The Late Night Terrors and Dreams of a Sarah Palin Presidency

While few Republicans would welcome the critique, there is one fundamental aspect of the McCain-Palin presidential campaign that isn’t being talked about a lot in the media. Let’s face it. John McCain is an old man. Not only that, but he’s an old man with a history of heart problems, who has fought cancer as well.

Why do I mention this? Simple. The odds are against John McCain finishing out his first term as president, much less a second one. That means the odds that Sarah Palin might wind up the leader of the free world are fairly high. That’s the big issue that no one in the mainstream media seems to be wrangling with. While Palin supporters think she’s a great person and someone they would like to hang out with, their eyes glaze over when you ask them what kind of president she would make. They simplify the equation. They think she’s a great person, so she’d therefore make a great president.

For the rest of us, those with a more critical eye, it might serve us well to try to answer that question. What kind of governance could we expect under a Sarah Palin presidency? Would she reach across party lines in an effort to heal the political divisions in the country? Would she hire imminently qualified people to serve in important cabinet positions to make up for her stunning lack of political experience?

I don’t think so. You wouldn’t know it, given the fact that little has been said about it in the mainstream media so far, but there is plenty of information out there that tells us what we could expect from a Palin presidency. The record speaks for itself.

First, some perspective.

As you no doubt know by now, Sarah Palin grew up in Wasilla, Alaska, where she later began her political career. Wasilla was an old fur trader’s outpost and is now a fast-growing community that’s part of the extended-suburb of Anchorage. In the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration took farmers from the Dust Bowl area and resettled them there, where their Democratic allegiances defined the valley for half a century. But over the past thirty years, conservative Oklahomans and Texans have flocked into the area. Their religious ideology saw them filling the pews of Evangelical churches around Wasilla and created the conditions for a resurgance of the Republican Party there.

These Evangelical Conservatives formed the electoral backbone for Sarah Palin when she ran for mayor on a platform of gun rights, opposition to abortion and the ouster of the “complacent” old guard. After winning the election in 1996, Palin governed a city that was growing rapidly, in which septic takes were polluting lakes and residential lots were carved haphazardly into the surrounding forests. Palin forced through sewer and road bonds. She cut property taxes, but raised the local sales tax.

Most importantly, Palin supporters say, she ran out the old guard, firing veteran officials to make way for her own people. Her supporters saw that as reform and positive change, but the evidence supports the contentions of her many critics, who contend that throughout her career Sarah Palin has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her and has generally blurred the line between actual government and personal grievances. She has a visceral style which elicits strong reactions from supporters and opponents alike, and a penchant for attacking critics, sometimes referring to local opponents as “haters”.

The evidence contrasts with her carefully crafted public image as a moral reformer.

“She is bright and has unfailing political instincts,” said Steve Haycox, a history professor at the University of Alaska. “She taps very directly into anxieties about the economic future. But,” he added, “her governing style raises a lot of hard questions.”

One of the first of the city employees to go when Palin took office as mayor of Wasilla was the town’s museum director, John Cooper. Palin later sent an aide to the museum to talk to the three remaining employees.

“He told us they only wanted two,” recalled Esther West, who was one of the three remaining employees, “and we had to pick who was going to be laid off.” The three quit together.

Palin has said that budget difficulties were responsible for the museum cuts, but Cooper thinks that’s a lie. He contends that the real reason he and the others were fired was because the museum had become a microcosm of class and cultural conflicts in Wasilla. “It represented that the town was becoming more progressive, and they didn’t want that,” he said.

Days later, Mr. Cooper recalled, a vocal Conservative named Steve Stoll approached him. Mr. Stoll had been a Palin supporter and had a long-running feud with Mr. Cooper. “He said: ‘Gotcha, Cooper,'” Mr. Cooper said.

Palin didn’t stop there. Far from it. In 1997, she fired the longtime city attorney, Richard Deuser, after he issued the stop-work order on a home being built by Don Showers, another of her campaign supporters.

“Your attorney,” Showers reportedly told Mrs. Palin, “is costing me lots of money.”

