Palin the Player: My Interview With Wasilla's Famous Palin Observer

There will no doubt be many lessons learned on all sides from the watershed presidential election that is fast coming to a close in this, the eighth year of the new millennium. We can surely expect an all out, down and dirty battle for spin control on what those lessons are among the contending factions of the Republican party. Under George W. Bush's leadership, an ultra rightwing Republican agenda has arguably brought the entire country to ruin. However much they have to answer for, though, it appears that hard line conservatives are not inclined to waste any time on self reflection. As election day approaches on heavy feet, they are reported to have set their sights on adopting Sarah Palin as the bright new face who can sell their extremist politics to the nation next time around and meanwhile help them keep the Republican party safely in hand.

The national psyche is saturated with the tsunami of (to adopt Palin terminology) verbiage devoted to the comely GOP vice presidential candidate whom just about everyone has come in short order to love or hate. But, while her hapless running mate goes around rhetorically asking who his opponent really is, many are wondering with much more cause who the redoubtable Sarah Palin really is. We've heard more than we care to about her, yet Palin remains an elusive, faintly cartoonish figment of the public imagination. Who is this gorgeous woman of unshakable aplomb with the elaborately casual hairdos and snazzy high-priced jackets? Something about her definitely doesn't add up. When we hear that exaggerated Minnesota accent and witness the ingratiating winks and smirks she sends our way as she smoothly delivers her innocuous sounding yet slyly poisonous, innuendo laden attacks on a man she knows as little about as she does about foreign policy--who, we ask ourselves, is in residence behind that act? What might we expect of this personage were she to become vice president of the United States?

Shortly after Palin was catapulted into the headlines, Anne Kilkenney, a long time resident and government watchdog in Palin's hometown Wasilla, attempted to address that question in a message she sent to a list of personal email correspondents that, as she puts it, unexpectedly "went viral" on the internet, winding up in inboxes all over the country. Unfortunately, hoaxsters seized the opportunity to insert their own remarks into Kilkenney's message, passing on to many a bowdlerized version that she has since corrected with a second message for public record. In a recent telephone interview, Kilkenney opined that, had Palin not come upon the national scene as such an unknown quantity, Kilkenney's assessments of her town mate would not have been of much interest to anyone outside her own circle.

That being said, Kilkenney does not regret having sent her statements out and feels that, under the circumstances, it was the right thing to do. As an involved citizen who's participated in Wasilla City Council meetings and one well acquainted with Palin's record as local leader, she continues to be a valuable resource to help fill in the blank for the rest of America. Kilkenney's description of Palin notably reveals neither an ideological crusader nor a righteous reformer, but rather, a self-promoting opportunist with a gift for demagoguery. "I've tried to discern what her philosophy is, what her true values as a civil servant are," Kilkenney says. "Her record is so inconsistent, I've come to the conclusion that what has made her successful is her uncanny ability to sense the mood of the voters, to tap into their fears and prejudices and say what they want to hear." When asked what motivates Palin, her former campaign manager Laura Chase responds: "She likes being in the limelight, being the center of attention. What she really craves is popularity, she wants the warmth and love of the public. She can walk up to people and quickly have a perception of what they want her to be, and she will instantly be that person." Chase and others use the word chameleon to epitomize their impressions of McCain's running mate. "I admire her," Chase says. "She has boundless energy and great determination. But the idea that she could be the leader of the free world scares the hell out of me." [ 10/10/08]

Kilkenney observes that Palin has never to her knowledge advocated for anything except when running for office and that, once in office, she does not necessarily try to deliver what she's led people to believe she will, an opinion with which one time Palin mentor and Republican former president of the Alaskan State Senate Lyda Green concurs. [, 10/10/08] Another observer, Anchorage Daily News columnist and former editorial page editor Michael Carey, notes that Palin conveys the message "I'm like you" and is adept at exploiting affinity politics. He points out that her pattern is to use polarizing issues to galvanize support, playing the outsider to vested interests, the gal in the white hat who's riding into town to clean things up [NPR Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, 10/15/08). This is reportedly the tactic she used in getting herself elected to every public office she's held.

Palen has indeed challenged corruption in her own party and state. However, as local newspaper The Frontiersman editorialized following her ascension to power politics as mayor of Wasilla by a 616-413 vote, "Palin promises to change the status quo, but at every turn we find hints of cronyism and political maneuvering." By firing and pushing out most of the top municipal officials, making personal loyalty to her the only criterion for their replacements, illegally trying to stack city council, making false allegations, accusing critics of being underhanded enemies, and spending unauthorized funds to redecorate her city hall office, recently elected Mayor Palin had in short order brought chaos to her fair town. To remedy this, Wasilla took the unprecedented measure of hiring a city administrator to do the day-to-day work that would normally be expected of a fulltime mayor. Kilkenney reports that Palin left the task of running the town to this administrator while she covered mainly the more public and ceremonial roles. Similarly, in the words of Alaska Budget Report editor Rebecca Braun, as governor "she really hasn't done very much." An Alaskan civil servant with experience under three governors, Larry Persily sums up Palin's gubernatorial performance to date: "She had no interest in public policy beyond the populist drive to raise oil taxes and push through ethics reforms that the Democrat had already drafted." [ 10/10/08]

Palin demands unquestioning loyalty from others but evidently does not feel any need to return such loyalty. John McCain might well beware a pattern of what Kilkenney calls "biting the hand that feeds her." From Nick Carney, the former Wasilla city councilman who mentored Palin in her first bid for office to Lyda Green, the erstwhile Republican state senator who generously supported Palin in that bid and later helped her get key legislation passed as governor, to former Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski, who gave her a plum appointment as chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission--in all these cases and others too, Palin has soon turned on those who assisted in her remarkable rise from housewife to governor. Once the position she seeks has been attained, Palin evidently has no scruple about using her newly acquired power against the very allies who helped her get it. For one instance among many, for reasons unknown, Palin returned Green's favors by actively taking measures to curtail Green's political career: she recruited and backed a popular candidate to oppose Green for her state senate seat. Seeing the writing on the wall, Green decided not to run again, leaving the field to Palin's protégé.

Kilkenney points out that, despite her acclaimed attacks on corruption in high places, Palin is not a reformer. The chair of the Alaska Republican party on whom she blew the whistle is still the chair and party politics go on as usual. Had Palin chosen to reform the Alaskan state trooper operation rather than carry out a vendetta against her ex-brother-in-law and then against Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan for refusing to violate personnel policies--had she addressed institutional problems rather than pursuing a purely personal agenda, she might be entitled to claim the mantle of reformer. Nor, on grounds that Palin's politics do not differ from those of her party, does Kilkenney see Palin as a maverick. Rather, she pegs Sarah Palin as "a soloist." If Kilkenney is right in this assessment of the woman who would be vice president, behind those dazzling good looks and that subtly seductive demeanor, her adoring rightwing fans may in due time discover not so much a pitbull in lipstick as a woman who's purely--and quite cleverly--out for herself.