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Dispatch From Alaska: Palin? Really?

Charles Wohlforth, a lifelong Alaska Democrat and occasional TNR contributor, gives us the word on Palin from up north.  

I first met Sarah Palin just after she'd been elected mayor of the little town of Wasilla, Alaska, in October 1996. My first impression was that she didn't seem up to the job.

I had written a Frommer's travel guidebook about Alaska (I live in Anchorage and was on the Municipal Assembly here at the time). In the book, I frankly described Wasilla as a place to skip, "the worst kind of suburban sprawl of highway-fronting shopping malls and gravel lots."

Wasilla boosters were furious and a local media debate erupted. A good many people came in on my side: Wasilla, with a complete lack of community planning, is truly Alaska's least attractive town. I went to speak to a luncheon at the area's visitor's bureau, and that's where I met Palin.

She came across, to be charitable about it, poorly--incapable of more than a big smile and a limp handshake. Maybe she was nervous, or her mind was elsewhere--but on that day, she couldn't even hold up her end in a light conversation.  

I eventually came to see her appeal when she ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2002. She projected an authenticity and freshness that was very appealing in a state saddled with a corrupt oligarchy of pro-oil Republicans. For Alaskans of Palin's generation (she's 44), the last few years have been a political coming of age. Younger candidates have smashed the state's company-town politics. Palin was among the first to take a stand. Having been in the right place at the right time, with that amazing smile, she shot upward in a way no one has ever done before.

The idea of her being a potential president, however, is laughable. That is to say, at our house this morning, we literally were belly-laughing when we heard the news that John McCain had chosen her. I wouldn't be surprised if the audience she spoke to at McCain's announcement was the largest she ever addressed. Alaska politicians don't use teleprompters. There rarely is an opportunity to orate to more than a hundred people.

Running for governor two years ago, Palin didn't have firm stands on issues, and in debates, she displayed discomfiting shallowness. A moderator had to ask her three times to clarify her position on the critical (for us) issue of indigenous hunting rights. Her victory was simply a vote for change.

In Juneau, while she's known for being uninterested in day-to-day governing, she's chosen a good team to run the state. She's also taken good care of her popularity, which has remained high thanks in part to the comparison with her fellow Alaskan politicians--some of whom have been carted off to jail in the FBI investigation of oil industry corruption in Alaska politics.

Now she's facing her own scandal: Troopergate. In July, Palin fired the beloved commissioner of Public Safety, Walt Monegan, without meaningful explanation. Monegan said he had resisted administration pressure to fire a State Trooper who was in a bitter child custody battle with Palin's sister. Palin first denied the pressure, then released evidence, including a recorded phone call, that backed up Monegan's story. The legislature, which isn't exactly Palin-friendly, hired an ex-prosecutor to investigate.

Senator Ted Stevens's son Ben once referred to people from Palin's Anchorage suburb as "valley trash," and the trooper scandal recalled that image. It was Clampett-style politics.

By most objective measures, she isn't ready to be a single heartbeat away from the presidency. The image of McCain and Palin on stage this morning looked a bit like a graduation picture, of father and daughter. It reminded me as well of the elder George Bush and Dan Quayle.

On the other hand, Palin did well in her speech. She always comes across as likeable on camera. Maybe that's all it takes.