• Politics

The Outsider: Where Is Sarah Palin Going Next?

17 minute read
David Von Drehle/Dillingham and Jay Newton-Small/Dillingham

Sarah Palin is that most exotic of American creatures: an Alaska original, raised and ripened in an environment remote, extreme, unfamiliar–and free. A land of self-invention, where no one bats an eye at a mom-deckhand-governor-whatever-comes-next. Ever since John McCain introduced his running mate last year, Palin has been like a modern-day version of the captive specimens hauled back to Europe by explorers of old. Like Squanto in London, she speaks the language–if not always the idiom–of the audiences she fascinates. But she remains, on some level, unknowable.

This outsider quality is easy to ignore when you see her in full dazzle on a convention stage, but it comes into focus should you find her in her habitat. After announcing plans on July 3 to resign as governor after just 2½ years, Palin retired to her in-laws’ place in Dillingham, a tiny fishing village in southwestern Alaska, reachable only by boat or plane. TIME caught up to her there. It was salmon season, and thick fillets, red from the smokehouse, were drying on a line strung from a nearby tree. Husband Todd Palin was chopping wood and feeding it into a homemade sauna, the kind that native fishermen–like him–sweat themselves clean in after a day on Bristol Bay. He likes it hot–190°F to 200°F (about 90°C to 95°C)–but that’s too much for Sarah. Daughter Piper hovered over her baby brother Trig, who shares a name with one of the volcanoes on the far side of the water. Flat land, flat water, distant mountains. You can see for miles but not far enough to spot the nearest town.

Could there be a less likely venue in which to ask a woman in a blue T shirt–go SLAM A SALMON, it reads–about her plans to run for President? And yet this was the place where her answer finally made sense. It included none of the strange ramblings of her televised resignation speech, which managed, in pure Palin style, to be both plainspoken and inscrutable. For example: “Take the words of General MacArthur. He said, ‘We are not retreating. We are advancing in another direction.'” And “Do you want me to make a positive difference and fight for all our children’s future from outside the governor’s office?”

With salmon and wood smoke fragrant in the endless summer evening, amid wet socks and waders and red rubber fishing gloves, Palin tells TIME, “I cannot predict what’s going to happen. I don’t know what doors will be open or closed by then. I was telling Todd today, I was saying, ‘Man, I wish we could predict the next fish run so that we know when to be out on the water.’ We can’t predict the next fish run, much less what’s going to happen in 2012.”

In Washington, where even a flat no can mean maybe, this answer will almost certainly be taken to mean “Yes, she’s running,” heedless of the widely spouted view that she blew her chance with the decision to quit her current job. Left, right and center, pundits opined on the lightness of Palin’s résumé and her vanished chance to beef it up. How could she seek a promotion when she didn’t finish the job she had? Even a fan like columnist Fred Barnes, writing in the pro-Palin Weekly Standard, declared glumly, “Forget about Sarah Palin as the Republican presidential candidate in 2012 and probably ever.”

In Alaska, though, her answer could mean exactly what it says–that she doesn’t yet know what she’ll be doing in 2012. Here, you make each day from the materials at hand. “My intention” in the coming months, she said in her resignation speech, “is to go out and to campaign for people who can effect change all across our nation.” She added that “I can’t do that from the governor’s desk” because enemies stirred up by her sudden prominence–and orchestrated, she believes, by the Obama White House–would bury her in unfounded ethics complaints.

Whether that is true or not, Palin’s unconventional step speaks to an ingrained frontier skepticism of authority–even one’s own. Given the plunging credibility of institutions and élites, that’s a mood that fits the Palin brand. Résumés ain’t what they used to be; they count only with people who trust credentials–a dwindling breed. The mathematics Ph.D.s who dreamed up economy-killing derivatives have pretty impressive résumés. The leaders of congressional committees and executive agencies have decades of experience–at wallowing in red ink, mismanaging economic bubbles and botching covert intelligence.

