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.
Hardly any of this was news in Wasilla. Most everyone knows most everyone else or their brother, and politeness, at least on the surface, is the rule. You might dislike the candidate, but you’re friendly with her mother, so it is better not to say anything nasty, especially on the record. Besides, who really wants to piss off Sarah the Barracuda, especially when she’s the governor and signs your check?
Still, you hear things. You hear how Sarah and Todd flaunted Wasilla’s first extended-cab pickup, a key signifier of rural royalty. You hear that when Todd—a four-time winner—got beat in the Iron Dog snow- machine race, Sarah had a shit fit, leading the winner, fellow Wasillan Andy George, to say, “Hey, Sarah, that’s why they call it racing.” You might hear that everyone in town knew about Bristol and Levi Johnston, and how much Palin’s hockey-mom stance is compromised by the fact that she rarely stayed through a full game since her hothead son Track often spent much of the first period in the penalty box before being sent to the locker room for good. Couldn’t Sarah and the First Dude have figured out how to instill some family values in the kid?
Yet there was another side to it. Palin’s abortion position included choosing “life” even if her own daughter had been raped, but she wasn’t a hypocrite. If Bristol was knocked up, she would get married; the loaded shotgun was right behind the screen door. There were some who questioned the maternal instincts of someone whose water broke in Texas but decided to take a several-hour flight back to Alaska to have her baby. But you had to acknowledge Palin’s determination to have Trig knowing he had Down syndrome. He was still one of God’s children, wholly worthy of life. That was what it was with Palin, Wasilla people said: You might not like everything about her, but she had a spine, a rare thing in this day and age. That said, the question remained, if you were an Alaskan, a real Alaskan, the sort of person who was willing to bet big oil-field money on the Nenana Ice Classic trying to predict the exact moment the spring ice would break on a river near the Arctic Circle, why would you want to be vice-president, or even the president of the USA, as Palin obviously lusted to be?
One of the bigger whoppers Palin told Katie Couric was, “Believe me, Alaska is like a microcosm of America.” As anyone will tell you, it just ain’t the same up here in the Mat-Su and beyond, not like in the Outside, which is what Alaskans call the rest of the country. Therein is the fudge in Palin’s winking, down-home “you betchas.” She’s supposed to be “jus’ folks,” just like us—not counting anyone you might see on the subway, of course—but as the hand-painted LEAVING AMERICA, ENTERING ALASKA signs at the Anchorage city line attest, this is a whole other country.
Sure, you got the animal-killing. Few homes don’t have the heads of something mounted on the wall. “Hunting with Dad” is an accepted school excuse. It is not considered strange that Palin supports shooting wolves from low-flying planes to keep the moose population up so they can later be killed by megaoutfitted sport hunters.
Beyond this is the all-powerful Alaskan petro economy, which operates inversely to the Lower 48’s. In the early nineties, when the price of crude coursing through the Alyeska pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez was $20 a barrel and everyone down south was buying SUVs, Alaska was busted. Recently, with us suckers suffering $120 barrels, Alaska has been booming. Things have been so flush that Palin was able to add $1,200 to everyone’s PFD check. That is the state’s Permanent Fund Dividend, the yearly payment from the vast publicly owned account holding the state’s oil revenues. For Alaskans, an exceedingly high percentage of whom work for the government they demand get off their backs, the deal is good. Everyone who meets the residence requirement gets a PFD check, which means should you be a Russian immigrant with, say, thirteen children, this year you would have garnered $3,269 (with Palin’s extra $1,200) per family member, or something like $50,000 simply for living here.
No doubt the extra $1,200 is at least partially responsible for Sarah Palin’s claim to be the most beloved governor in the country. It was, after all, a grand populist gesture—shit, that’s a free flat-screen right there! In fact, as chief executive of a semi-socialist petrochemical-rich state, Sarah Palin has a lot in common with those twin bogeymen Hugo Chávez and the hated Ahmadinejad, may the Lord consign him to hydrocarbon fires of hell.
Alaskans are well aware of how their state works in comparison with the rest of the country. “When you go to visit people in the Lower 48, you can see they’re hurting. You can even feel guilty about it,” says one longtime resident.