“She told me she’d like to see him fired,” Mr. Showers recalled. “But she couldn’t do it herself because the City Council hires the city attorney.”

Mayor Palin told him to write the council members to complain. Meanwhile, she started pushing the issue from the inside.

“She started the ball rolling,” said Judy Patrick, that former City Council member, who also favored the firing.

Mr. Deuser was soon replaced by Ken Jacobus, then the State Republican Party’s general counsel.

“Professionals were either forced out or fired,” Mr. Deuser said.

Palin seemed to view her election as an anointing of sorts, and governed as if it gave her free reign. She ordered city employees not to talk to the press. And among other excesses, she used city money to buy a white Suburban for the her own personal use (which employees sarcastically called “the mayor-mobile”).

She was astute enough politically to know where her proverbial bread was buttered, however. She tended to her Evangelical base. She appointed a pastor to the town planning board. And she soon took aim at the local library, where local Evangelical Conservatives had, for years, been pressing the library director to remove books they considered immoral.

“People would bring books back censored,” recalled former Mayor John Stein, Palin’s predecessor. “Pages would get marked up or torn out.”

Witnesses and contemporary news accounts reveal that Palin asked the librarian about removing certain books from the shelves. When the librarian expressed her discomfort with the idea of removing books, she was later fired.

Needless to say, the McCain-Palin presidential campaign maintains that Sarah Palin never advocated censorship. But in 1995, while a city councilwoman, she told colleagues that she had noticed the book “Daddy’s Roommate” on the shelves at the community library, and that it did not belong there. This is according to both Mr. Stein and Laura Chase, the campaign manager during Palin’s first run for mayor in 1996. Chase read the book, which helps children understand homosexuality, and said it was inoffensive; she suggested that Ms. Palin read it, as well.

“Sarah said she didn’t need to read that stuff,” Chase recounted. “It was disturbing that someone would be willing to remove a book from the library and she didn’t even read it. I’m still proud of Sarah,” she added, “but she scares the bejeebers out of me.”

While this incident means little politically, it speaks volumes to Sarah Palin’s ideological positions concerning the ideas of Freedom of Speech and censorship. What could America’s libraries expect under a Sarah Palin presidency?

Recalling the night the two women chatted about Palin’s ambitions, Chase recalls, “I said, ‘You know, Sarah, within 10 years you could be governor.’ She replied, ‘I want to be president.'”

Apparently Palin never saw the office of the Governor of Alaska as anything other than a stepping stone to a greater office. Her ambition, from the beginning, has been more grandiose than that. She proved as a member of the city council, and then as mayor of Wasilla, that she has no problem with using her political office to advance her personal agenda. It’s a pattern that should be especially disturbing, considering that there is a very real chance this woman will find her way to the White House.

Well, speaking of that stepping stone, we should take a look at Sarah Palin’s years as governor of Alaska. How did she get there? How did this woman make the leap from mayor of a small Alaskan town to the office of Governor of Alaska?

In the early years of this decade, she raised money for Senator Ted Stevens (a Republican from the state who is currently on trial for ethics violations), finished second in the 2002 Republican primary for lieutenant governor, and then sought to fill the seat of Senator Frank H. Murkowski when he ran for governor. Murkowski instead appointed his daughter to the seat, but he gave Palin the $125,000-a-year chairmanship of a state commission overseeing oil and gas drilling as a consolation prize.

More than anything, though, the one issue that made Sarah Palin a player in Alaska politics was when discovered that the state Republican leader, Randy Ruedrich, a commission member, was conducting party business on state time and favoring regulated companies. When Murkowski didn’t act on her complaints, Palin quit her position and went public with the information. The Republican establishment wasn’t amused and they shunned her. But her break with this gentlemen’s club of oil producers and political power catapulted her into the public eye. This incident is what allowed her to claim she was a reformer in Alaskan politics (though the evidence supports the contention that her actions were more for political gain than any reform-minded morality).

Either way, Sarah Palin entered the 2006 primary for governor as a formidable candidate.

It’s illuminating, and worth noting, that in the middle of the primary, a Conservative columnist in the state, Paul Jenkins, uncovered e-mail messages showing that Palin had conducted campaign business from the mayor’s office in Wasilla.