If ever there has been a time to gamble on a flimsy résumé, ever a time for the ultimate outsider, this might be it. “We have so little trust in the character of the people we elected that most of us wouldn’t invite them into our homes for dinner, let alone leave our children alone in their care,” writes talk-show host Glenn Beck in his book Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, a pox-on-all-their-houses fusillade at Washington. Dashed off in a fever of disillusionment with those in power, Beck’s book is selling like vampire lit, with more than 1 million copies in print.

Suppose that Palin somehow channels this grim and possibly gathering sense that America’s institutions and authorities are no longer worthy of deference. Suppose that the Obama Administration’s expansions of government don’t prove as popular–or successful–as Democrats hope. Maybe then she will have picked the right time to declare in her resignation speech, “I’ve never believed that I, nor anyone else, needs a title” to be effective. In fact, a title might slow you down if your message is that our nation’s leaders are so deeply and abidingly inadequate that the only appropriate attitude toward them is scorn.

If not her, maybe someone else. For now, having surrendered her official position, Palin is free to give speeches, write a book and watch for the fish to arrive. A person learns in the Alaska vastness that humans can respond to events but never control them.

The Outsider

Palin’s breakneck trajectory from rising star to former officeholder–with more twists sure to come–has everything to do with her Alaskan context. As the writer John McPhee once observed, “Alaska is a foreign country,” a statement legally false but true in terms of culture and attitude and location. Recall how the story begins. It is June 2007, and a ship docks at the remote port of Juneau, a place tightly bound between sea and mountains. Down the gangplank walks a pair of pundits–Barnes and editor William Kristol–bound for lunch with an unknown first-year governor. A few hours later, the two reboard their cruise ship, delighted to have found a Republican fresh as a glacier breeze, seemingly tough as a sled dog and unsullied by the internecine battles raging within the fracturing GOP.

But how tough could she really be, having learned about politics in a state with almost as many square miles as people? Alaskan feuds are straightforward and personal, against a backdrop of “live and let live.” Washington combat has an impersonal cruelty to it, reflected in a maxim of the strategist Lee Atwater: “Never kick a man when he’s up.” As Barnes and Kristol began feeding Palin’s name into the swirl of Washington gossip known as the Great Mentioner, they might have overestimated how ready she was for battle in the big time.

In Dillingham, Palin traces her decision to resign directly to Aug. 29, 2008, the day she was announced as McCain’s running mate, the day “the distractions,” as she calls them, “ramped up.” They ranged from the bizarre–a blogger’s campaign to prove that Palin faked her last pregnancy (she didn’t)–to the humiliating. The National Enquirer sent four reporters to Alaska, hoovering up gossip about drug use by her older children and long-ago marital infidelity. Despite rave reviews for her Republican National Convention speech, Palin soon became the target of late-night comics and snarky columnists. The obvious pleasure she took in her attacks on the Democrats made it hard to feel sorry for her.

A more experienced, more familiar politician would have been ready for the ramping, but Palin seemed consumed by it. Instead of ignoring hostile bloggers, she combed the Web for their latest postings. At the same time, she assumed the classic role of vice presidential attack dog, making insinuations about Barack Obama’s religion and patriotism. She urged the McCain campaign to strike back at every heckler, and when staffers admonished her to remember the big picture, she suspected that she was surrounded by enemies. An armor of suspicion closed her in. Asked recently to name the people Palin trusts for advice, a source close to her answered, “Nobody. I’m not even sure she listens to Todd.”

The campaign ended but not the barrage. Since the election in November, Palin has been hit with at least 10 ethics complaints for such alleged offenses as allowing her picture to be used to promote Alaskan fisheries and wearing a logo on her snowmobile gear. One complaint was filed under a pseudonym borrowed from a British soap opera. Most were quickly dismissed. And yet, Palin says, she arrived at the conclusion that there would always be more and that the complaints would consume her remaining time as governor.

