Over the summer, I figured that soon enough, I’d be kicking back in some swell downtown bar, congratulating myself for being a citizen of a country that would elect a black man president. But that was before that wild-and-crazy maverick McCain activated his North Country sleeper cell and the race got upended, during those strange early days of fall. There she came, breaking through the polar ice like so many nuclear-age hockey momsters before her: the Sarah thing. That is why I was inside the Mug-Shot Saloon in Wasilla, Alaska, talking to one L. D. Crain, who had just slammed a .22 pistol onto the bar-top to show he was packing like, he claimed, everyone else in the joint.
A diminutive, squinty-eyed biker-barber from Phoenix, where, he said, he cut Barry Goldwater’s hair, L. D., now in his seventies but still flinty, came to Alaska for the same reason many people do: “Nowhere else would take me.” L. D. had never seen the Mug-Shot as crowded as the night Sarah Palin, Wasilla’s former mayor, made her vice-presidential acceptance speech.
“That shit about the pit bull and the lipstick had the bell ringing off the hook.” L. D. was referring to the bell set up at the front of the horseshoe bar that peals, loudly, every time one of the local lushes hits the scratch-off and buys a round for the house. A couple of weeks later, the bell was clanging again, when Palin, cute as a you-betcha button in her debate with Joe Biden, said she was going to give the American people a little bit of that ol’ time Main Street Wasilla “reality.”
For weeks since the nomination, through the Katie Couric brain freeze, people in Wasilla had been saying McCain should just let “Sarah be Sarah,” unleash the Barracuda they knew. And now, there she was, in front of the whole country, swimming in the big waters, pearly whites bared.
“Give it to him, Sarah,” came the cry. “Kick that Biden butt.”
Maybe its those northern lights, green and dancing on the horizon, but it takes a special soul to make a life up here above the 60th parallel. For a certain kind of person—an Alaskan—it’s a certain kind of heaven. The place has its own rhythm, apart from all others.
Usually, by October, with the Alaska winter setting in, the claustrophobia of the snow line creeping down the sides of the Chugachs, the Mat-Su (as the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, the vast lowland north of Anchorage, is called) is well into pre-hibernation mode. There is insulation to shove into window frames, wood to be split, and with the season in swing, plenty of moose to be shot, dressed, sliced, sealed into plastic bags, and stored in freezers.
But there’s never been a year like this, not since Charlie Chaplin ate his shoe during the Gold Rush, at least. How often does a nearly unknown former mayor of a nowhere town like Wasilla (pop. 9,780)—suddenly, surreally, a potential single unsteady type-A heartbeat away from the same job once held by George Washington—get more than 70 million people to tune in to watch her on TV? It wasn’t Biden’s hair-plugs they wanted to see. In the most phantasmagorical election in decades, Sarah Palin was the star, breaking through the bubba barrier to become the most ferociously tabloid candidate in the history of the republic.
To be living in Wasilla these days, where schoolteacher Charles Heath and his wife, Sally, brought their 3-month-old daughter, Sarah, from Idaho in 1964, is to be cast in a sprawling soap opera, complete with Secret Service agents in the lobby of the Best Western. The fast-moving plot points were piled more densely than a plate of pancakes and reindeer sausages at the Windbreak Cafe on Parks Highway.
First came the basic Capraesque framework: the headstrong boondocks girl; the feisty point guard of the Wasilla Warriors’ miracle 1982 state-championship team; the beauty queen in the pink bathing suit able to keep smiling enough to win Miss Congeniality despite coming in second to the first African-American ever crowned Miss Alaska; the marriage to the high-school sweetie—ultimate heartthrob “First Dude,” Todd Palin; the supermom go-getter City Council member (at age 28) and mayor (at age 32); the Trumanesque, give-’em-hell, whistle-blowing governor who took on the old-boy oil network … etc., etc.
This was coupled with the wacky counternarrative, the dirt the McCain campaign would have had in ten minutes if they had only hired National Enquirer interns to conduct the vetting process: the shocker of daughter Bristol’s unwed pregnancy, the reported attempts by then–Mayor Palin to ban books at the local library, the religious zealotry—that business about Alaska’s being a “refuge state” in soon-coming Last Days.