“I told her it looks like she did the same thing that Randy Ruedrich did,” Mr. Jenkins recalled. “And she said, ‘Yeah, what I did was wrong.'”

Jenkins hung up and decided against writing about the story. So he was surprised when his phone rang soon after and a reporter from Fairbanks, reading from a Palin news release, demanded to know why Jenkins was “smearing” her.

“Now I look at her,” Jenkins said, “and think: ‘Man, you’re slick.'”

Due largely to her handling of the Ruedrich issue, and using the shark-like political instincts that she deployed against Paul Jenkins, Sarah Palin won the Republican primary and received the party’s nomination. In the general election she faced Tony Knowles, the former two-term Democratic governor, and Andrew Halcro, an independent.

She wasn’t very experienced in policy matters, so Palin skipped some candidate forums. At others, she flipped through hand-written, color-coded index cards that had been strategically placed behind her nameplate. Before one forum, Mr. Halcro said he saw aides shovel reports at Ms. Palin as she crammed. But her showman’s instincts served her well. She put the pile of reports on the lectern. When she was asked what she would do about health care policy, she patted the stack of reports and said she would find an answer in the pile of solutions.

“She was fresh, and she was tomorrow,” said Michael Carey, a former editorial page editor for The Anchorage Daily News. “She just floated along like Mary Poppins.”

Palin won the election. She was inaugurated as Governor of Alaska in Fairbanks fifty years after Alaska became a state. But as she assembled her cabinet and made other state appointments, it quickly became obvious to those with insider credentials they were now on the way out. The pattern that was first apparent in Wasilla became clear. Palin surrounded herself with supporters; people she had known since grade school and members of her church. This is when her cult of personality really began to come to the fore.

When there was a vacancy at the top of the State Division of Agriculture, Palin appointed a high school classmate, Franci Havemeister, to the $95,000-a-year directorship. A former real estate agent, Ms. Havemeister cited her childhood love of cows as a qualification for running the roughly $2 million agency.

Havemeister was one of at least five schoolmates Ms. Palin hired, often at salaries far exceeding their private sector wages.

Palin chose Talis Colberg, a borough assemblyman from the Matanuska valley, as her attorney general, provoking the legal community to scratch their heads and ask, “Who?” Mr. Colberg moved from a one-room building in the valley into one of the most powerful offices in the state, supervising about 500 people.

A family friend, Kathy Wells, said, “I called him and asked, ‘Do you know how to supervise people?’ He said, ‘No, but I think I’ll get some help.'”

Palin hardly stopped there. The Wasilla High School yearbook archive now doubles as a veritable directory of state government. Palin appointed John Bitney, her former junior high school band-mate, as her legislative director and chose another classmate, Joe Austerman, to manage the economic development office for $82,908 a year. Austerman’s qualification was apparently that he had established an Alaska franchise for Mailboxes Etc.

Beside the issue of putting her friends and associates in high positions within her administration, Sarah Palin’s governing style ruffled a lot of feathers in Fairbanks. When she had to cut her first state budget, she ignored a legion of frustrated legislators and mayors and, instead, huddled with her budget director and her husband, Todd (an oil field worker who is not a state employee), and vetoed millions of dollars of legislative projects.

Many lawmakers believe that Palin is overly reliant on that small inner circle of friends that she’s surrounded herself with. Democrats and Republicans alike describe her as often missing in action. Since taking office in 2007, records show Palin has spent 312 nights at her Wasilla home (some 600 miles to the north of the governor’s mansion in Juneau). During the last legislative session, some lawmakers became so frustrated with her absences that they took to wearing “Where’s Sarah?” pins.

Many politicians say they typically learn of her initiatives (and vetoes) from news releases. Mayors across the state, from the larger cities to tiny municipalities along the southeastern fiords, are even more frustrated. Records and interviews show their letters often go unanswered and their pleas ignored.

