Sarah Palin: poll star or risky northern exposure?
Can a mother-of-five who shoots bears, eats moose, and with limited political experience really expect to be US vice-president, asks Chris Ayres
AT the age of 10, Sarah Palin got her very own bunny rabbit. Which means to say that she crouched down in the grass outside her family home, aimed her shotgun and blew its furry little head off. That's how things work in Alaska. You kill stuff. You freeze it. You turn it into stew.
Strictly speaking, Palin -- the Governor of Alaska and perhaps future Vice-President of the United States -- isn't a native Alaskan, but she might as well be. She moved there from Idaho as an infant when her father, Chuck Heath, took a teaching job in Skagway, near the border with British Columbia. The family moved later to Wasilla, a town of 400 people, about an hour to the northeast of the state's biggest city, Anchorage. Until two years ago Palin was Mayor of Wasilla, which, according to most estimates, has a population of 7,000 today.
In an effort to find out what inspired McCain's decision, I travelled to Alaska. Could all the astonishing details I had read about this 44-year-old woman's life possibly be true? Basketball prodigy. Wife of a half-Inuit named Todd who races snowmobiles and calls himself the First Dude. Part-time commercial fisherwoman. Talented moose-killer. Former runner-up Miss Alaska. Mother of five (one of whom is named Polaris, after a make of snowmobile). Beautiful. And, of course, governor -- with an Elliot Ness agenda that has seen her take on the members of her own Republican Party, calling out corruption and wasteful government spending, going as far as to auction her predecessor's private jet on eBay.
And let's not forget the evangelical Christianity, the creationism, and the steadfast belief in the sanctity of life that meant she didn't think twice about keeping her youngest son after it was confirmed during pregnancy that the boy would struggle with Down's Syndrome. Aside from her lack of experience, her life seemed just, well . . . too good to be true: for red-state Republicans, at least.
Arriving in Anchorage, the city looks more like a frontier town than I had imagined: strip-malls, bars, a handful of oil company skyscrapers.
I buy a cup of coffee from an Inuit, and it tastes exactly how you would imagine a cup of coffee made by an Inuit would taste. In the car park of my hotel, someone has written "Way to Go, Sarah!!!" on the back of their Ford SUV.
I pick up a copy of the 'Anchorage Daily News' and see that Palin's improbable career is already being given the CSI treatment: it turns out that her crusading opposition to the so-called Bridge To Nowhere -- which would have linked an island with a population of 50 to the Alaskan mainland at the cost of a third of a billion dollars -- was nothing of the sort. As John Kerry might put it, she was for the bridge before she was against it.
"I think we're going to make a good team as we progress that bridge project," the paper quoted her as saying in 2006, while campaigning for governor. Standing by McCain's side last week, she declared: "I told Congress, thanks but no thanks on that bridge."
So what about allegations that McCain's new vice-presidential candidate forced a public safety commissioner to resign after he refused to fire a police officer involved in a messy divorce with Palin's sister. I drive to Wasilla. It's a small, unkempt-looking place and the residents, including Palin, proudly call themselves Valley Trash. Since Friday, the place has been mobbed with secret-service agents and visitors such as myself.
Palin's primary boast about her two terms as Wasilla's mayor is that she helped it to become the fastest-growing town in Alaska. At the same time, she served on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, where she took it upon herself to single-handedly dismantle the "good old boy network", resulting in one of her fellow commissioners and Alaska's former attorney general both paying record fines for ethics violations.
Outside a store, I collar Bobby and Mary Deason, both in their sixties. Bobby is retired, Mary works for the school district. It turns out their children went to school with Palin, and know her well. "I think she's great," says Bobby, who adds that his relatives in Alabama woke him up with the news of her appointment. "I always knew she'd be picked if she was considered," he says. "She's the best-lookin' governor in the country, heh-heh!"
Like Palin, Bobby is a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), and I can't help but warm to him. "Last week, I shot a nice brown bear," he tells me, grinning. "And I got myself a nice bull Caribou, too."
Others are similarly enthusiastic. Melinda Crockett (35) tells me that McCain's choice of Palin convinced her to vote Republican. "I think that mothers can do great things," she says, as her two daughters pull on her sleeves. "She's a great choice. She adds youth and freshness."
I read more about this in Palin's biography, Sarah, which is piled high near the checkout of a local book shop (a few days ago the book's tiny publisher, Epicenter Press, could barely give the thing away. Now it's been inundated with orders for 45,000 copies, with presumably more pending).
Sarah describes going salmon fishing with Todd on a 26ft boat without a cabin, in hammering rain and ferocious winds. One time, she broke her hand, went ashore to get a bandage, then went back out to sea for the final catch. "Todd is a brutal boss," she writes. "He shows no mercy to anyone."
But that's the way things are in Alaska: tough. Palin is as much of a provider as any man. Yet how she manages to care for five children at the same time is anyone's guess: we can only assume that she relies on her large extended family.
On the way back to Anchorage, I flip on the radio. A caller says that Palin has more foreign policy experience than Obama because Alaska and Russia are a mere three miles apart at their closest point. He adds that Palin also has a long history of dealing with Canadians.
Later, another listener says he's worried about the investigation of Palin for allegedly trying to get her ex-brother-in-law fired. The host calls him a despicable human being and throws him off the air. It's what you'd expect of a right-wing radio host, but there's also something protective about the way he does it. I wonder if John McCain might be a genius. (© The Times, London)