Nonetheless, for better or worse, many Wasillans see themselves inextricably bound to Palin’s exploding celebrity. “Forever and ever, whenever anyone says Wasilla, people will think Sarah. We’re tied at the hip, one in the same,” says Verne Rupright, a rumple-faced Vietnam veteran currently walking door-to-door, which is the way Sarah Palin did it, trying to convince people to vote for him for Wasilla mayor.
This Sarah-hometown connection comes into high relief in light of the fact Main Street Wasilla is widely regarded as the ugliest stretch of road in the entire state. I mean, Alaska is the most beautiful country in the world. You ride inspired through the mountains and hay flats outside Palmer, then there you are: in Wasilla, where the Parks Highway is lined with almost every fast-food franchise and big-box store known to man. Pizza Hut, Carl’s Jr., Arby’s, Burger King, Subway, Taco Bell, Mickey D’s—they’re all here, neon etched against the foothills, this awesome array of American corporate cuisine, right beside Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Fred Meyer.
Back in the pre-progress eighties, noted Wasillan Wild Bill Nelson used to ride up and down the Parks Highway, his car festooned with signs lambasting lawyers. He welded a toilet to the top of the vehicle, where he’d sometimes sit reading a newspaper to demonstrate contempt for what he considered the onrushing sins of the modern world. “If Wild Bill drove down Parks now, it would wilt his pecker,” said one observer.
The strip-malling is affecting the Wasilla brand. The town has registered the phrase “Home of the Iditarod,” but the race’s starting line has been moved up the valley to Willow. Asked why at a Rotary Club meeting, race official Chas St. George said, “Two reasons: not enough snow and too much development.”
With Sarah out of town, it was as if McCain operatives were running the state.
“Sarah didn’t single-handedly make this town. But it couldn’t have been done without her. It is Wasilla’s great honor to share Sarah Palin with the world,” says the relentlessly upbeat Marty Metiva, who is running against Rupright for the right to step into Palin’s peek-toe pumps. Being mayor of Wasilla is a good gig; the job pays in excess of $70,000.
“If she wins, it’ll be worth a lot to this town,” adds Metiva, who isn’t proposing changing the name of the place “to Palinville or anything like that.” However, should McCain drop dead and Sarah move into the top job, that would be different. “We would absolutely want her presidential papers in the library,” says one not-so-convinced Rotary Club attendee. “We’d have to build a new museum. Maybe two, for Todd’s snow machines.”
This is the big question: How does something like this happen, how can Sarah have blown up so big? Many say it is just Alaska’s skimpy gene pool. Here, the determined can claw their way to the top. The openings are there, you just need the smarts, the opportunism, and sheer luck.
“Being Wasilla mayor is another one those Alaskan jobs you just can’t screw up in,” says one resident. Everyone agrees Palin caught a huge break when the imposition of a local sales tax enabled the town’s remarkable growth. To wit: Back in the nineties, when John Stein, Palin’s predecessor, was mayor, Wasilla had no police force. The town was patrolled by state troopers, who, sick of making dope and domestic-abuse arrests, told the city to get their own cops. To this end, Stein, against much opposition, instituted a 2 percent sales tax on goods sold within the Wasilla city limits. This financed a police department, but then Stein was defeated by the upstart Palin (the vote: 617–413), who reputedly ran an unprecedented partisan campaign in a municipality where few candidates had ever bothered to declare party affiliation.
The sales tax might have been Stein’s idea, but it was Palin who got the credit, This rankles many in the area, since they are technically not Wasilla residents and so receive no benefit from the tax. Since people come from far and wide in the Mat-Su to shop, it makes Wasilla a rich town. “Palin is calling herself some kind of fiscal conservative?” says one local who’s disgruntled about the sales tax. “You think it takes a financial wizard to balance that kind of budget? It is a joke.”
Keeping this in mind, I wondered if Sarah Palin, who shot her first rabbit right off her back porch when she was 10, had any regrets about her role in the strip-malling of her hometown.
“I doubt it,” says one of the original Mat-Su homesteaders. “The people here had a chance to have the Parks Highway bypass the town. But they wanted it. They were hungry, they needed the business. That’s the classic dilemma in a place like Wasilla. You don’t really want to be like the Lower 48, that’s why you live in Alaska. I’m sure Sarah thinks downtown Wasilla is a good compromise. She probably drives down the Parks Highway and thinks it is a triumph because it looks like the rest of the country.”