“It comes at such great cost,” she tells TIME. “The distraction. The waste of time and money, public’s time and money.” She decided that “it’s insane to continue down this road. And Alaskans who have paid attention to what’s going on, they understand that.” But what she sees as distractions, many voters see as the gauntlet of public life; that if you can’t take the heat, don’t go into the public sauna. She asserts that if people were shocked by her decision, it was because the media haven’t covered the real story. “We have sat down with reporters, showed them proof of the frivolity, the wastefulness, you know, millions of dollars this is costing our state to fight frivolous charges. And countless, countless hours from my staff, our Department of Law, from me, every single day, just trying to set the record straight–and it doesn’t cost the adversaries a dime.”

Hell, Yeah, We’re Out of Here

According to Palin, as she announced her decision, her family was uniformly delighted by her move. “It was four yeses and one ‘Hell, yeah!'” she said. Others, however, had tried and failed to persuade Palin to rise above silly-season attacks. John Coale, for one. A prominent Washington attorney and fundraiser (and husband of Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren), Coale helped Palin set up a PAC and a legal-defense fund. “She was very worried about money,” he says, because the cost of defending herself against the various complaints ran some $500,000 in legal bills. Perhaps inevitably, the legal fund produced yet another ethics complaint.

Coale was surprised when Palin told him she made a habit of listening to her critics on talk radio. “You can’t do that,” he told her.

“Yeah,” she conceded–then reconsidered. “But I’ve got to see what they’re saying.”

“No, you don’t,” he answered.

“She made the mistake that every time someone attacked her, she’d fight back,” Coale says. And that instinct was especially strong when the attack involved family. In recent months she has been in an unseemly tussle with Levi Johnston, the hockey-playing former fiancé of her daughter Bristol. After a joke aimed at 18-year-old Bristol hit 14-year-old Willow instead, Palin demanded multiple apologies from comedian David Letterman. Even after Palin announced her resignation, she remained on high alert. Shannyn Moore, an Alaska blogger, questioned whether Palin quit because of rumors she was facing a scandal. Palin’s lawyer threatened to sue. Net result: more publicity and an FBI denial of any investigation.

“There’s been a lot of adverse publicity and the drumbeat of allegations,” says Gregg Erickson, who watches Juneau politics as editor-at-large of the Alaska Budget Report. “She rises to the bait every time.”

For Palin, however, these aren’t isolated incidents. She believes they grow from the same root, which is too big and too formidable to ignore. “A lot of this comes from Washington, D.C. The trail is pretty direct and pretty obvious to us,” says Meg Stapleton, a close Palin adviser in Alaska. Awaiting a flight back to Anchorage from distant Dillingham, Stapleton adds that the anti-Palin offensive seems lifted straight from The Thumpin’, which describes the political strategies of Rahm Emanuel, who is now the White House chief of staff. “It’s the Sarah Palin playbook. It’s how they operate,” Stapleton says.

Palin and her Alaska circle find evidence for their suspicions about the White House in the person of Pete Rouse, who lived in Juneau for a time before he became chief of staff to a young U.S. Senator named Barack Obama. Rouse, they note, is a friend of former Alaska state senator Kim Elton, who pushed the first ethics investigation of Palin, examining her controversial firing of the state’s public-safety commissioner. Both Rouse and Elton have joined the Obama Administration. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs scoffed at the theory. “The charge is ridiculous,” he said. “Obviously there is no effort … From my vantage point, a lot of the criticism she is getting from others seems to be generated from self-inflicted wounds.”

Something else might have been eating at Palin too. Call it boredom or impatience: Juneau must seem awfully small compared with the national stage. A state representative from Anchorage, Democrat Mike Doogan, recalls the traditional opening of the legislature on a January day–the same day Obama was sworn in as President. Doogan was chosen to pay a ceremonial visit to the governor to announce that the session had begun. Dressed in his best suit, with a plastic iris in his lapel, he waited in Palin’s office as she finished a meeting. “She wasn’t particularly happy to see us or interested in anything other than getting the ceremony over as quickly as possible,” he says. “And this from a woman who had served cupcakes for my birthday at the mansion just six months earlier.” That was the last he saw of the governor in Juneau.