Last summer, Mayor Mark Begich of Anchorage, a Democrat, pressed Ms. Palin to meet with him because the state had failed to deliver money needed to operate city traffic lights. At one point, records show, state officials told him to just turn off a dozen of them. According to city officials, Palin agreed to meet with Begich only when he threatened to go public with his anger.

At an Alaska Municipal League gathering in Juneau in January, mayors across the political spectrum swapped stories of the governor’s remoteness. How many of you, someone asked, have tried to meet with her? Every hand went up, recalled Mayor Fred Shields of Haines Borough. And how many met with her? Just a few hands rose.

The Governor soon walked in, delivered a few remarks and quickly left for an anti-abortion rally.

Sarah Palin runs an administration that puts a premium on loyalty and secrecy. Her administration has fought to keep information secret. Her inner circle discussed the benefit of using private e-mail addresses. An assistant told her it appeared that such e-mail messages sent to a private address on a “personal device” like a BlackBerry “would be confidential and not subject to subpoena.” Dozens of e-mail messages obtained by The New York Times show that Palin’s staff members studied whether this could allow them to circumvent subpoenas seeking public records. Believing they’d found a loophole, Palin and her aides used their private e-mail addresses for state business.

On Feb. 7, Frank Bailey, a high-level aide, wrote to Ms. Palin’s state e-mail address to discuss appointments. Another aide fired back: “Frank, this is not the governor’s personal account.” In other words, Palin and her administration were keen on keeping their correspondence out of the public record, and Bailey had erred by going through official channels.

Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska professor, sought the e-mail messages of state scientists who had examined the effect of global warming on polar bears. Palin claimed the scientists had found no ill effects, and she has sued the federal government to block the listing of the bears as endangered. An administration official told Mr. Steiner that his request would cost $468,784 to process. When Steiner finally obtained the e-mail messages, through a federal records request, he discovered that state scientists had, in fact, agreed that the bears were in danger.

“Their secrecy is off the charts,” Steiner said.

The administration’s e-mail correspondence reveals a siege-like atmosphere. Top aides keep score, demean enemies and gloat over successes. Even some who helped engineer Palin’s rise have taken fire from her.

Dan Fagan, a prominent conservative radio host and longtime friend of Ms. Palin, urged his listeners to vote for her in 2006. But when he took her to task for raising taxes on oil companies, he found himself branded a “hater”. It’s part of a pattern, Mr. Fagan said, in which Ms. Palin characterizes critics as “bad people who are anti-Alaska”.

Palin’s paranoia and personal politics have only grown more grandiose as she’s become John McCain’s running mate. The McCain campaign is trying to control the statements of those who know Sarah Palin well. Her mother-in-law, Faye Palin, has been asked not to speak to reporters, and aides sit in on interviews with old friends. At a lunch gathering, an official with the Wasilla Chamber of Commerce asked its members to refer all calls from reporters to the governor’s office.

Dianne Woodruff, a city councilwoman, shook her head. “I was thinking, I don’t remember giving up my First Amendment rights. Just because you’re not going gaga over Sarah doesn’t mean you can’t speak your mind.”

And earlier this year, a Wasilla blogger, Sherry Whitstine, who chronicles the governor’s career with an astringent eye, answered her phone to hear an assistant to the governor on the line, she said.

“You should be ashamed!” Ivy Frye, the assistant, told her. “Stop blogging. Stop blogging right now!”

It seems clear what Americans can expect from a Sarah Palin presidency. The governor’s extreme religious and ideological views are worrisome enough. But when you consider that so far she’s treated American citizens, fellow politicians, and especially her critics as unruly subjects and enemies against whom she is all-too-willing to pursue personal vendettas, there’s no way any reasonable voter could think of Sarah Palin as anything other than a dangerous ideologue who clearly doesn’t understand the basic concepts of morality, fairness and personal accountability, much less more weighty themes such as democracy and civil rights.

I think many of us can clearly imagine President Sarah Palin taking a marker to the Constitution of the United States, blocking out those parts which she doesn’t agree with. After all, it was written so long ago? Isn’t it time someone updated that modly old thing?

I can also imagine yearly IRS audits for every politician who stood in her way on the road to the White House. We all know that Sarah Palin settles old scores.

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