For many, this “mainstreaming” has been key to Palin’s move up the ladder. “The last thing she ever wanted to be was a townie, you know, Valley Trash,” says one local, referring to the phrase once infamously used by Ben Stevens, son of Senator Ted, to denigrate the Mat-Su demographic. There is a reason, after all, the biggest belly laugh Tina Fey got from Wasillans was when she described Palin as the former mayor of the “Alaska’s crystal-meth capital of the world.”
You don’t have to look hard to find the Trash. Just drive over to where the lost souls hang around the public showers ($3.50 per twelve minutes, clean towel 75 cents extra) in Meadow Lakes, a.k.a. Ghetto Lakes, west of Wasilla. Get a gander at the browned-out dentition and know those boys have been cooking the nastier white lightning. One such individual was inside the shower waiting room staring blankly at the TV bolted to the wall. Sarah Palin was on, being interviewed by Sean Hannity. Asked what he thought of Palin, the meth fiend said, “Who?”
The Mat-Su is a key contributor to the distressing statistics that put Alaska near the top of the nation, per capita, in cases of rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, drug abuse, and alcoholism. All those Joe Six-Pack virtues. Last year, a couple of Wasilla young people, Kendra Grace Butts and Amber Marie Martin, were indicted for robbing some little kids of their Halloween candy at gunpoint. They could be looking at seven years apiece.
It gets sad. Up the Wasilla-Fishhook Road, I ran into a girl about 12 wearing a T-shirt reading I MIGHT BE CUTE BUT I’M SMART TOO.
My companion knew her family. “How’s your grandfather?” my friend asked. “He’s in jail,” the girl replied, evenly. “Oh. Sorry.” Hearing this, the girl looked up with a flash of anger. “Don’t be sorry,” she said. “What he did was wrong. I hope he never gets out.” She didn’t specify what crime the grandfather had committed, but the edge in the girl’s voice was unmistakable. My friend and I rode home in silence.
One of the prime complaints against Palin’s performance as governor has been her steadfast cutting of most social programs. Many in the large Native population feel she has ignored their issues. Instead, the governor offers “prayer.”
Luckily, there are many churches in Wasilla. Google lists 766 houses of worship in the general area. No Wasilla church, however, has gotten the attention of the Wasilla Assembly of God church on Riley Avenue, where Sarah Palin was first “saved.” Palin attended the church for more than a decade and makes no secret that she’s been heavily influenced by the teachings of Pastor Ed Kalnins, a Mac Davis–coiffed “pre-millennialist” with a gung ho attitude toward the end of days who once reputedly claimed a vote for John Kerry was a one-way ticket to damnation. It was at the Wasilla Assembly of God that Palin, as documented on a much-watched YouTube video, received a preventive exorcism against the sins of witchcraft from a Kenyan Pentecostal pastor, Bishop Thomas Muthee.
I drove over to catch the usual Assembly of God modern megachurch production: the junior league light show, the overloud ten-piece electric band doing six-part harmony covers of Christian-rock power ballads (one, “History Maker”—“I’m gonna be a History Maker in this land!”—had the Palin vibe). But this stay was short-lived. Already “burned” by members of the secular-humanist horde, Pastor Kalnins had banned press coverage. Denied an opportunity to speak with Bishop Muthee, I was given a souvenir coffee cup and told to leave.
A wholly other experience was offered at the Wasilla Bible Church, where Todd and Sarah Palin currently worship. The congregation sits on lines of folding chairs in a cavernous airplane hangar–like room adorned by a single wooden cross attached to the wall behind the pulpit. Music is provided by a chamber-music-style ensemble: violin, cello, piano, and guitar. There are no power ballads, just hymns and “Amazing Grace.” The pastor, Larry Kroon, speaks in a low-key, almost professorial manner. For a moment, you could imagine yourself among Unitarians.