Born to Run

Her departure was a distillate of all things Palin. It packed the same gob-smacking wallop as her arrival on the GOP ticket. Sunlit against an Alaskan waterfront, it was as telegenic as her boffo acceptance speech. Rambling along in Palinesque fashion, she didn’t quite tell us where she’s headed, but she left no doubt that she remains in a hurry to get there.

Where does Sarah Palin go next? To the bank. She has already announced plans to write a book; her advance is reportedly in the millions. A celebrity of her wattage commands huge money on the lecture circuit, and at as much as $100,000 per speech, she can exceed her official salary in a couple of days. Attractive and garrulous, Palin seems born to host a cable-TV show.

She also has a standing invitation to a lovefest with America’s social conservatives. Like opera or scrapple, Palin is something of an acquired taste, a phenomenon loved by some, detested by others, with an uncomprehending vastness in between. But for those who don’t get it, here’s a thumbnail sketch of her rightward appeal: For the pro-life movement, this cheerful mother of a Down-syndrome baby is a rousing affirmation. For the gun-rights movement, she’s a glamorous, moose-hunting shot of adrenaline. She hates on the media, never forgets the troops and is a walking middle finger to the BosNYWash élite. As Rush Limbaugh interrupted his vacation to declare, “She is going to continue to fire up people in the conservative Republican base as often as she speaks to them.”

A recent Gallup survey asked American adults whether they have become more conservative or more liberal in recent years, and the answer might suggest a bumpier road ahead for the Administration. Despite the Democratic sweep in 2008, “more conservative” prevailed 2 to 1. Being strong with the right is not a bad place for a woman of ambition to get started.

Outside her family’s Dillingham smokehouse, Palin lays out a robust indictment of the Obama agenda. “President Obama is growing government outrageously, and it’s immoral and it’s uneconomic,” she says. “The debt that our nation is incurring, trillions of dollars that we’re passing on to our kids, expecting them to pay off for us, is immoral and doesn’t even make economic sense. So his growth-of-government agenda needs to be ratcheted back, and it’s going to take good people who have the guts to stand up to him.”

She continues. The cap-and-trade energy plan “is going to drive the cost of consumer goods and the cost of energy so extremely high.” Democratic health-care proposals, she says, look increasingly like the ideas that McCain proposed during the campaign. “One thing reporters aren’t asking the Administration is–it’s such a simple question, and people around here in the real world, outside of Washington, D.C., want reporters to ask–President Obama, how are you going to pay for this one- or two- or three-trillion-dollar health-care plan? How are you going to pay off the stimulus package, those borrowed dollars? How are you going to pay for so many things that you are proposing and you are implementing? Americans deserve to know.”

For Palin, the question might be, How thin a résumé and how unconventional a background will voters embrace? Obama–a first-term Senator with roots in Hawaii, Kenya and Indonesia–moved the bar quite a distance. But would the same country that picked the lofty, cerebral liberal turn around four years later and embrace an earthy, instinctive conservative? After all, President Obama will also be a lot more experienced in 2012.

Whatever else we take away from Palin’s abrupt announcement that she is quitting, she has proved that her low opinion of government includes even her own powers and prerogatives. As she put it in her farewell speech–the one that began “Hi, Alaska!”–the governor’s office is no longer a place for “productive, fulfilled people … choosing to wisely utilize precious time.” A lot of conservative politicians stop wanting smaller government the minute the government is them. Then they discover that they like the trappings, earmarks and junkets, the plums for friends. For Palin, the job offered little more than “lame-duck status–hit the road, draw the paycheck and milk it.”

So, bye, Alaska! She made her declaration on Independence Day weekend as a symbol, she says, of her new and exhilarating freedom. She’s headed to a bookstore, a television set, a convention hall near you, armed with an anti-résumé. Cut loose from her obligations to her huge and awesome homeland, her message remains quintessentially Alaskan. Where she comes from–the last American frontier–the past is irrelevant, the rules are suspended, and limitations are for losers.

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