Tuesday, September 16, 2008


When John McCain chose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for his running mate, the decision caught everyone completely off guard. That shock and embarrassment, even, extended to America’s major book publishing houses. So instead of the normal quickie campaign clip job put out by one of the larger imprints, for now we have the surprise small press publishing the success story of the year.

“Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska’s Political Establishment Upside Down,” was released earlier this year with limited sales expectations and no idea that Mrs. Palin might end up on the Republican ticket. Epicenter is a regional press that puts out tales of survival and triumph on Alaska’s frontier. In a way, that’s what this book is about.

Author Kaylene Johnson is from Wasilla, the small town in the Mat-Su Valley where Mrs. Palin served as mayor for two terms. The book traces Mrs. Palin’s early life, her high school basketball career, her rise to mayor, her struggles with corrupt Alaska Republican politicians and her winning gubernatorial campaign. Mrs. Palin’s short but important tenure as governor is relegated to an epilogue.

This book will have its critics. Blame genre for some of that. It is not a normal campaign book because it was never intended as a campaign book. Past scoffers are quoted but usually only after they have come around about Mrs. Palin or been proved embarrassingly wrong. Controversies are mentioned but not explored. Mrs. Palin is referred throughout simply as “Sarah.” The volume is slim, with about a fifth of the pages reserved for candid color photographs. The first picture is of a two-year-old pudgy Sarah Palin in overall shorts, dangling two live shrimp by their legs, with a look of bemusement.

The unselfconscious folksiness can grate but this reviewer found the book, like its subject, ultimately impossible to hate. It has its charms and its uses. It captures certain small moments and gives us some insight into Alaska’s hockey mom-statesman. And it does this without the usual page bloat that comes with most modern campaign books.

Barack Obama and company have criticized Mrs. Palin’s relative inexperience and her small town start in politics. Superficially, they have a point. (Though, in fairness, we should note that Mr. Obama won his first elective office by having all the other candidates thrown off the ballot, that he has never held a government executive post and that he is serving his first term in the United States Senate.) In fact, as the author clearly spells out, she didn’t crack a thousand votes until her unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor.

Mrs. Palin first won elective office on the Wasilla city council in 1992 by a vote of 530-310. She won the mayor’s race four years later 651-440 and was reelected by a vote of 826-225. In 2002, she came a close second in the Republican statewide primary for lieutenant governor and in 2006 she won the party’s nomination and 48 percent of the vote in a three-way race to become Alaska’s first female governor.

Alaska’s young, not altogether unattractive executive is now broadly popular, enjoying approval ratings in the 80s. But she has a knack for making mortal enemies of those in her own party. At a Republican picnic two weeks before the gubernatorial primary, GOP attorney Bill Large tried to eject Mrs. Palin’s sign-waving supporters, shouting that they were a bunch of “brown shirts” and “communists.”

Mr. Large’s temper likely came to boil because the interests of Alaska’s Republican Party had grown closely intertwined with big oil producers, and Mrs. Palin threatened that link. Then-governor Frank Murkowski secured special tax treatment for oil companies and shielded his friends from conflict of interest charges for their own oily dealings. He proposed a statewide sales tax and cut back payments to old folks rather than wring more money out the state’s greatest natural resource.

As governor, Mrs. Palin took the opposite approach. She backed an increase in the base tax rate of oil firms’ profits from 22.5 to 25 percent. Mr. Murkowski’s administration had been marked by secret dealings with oil companies. Mrs. Palin signed serious ethics reforms and opened a proposed North Slope natural gas pipeline up for competitive bidding. Outsider TransCanada Corp. won the contract.

Mrs. Palin also vetoed hundreds of millions of dollars in state pork barrel spending and turned hard against the infamous “bridges to nowhere” project, that $450 billion boondoggle for which Alaska Sen.Ted Stevens and Congressman Don Young had secured federal funding. That’s why she’s going somewhere today.

Jeremy Lott is author of “The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency.”

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