Amid the sobriety, it was easy to forget Kroon was talking about the early chapters of the Book of Acts, the passages in which Jesus’s disciples are in a room in Jerusalem when “the blowing of a violent wind came from the Heaven … and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” Since this is probably the most important passage in the Pentecostal reading of the Bible—scriptural justification for the inflowing of the Holy Spirit, for speaking in glossolalia, all of that—it is often discussed, albeit with much more bombast, in Ed Kalnins’s Assembly of God. Kroon’s measured sermon did not change the meaning—for here, one might argue, is the underpinning for the anti-intellectualism of the church and religious people in general: Faced with the onrush of Spirit, that “violent wind from Heaven,” the rational thoughts of man will always be suspect. The eye of the believer is always fixed on the end of days, the loom of God’s terrible judgment of this world. Pastor Kroon made that much very clear, without once raising his voice.
It was time again to wonder about Sarah Palin and her journey. Did she leave the Assembly of God simply because the Wasilla Bible Church is bigger and has more voters, as some said. Or was it, as many said, because she no longer wanted to be associated with “those Holy Rollers”? Was Sarah already looking at the so-called Big Picture, far beyond the marvelously desolate, hopelessly Podunk boundaries of the 49th state?
After Katie Couric (Alaskans were amazed that the Exxon Valdez lawsuit, worth hundreds of millions to state fishermen, including First Dude Todd, was among the Supreme Court cases Palin, the “energy governor,” couldn’t remember), it seemed as if the Palin-mania alert had passed. The woman was not ready for even subprime time. But then came “Can I call you Joe,” the gee-golly coquettish wink, and the hockey momster was back in play, ringing the bell at the Mug-Shot Saloon again.
Answer questions? You must be kidding. She tried that and look what happened. This was another sort of performance. Despite all her talk of McCain, it seemed as if she’d half-left the old man, his sagging melanomas and losing campaign, well behind. She was going for herself now. It was all Sarah all the time.
“Didn’t blink!” exclaimed one local. “That was it right there. Palin’s Macbeth moment.”
The Palin TV movie had turned to something out of Sophocles, purple carpets writ large, Alaskan style. Before, she was simply this low-rent Reese Witherspoon–in– Election type, working her way up. Mayor. Governor. Then: Because the times are strange and McCain plays a desperate hunch, fate beckons. “Sarah Palin, come on down.” It isn’t just chance. No. What did Bishop Muthee say when he prayed to keep her free from witchcraft? That she was chosen. Anointed. Like King David. Anointed. How can you say no when God says yes?
For many it came down to a single crucial line, something Palin said in her interview with Charlie Gibson. Gibson queried Palin if she had to think it over when McCain offered her the nomination. She “didn’t blink,” Palin said.
“Didn’t blink!” exclaimed one local commentator. “That was it right there. Palin’s Macbeth moment! That’s when I knew that her shitty high-school ambition had taken over, completely subsumed her. Because this was a bad idea. Bad for her, bad for her family, bad for the State of Alaska, bad for the country. A really bad idea.”
Almost everyone I talked to mentioned the “didn’t blink” moment sooner or later. How can you “not blink” when your daughter is 17 and having a kid with Levi Johnston, whose MySpace page said he doesn’t want to have kids, when you’ve just given birth to a Down-syndrome child? How do you not blink when you’re governor, when you’ve been screaming about building this natural-gas pipeline and how God is really behind the project? Who’s going to build that now? How can you not blink when you’re an Alaskan?
For many, Palin’s will-to-power non-blink amounted to a personal betrayal, because a lot of these people had actually voted for Sarah Palin when she beat the roundly loathed Frank Murkowski in the Republican primary and again when she trounced the tired two-time governor Tony Knowles in the general election. They believed her when she said she wanted to throw out the old boys. Who cared if Palin believed dinosaurs and men walked the 6,000-year-old earth concurrently (which brings up the question, where exactly the creationists think the oil comes from)? All that mattered was she made those fuckers from ConocoPhillips pay. Maybe the extra money she wangled out of them wasn’t great, but it was something. After decades of corrupt indifference, something.
Then, suddenly, Palin was running for vice-president, meeting with Henry Kissinger as if the old lech is going to buck up her sketchy foreign-affairs background with some of his circa 1964 Dr. Strangelove balance-of-power analysis. This was right in the middle of Troopergate, the Peyton Place scandal in which Sarah, being Sarah, had fired her top cop for allegedly refusing to fire state trooper Mike Wooten, who had a nasty divorce with Palin’s sister, Molly. This was bad, true, but Wooten was a dick, he’d Tasered his own stepson and illegally shot a moose. He deserved to be fired.
