Sarah Palin the Sound and the Fury
If Satan and his associates top Palin’s list of enemies, the legions of anti-Palin bloggers may rank a close second. After the 2008 presidential campaign, when she returned briefly to the governor’s office, Palin became so obsessed with responding to criticism from bloggers that it sometimes paralyzed her administration. In the year since her resignation, independent bloggers have produced some of the most robust reporting about her—for instance, revealing that the Palins did not pay taxes for years on two vacation cabins, and pointing out that, during the “bus tour” to promote her book, Palin in fact sometimes traveled by private Gulfstream. The Anchorage Daily News no longer has a beat reporter assigned to Palin. Owing to newsroom cuts, the paper has no staff to spare, and editors reportedly see Palin as “a nonentity” in Alaska now—a phenomenon primarily of concern to the rest of the country (collectively referred to as “outside”). The blogs that keep closest tabs on Palin include Palingates, Mudflats, the Immoral Minority, and Shannyn Moore: Just a Girl from Homer. Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish and Arianna Huffington’s Huffington Post serve as the main conduits of information from the blogs to the mainstream media. Palingates is run by a German attorney who will identify himself only as “Patrick.” Jeanne Devon, who owns an Anchorage retail store, runs Mudflats. Jesse Griffin, a part-time assistant teacher in Anchorage, is the Immoral Minority.
All attend to Palin’s every move with a focus that could be called obsessive, and all are given, in varying degrees of intensity, to juvenile outbursts that can rival C4P at its worst. For instance, among the Immoral Minority’s fictional captions for screen grabs from a Palin interview with Sean Hannity was the following: “Yeah I tole Levi to place his nasty sperm filled nuggets right here before he started his apology to my family. And every time he did not look sorry enough to me, I just gave them a little squeeze.” Still, without these blogs, the world would have much less information about Palin’s life right now.
Of the group, only Shannyn Moore, an Anchorage radio and TV personality, has any experience as a journalist. Moore and Devon, who consider themselves political activists as well as reporters, have become close friends and share a dream of persuading wealthy donors to give them millions of dollars to renovate an old Anchorage theater as headquarters for a foundation, where they would study Alaskan politics and do proper investigative work on Palin. For now, they do what they can with the meager resources they have, which means they spend a lot of time reading tea leaves. Moore, a green-eyed blonde who, like Palin, was once an Alaska beauty queen, albeit a few stripes more self-aware, drives her Subaru through downtown Anchorage, steering with one hand, holding a cigarette and her smartphone in the other. When Devon calls to tell her that Glenn Beck has booked the Dena’ina Center, the largest venue in Anchorage, for a speech on September 11, 2010, she sits bolt upright and yells. Immediately, they start trying to figure out what the news might mean. “Listen, listen, listen: Why in the world do you imagine Glenn Beck would come to Anchorage on 9/11? You think he might have a special guest? With a special announcement? Oh,” she says, her whole face falling as the implications of a Palin campaign kickoff hit her, “Jesus Christ.”
The best-known investigative reporter to insert himself into Alaska is Joe McGinniss, the author of The Selling of the President and Fatal Vision, who moved to Wasilla in May to spend the summer reporting for a book about Palin to be published next year by Random House. McGinniss rented the property next door to Palin, who, upon learning his identity, wrote a scathing Facebook post, accompanied by a snapshot of McGinniss standing outside on his deck: “Wonder what kind of material he’ll gather while overlooking Piper’s bedroom, my little garden, and the family’s swimming hole?”
Overnight, C4P, Glenn Beck, talk-radio hosts, and many other Palin allies rallied around. Within 24 hours, McGinniss had received 5,000 hostile e-mails. Death threats were investigated by the F.B.I. A local man who helped move some furniture into McGinniss’s house had one of his truck’s windows shot out. The author, with his disingenuous response to all this, did himself no favors. On the Today show, McGinniss absurdly claimed that he “didn’t expect any publicity at all” for moving in next door to Palin. On July 3, the first anniversary of Palin’s surprise resignation, I had dinner with McGinniss on the deck of his rented house. “I can’t even see her windows!” he said, gesturing across the way. Actually, from where I stood on the deck, even with the 14-foot-high fence the Palins put up the week McGinniss moved in, it was possible to see several of the Palins’ windows, a fair bit of the yard, and much of the lakefront edge of their property.
McGinniss told me his version of the story of the night Todd came over to ask who he was and what he was doing there. After a tense conversation, McGinniss says, Todd left, and Track Palin, Sarah and Todd’s older son, came out to the front yard “to do sit-ups” while holding what McGinniss assumes was a digital camera—which he figures Track used to take the picture that Sarah posted on Facebook. While McGinniss and I talked, there was no sign of life in the Palin house, and the only noise on the water came from squawking grebes—until about 8:30, when a floatplane roared in for a landing on Lake Lucille. It slowed to a stop directly in front of the Palins’ house, turned, crept closer to the shore, then idled for a long moment in front of us before taking off and heading back in the direction whence it came. The airplane was too far away for me to read the tail number, but it was a white Piper PA-18 Super Cub with red stripes: the same model and colors as Todd Palin’s airplane.
