated long there. What a deal.
But Alaska is not the U.S. Between Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau live barely as many people as in Washington, DC. People know each other, they know about one another and people talk a lot -- whether about professional, private, flip-flopping of political position or affairs. Sarah Palin is no exception - just the opposite. Her rapid ascent has since been blurred by such a fog of facts, half-truths and rumors that no one is able to say whether something explosive is lurking somewhere. The columns of the Anchorage Daily News are filled with news about her position on religion, censorship, abortion or sexual education in schools. And the local channel KFAT 92.9 already has quiz shows where the caller is asked about the newest Palin rumors. The caller that gets the true or false questions right wins a DVD.
Also not yet decided is how damaging it might be that Sarah Palin wanted the infrastructure project, notoriously known as "bridge to nowhere" and then did away with it when Washington cut funding. Applause is a sure bet in her campaign speeches every time she repeats her "thanks, but no thanks" with which she killed the bridge project in Alaska. What remains is the picture of Sarah Palin, the fighter against the swamp of subsidies. The facts, her flip-flopping, perish in the campaign -- much like the fact that Sarah Palin as mayor once hired a professional lobbyist who pulled promises for over $27 million in subsides out of Washington pockets. That she now crusades against exactly this lobbyist plague together with John McCain -- that's old history now.
But no one knows what will become of Sarah Palin. Critique remains restrained. Because after all: You're in Alaska, people's memory is long and the state money machine -- the governor -- decides what happens. When a small group of Palin critics finally get together in the bar Vagabond Blues in the town of Palmer to talk to foreign reporters, a feeling of conspiracy hangs in the air. Five of her friends have dissuaded her to open her mouth, says Peggy. And Mimi says that she would be afraid of a vice president Palin. "If the hockey mom from the neighborhood can move into the White House, what is the American presidency worth?", she asks. "I want to have respect for the president and his vice", says Mimi. "And I have to not be able to imagine myself going out for a beer with them."