What bothered Alaskans was the fact that Palin had bagged on the whole investigation. With Sarah out of town repeating her “team of mavericks” mantra, it was as if McCain operatives were running the state, while stonewalling the investigation. The other day, you could see a dozen suits drinking in the bar at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage. “Don’t look like local talent to me,” was the comment. And that was unforgivable, because if you know anything about Alaska, you know you don’t ever, willingly, turn it over to the Outside.
Palin’s story was a dilemma, a tragedy really. Because if Obama’s rise gives hope to people who never thought someone like them would ever get to be president, you couldn’t discount the longings of Palin’s Wasilla people. The other day, there was this woman standing in the parking lot of the Windbreak Cafe on the Parks Highway. She’d grown up with Sarah Palin, said the woman, who had a business making “body wraps.” You wrap this elastic thing around your body, and you lose weight. When Palin got the nod, she said, most people couldn’t believe it. “But I knew it was true. Why shouldn’t she be the vice-president? You always knew she was going to be somebody. I’d walk past her in the hall, and there’d be this glow. People put this place down, the Valley. But look at her. Look what she did. I can’t tell you how proud that makes me.”
We were talking about Palin again on the way to the Bowling Ball Bonfire, to be held that night in dense forest just north of Wasilla. The Bowling Ball Bonfire is one of those only-in-Alaska sort of entertainments. Bowling balls are placed into sawed-off oxygen tanks loaded with black powder and then shot a hundred feet into the air. Then the suspense sets in because who knows where they’ll come down.
“All she had to do was say no,” said Matt Cassidy, who in the tradition of his large, and largely Democratic family, had graduated from a good college (Carleton in Minnesota) and then returned to Wasilla to be an electrician. “No, I got these kids to take care of. No, I know you’re just using me to get the woman vote, and I’m not going to allow myself to used like that. No, I’m not cut out to be vice-president. I’m from fucking Alaska, for chrissakes. I don’t know shit! But she didn’t say no. She just couldn’t,” concluded Cassidy, who refers to Palin as “that ever-dangerous combination of cleavage and crucifix” and takes special pleasure in wearing a Barack Obama hat.
The hat has led to trouble in Palinville, Cassidy reports. “The other day, I’m talking to this guy about this wiring job, a guy I know well, and I feel this sharp pain in my arm. The guy stabbed me with his pencil … ‘What you do that for?’ I shouted. He said, ‘Come on, Matt, why do you have to wear that hat?’ ”
Then, looking up at the darkening sky, Cassidy said. “Shit, it is really getting wet out here.” The rain was coming down, making it difficult to light the powder that would send the bowling balls into the Mat-Su night. Eventually, it got too wet, and everyone retired to a neighbor’s house to put away several bottles of Johnnie Walker.
Properly sloshed, I asked the people in the garage if Palin herself would come to such an event? This elicited laughs. Maybe at one time, was the answer. She was a true Alaskan, she wouldn’t have minded getting her feet wet. But that was then and this was now, everyone agreed. That age of innocence was over.
Stumbling back from the Bowling Ball Bonfire, I stopped by the multisports complex. Built during the last days of the Palin regime in Wasilla, and containing an NHL-size rink, it was here that the hockey-mom legend was born, even if at the game I caught I saw no women wearing lipstick. If Palin becomes VP, the rink will probably be one of the things they’ll name after her.
The land behind the arena is undeveloped. It might even look the way it did when Sarah Palin first came up here with her family, “the wilderness” she talks about in her biography. At the edge of the parking lot, I saw three moose, a mom and two calves. They weren’t legal, of course, and I wasn’t going to shoot them even if they were, so I just watched them graze a moment. You never know how close you want to get to a moose, so I was kind of alarmed when the mom moose started walking toward me. I was about to jump into the car when the moose stopped, about ten feet away. It looked at me and then let out a low, mournful sound between a purr and snort. A har-rumf, I guess you’d call it. Then the moose exhaled, walked back to its young and disappeared into the trees.