The Palins that night were in Todd’s hometown of Dillingham, about a two-hour flight southwest of Wasilla. If this was Todd’s plane, and if he was flying it, the choice to make the trip up here seemed odd. Given that this was the anniversary of Sarah’s resignation, it perhaps made sense that the Palins would want assurance that no curiosity seekers would trespass. But why make such a long flight, just for a quick look at the house? “Wouldn’t it be easier to hire a guard?,” I asked aloud. McGinniss, whose reporting has put him in the frame of mind of his subject—where everything is fungible, and everyone is suspect—replied, “A guard would have a story he could sell.”
City of Fear
You might be tempted to dismiss such a thought as the product of paranoid contagion—and it does seem at odds with the way Wasilla likes to present itself. Outsiders’ descriptions of the town (population 7,245) usually highlight the strip malls and the drug problems—which are real, but are less salient features of life here than the townspeople’s connection to the landscape, especially the majestic peaks of the Chugach Range to the southeast, visible from almost everywhere. The people of Wasilla, in the main, are reflexively generous and open. During coffee hour after worship at Church on the Rock, where a moose head is mounted over the sanctuary entrance, a member of the congregation invites me to join him for a three-day fishing trip a mere 15 minutes after we meet.
When I ask about Palin, though, a palpable unease creeps in. Some people clam up. Others whisper invitations to call later—but on this number, not that one, and not before this hour or after that one. So many people answer “Off the record?” to my initial questions that it almost seems the whole town has had media training. They certainly have issues with the press. Some tell of reporters who seduced them with promises—Don’t worry, I’ll make you look good—and then published stories that made them out to be hicks, stupid, less-than. “These were people we let into our house,” one Wasilla resident says. “We served them food.” But the real concern is with Palin herself—they don’t want her to find out they have talked with a reporter, because of a suspicion that bad things will happen to them if she does. The salty, seen-it-all bartender at one of the town’s best restaurants says, “I wish you luck—but I like my job.” Has Palin actually had people fired for talking about her?, I always ask, and the answer always comes, Remember that trooper? The reference is to Mike Wooten, a state policeman who fell out with the family after divorcing one of Sarah Palin’s sisters and ended up at the center of the scandal known as Troopergate. The Alaska Legislative Council found in 2008 that Palin “abused her power” as governor in attempting to get Trooper Wooten fired.
Even Palin’s strongest supporters say they feel confused by what their former governor has become. “She quit us,” says one Wasilla woman. “We elected her, and she left us,” says another. (“Sarah was my babysitter,” she later adds, as an indication of goodwill.) Yet they are too nice to turn me away, and they are too honest to completely suppress what they themselves feel unable to tell. After one local Republican delivers 90 minutes of uninterrupted praise for Palin, I ask whom else I should talk to, and the answer comes so fast it’s like a cry for help—which is how, the next day, I end up in the living room of Colleen Cottle, who is the matriarch of one of Wasilla’s oldest families, and who served on the city council when Palin was mayor. She says she and her husband, Rodney, will pay a price for speaking candidly about Palin. Their son is one of Todd Palin’s best friends. “But it is time for people to start telling the truth,” Colleen says. She describes the frustrations of trying to do city business with a mayor who “had no attention span—with Sarah it was always ‘What’s the flavor of the day?’ ”; who was unable to take part meaningfully in conversations about budgets because she “does not understand math or accounting—she only knows buzzwords, like ‘balanced budget’ ”; and who clocked out after four hours on most days, delegating her duties to an aide—“but he’ll never talk to you, because he has a state job and doesn’t want to lose it.” This type of conversation is repeated so often that Wasilla starts to feel like something from The Twilight Zone or a Shirley Jackson short story—a place populated entirely by abuse survivors.
To appreciate how alien Palin has become in Wasilla, how inscrutable to her own people, you have to wrap your mind around the fact that Sarah Palin is more famous than any other Alaskan, ever, and to remember that mass-media fame is a property of “outside.” It still does not quite seem real to most Alaskans that there are all these thousands of people in the Lower 48 turning out for … Sarah. It seems all the more unreal because Palin’s image as an engaging, down-to-earth small-town hockey mom was more or less accurate until two years ago. To be sure, some elements of that image were never true to life. “This whole hunter thing, for Sarah? That is the biggest fallacy,” says one longtime friend of the family. “That woman has never hunted. The picture of her with the caribou she says she shot? She got out of the R.V. to pose for a picture. She never helps with the fishing either. It’s all a joke.” The friend goes on to recall that when Greta Van Susteren came to the house to interview Palin “[Sarah] cooked moose chili and whatnot. Todd was calling everyone he knew the day before—‘Do you got any moose?’ Desperate.” In any event, her life is very different now: flying by private jet, driving a gleaming new Escalade ESV with tinted windows, and speaking to the whole world via a Fox News feed from her house until the network installs a TV studio on her property, where contractors are now also finishing a 6,000-square-foot stone-clad château that will contain an airplane hangar for Todd’s Piper Cub, two private apartments, and an office for Sarah.
Almost any small-town person who makes it big has some slight edge of ruthlessness, or an above-average ability to cut and run. The nickname “Sarah Barracuda” doesn’t come from nowhere, and Palin’s edge was always harder than most people’s. Her sense of entitlement, fueled by persistent feelings that she was underappreciated, came to full blossom in the heat of the 2008 race. In late October, when stories of Palin’s exorbitant campaign clothing budget surfaced, Todd Palin dismissed the criticism in an e-mail (subject line: “Cloths”) to several campaign aides: “How many fundraiser’s has she done for RNC, how much money has she raised and how much has voter registration increased for RNC since she was announced. So what if RNC purchase’s some cloths for her for the work she has done for the party.” Though the clothing issue has been discussed at length, internal campaign documents reveal new information that contradicts the account Palin has given. The shopping sprees continued through late October and were not, as previously claimed, mainly undertaken to clothe the family for the unexpected emergency of the Republican National Convention, in St. Paul. The number and range of items purchased for the entire Palin family—more than 400 in total—is mind-boggling. For Sarah, the campaign bought about 30 pairs of shoes, roughly $3,000 worth of underwear (including many Spanx girdles), a pair of Bose headphones costing more than $300, and even her incidentals and toiletries. Charging a campaign for underwear would appear to be unprecedented. A campaign e-mail shows that one of Sarah’s senior aides requested that an outfit be purchased for Bristol for her birthday, explicitly stating that the items should be charged “via the campaign.” Todd Palin received as much as $20,000 worth of clothing—a wardrobe that would last most men for many years, if not for life.
Even after the campaign was over, and Palin had returned to Wasilla, she continued to try to get what she could. In an e-mail, she wrote, “Remember the five black leather Flyers bags w sweatshirts and jerseys and Flyers propaganda in each bag? Anyone know where they ended up?” At the same time, she was scrambling to contain the damage to her image: “Absolutely amazing … now the negative coverage that is on our local news, all regarding these campaign clothes that are not even mine. Amazing. Where are all the campaign spokespersons on all this?”
During these post-campaign days, according to insiders, Palin’s temper veered wildly. It was as if something had snapped. Visitors to her house witnessed her in core meltdown. To one of her children, she cried, “We weren’t good enough for America. We’ll never be good enough for America.” Sometimes when she went out in public, people were unkind. Once, while shopping at Target, a man saw Palin and hollered, “Oh my God! It’s Tina Fey! I love Tina Fey!” When other shoppers started laughing, the governor parked her cart, walked out of the store, and drove away.
After starting her new career as a national figure, Palin disengaged from the community. When in Wasilla, she rarely leaves the house. At her favorite coffee shop, Mocha Moose, Palin has been seen only once in the past three months. On those occasions when she goes to Church on the Rock, she usually arrives late, leaves early, and sits in the back. For runs to Target, she waits until it’s almost closing time. She has never darkened the doorway of Wasilla’s one independent bookstore, Pandemonium Booksellers, which took part in her Going Rogue book signing at the Curtis D. Menard Memorial Sports Center. Sarah’s mother, Sally Heath, is a charter member of the Valley Republican Women’s Club, which sells a batch of Palin-family recipes for $5, but Palin has not been to any of their meetings since resigning as governor.
Her Wasilla social circle has narrowed practically to nothing. People who know Kristan Cole and Kris Perry, her closest local friends and advisers of longest standing, say that the relationships have deteriorated. Her former aides Meg Stapleton and Ivy Frye are said to have parted with Palin on bad terms. (None of the four responded to requests for comment.) Palin’s only employees in Alaska appear to be the staff of True North L’Attitudes, a small scheduling firm in Anchorage. Someone must give the family a hand with errands; the rumor around town is that the Palins have “a Mexican” who helps out, though nobody knows his name. Palin does lean on her parents. Chuck and Sally Heath, together with at least one of Palin’s church friends, handle the mountains of mail that arrive for Palin at the post office. When Piper and Willow are not traveling with their mother, they go to schools east of Wasilla, not far from where the Heaths live in a house that gives some idea of how Charles Addams might have imagined Old MacDonald’s farm. It is full of stuffed and mounted animals ranging from a tarantula to a mountain goat. The license plate on Chuck’s truck reads “EIEIO.” One person at Church on the Rock said that the girls frequently sleep overnight at their grandparents’ because the Heaths’ house, unlike the Palins’, is near their schools. When Trig joins Sarah on the road, Palin’s mother sometimes goes along to take care of the baby.