August 31, 2008

Sarah Palin

Before I became a missionary, I was a news reporter at KNOM radio in Nome, Alaska for two years and covered Sarah Palin’s successful run for governor in 2006. It has been a stunning feeling to read all the news about her these last few days. This is surely the closest I’ll ever get to the Oval Office. (It’s also fun to watch national pundits talk about her and realize, “hey, I know more about this than you do.”)

I interviewed Palin three times, twice before the election and once in her office in Juneau, after she had won. At the time, I was keeping a blog about Alaska issues and I wrote about the first interview and the second interview (but not the third, strangely, though I do recall that she read off of note cards in that interview as well as the other ones). In addition to those recollections of specific interviews, if you search that blog for “Palin,” you’ll find lots of thoughts on her campaign and her first few months in office.

I also went to at least two of her press conferences, leading to my favourite interaction with her, about a month after I danced with her at her inaugural ball in Nome. I was in Juneau for my first-ever gubernatorial press conference and before we began a friendly old-hand reporter went to introduce me to her. He said, “Governor, this is Jesse…” but she cut him off and said, “Oh, I know Jesse Zink. We danced together in Nome!” That sure caught the attention of the rest of the press corps.

One thing I remember about her was how she uses “progress” as a verb and not a noun, as in “we want to progress these issues for Alaska” instead of “we want to make progress.” It drove me nuts then and still does, when I saw her use the phrase in a recent interview some place. Her signature legislative accomplishment of her first term was the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act or AGIA, even though Gasline is a not a word. The phrase is “gas pipeline.” Politicians mangle that most beautiful of all things, the English language. What else is new? Sigh…

After she was elected, there was lots of talk about her beauty, sayings like, “Alaska - coldest state, hottest governor” or “HGIA - hottest governor in America.” Though I think she is a person of substance, I do think her looks and her overwhelming charisma are an integral part of her persona, as is the case for many other politicians. I can remember preparing to interview her and wanting to hit her with all kinds of tough questions. Then when I actually came face-to-face, I would be overwhelmed by the desire to soften my questions, not ask the tough follow-up question, or take her answers as gospel truth. When I went back to listen to them later, I’d realize how much she had dodged the question or given an inadequate answer. I guess that’s called “being spun.”

I remember Palin as being kind and friendly, in a genuine way. This was not the case for every politician I met or interviewed. Her personality and her charisma are a huge part of her record popularity in Alaska, I think, as much as her policies.

I think McCain's surrogates just need to drop the talking points about her experience as commander of the Alaska National Guard on the front lines with Russia. I've interviewed National Guard members on the true front lines in Gambell and Savoonga and Diomede (check Google Maps for where those are) and it doesn't matter who their commander is. They did a fine job defending the border during the Cold War (and it actually did need some defending, I learned, in fascinating detail from some fascinating older men) and they'll do a fine job again, if need be, regardless of who is governor.

This leads to the question of experience, which is a major stumbling block for her now that she is on the national stage, I remember reading something once, which I can’t find now, that went something like, “Politics is the one job for which experience is not counted a qualification and may actually be a hindrance.” I agree with Obama when he says that what is important is a person’s judgment and not his or her experience. At times, Palin has shown great judgment, like when she made ethics reform a priority of her first term as governor, when she didn’t meekly do what the oil companies wanted her to, when she called out people when they needed calling out, and so on.

She’s also shown poor judgment on a number of issues that are important to me. I think she was wrong to oppose the listing of polar bears as an endangered species. I’ve never gotten the sense that global warming is a pressing issue for her or that she is as convinced of the science on that issue as I am. I’ve never heard her say anything about health care and surely that’s a central issue in this country. (Of course, I got to interview her three times and I never once asked about it!)

I’m also wary that by voting for her she might someday be entrusted with the nuclear launch codes. That’s nothing against her. There’s millions of people in this country, including me, I’m glad don’t have access to those codes.

All told, though, it’s an exciting time and I’m slurping up all the news I can on the nomination. I’ll be fascinated to watch her leap on to the national political stage. Geraldine Ferraro just wrote about her difficulty in mastering the teleprompter almost over night in 1984. Will Palin have a similar problem? The press corps in Alaska is not exactly investigative or hard-hitting and it will be interesting to see how she responds to the criticism that will surely come her way. And what happens if she loses and has to come back to Alaska? What will it be like to go from shaking hands and giving speeches all over Ohio and Pennsylvania and wherever else and then come back to Juneau and argue with lawmakers over whether a high-school in Anchorage should get a new football field with artificial turf? (That is a real argument they once had. She vetoed it.)

For Alaska politics, there are lots of interesting possibilities, including the national profile Palin will gain from this run. That would, I imagine, set her up nicely for a senatorial primary challenge against Lisa Murkowski in 2010, funded by all her new conservative fans around the country. Or it might even fund a run against a Senator Mark Begich in 2014. And what about her Lieutenant-Governor, Sean Parnell, currently locked in a close race for the U.S. House seat? Do you think he’d rather be governor or a back-bench minority member of the House of Representatives for the next two years? So many fascinating questions to keep me up late at night.

OK, I think that’s all about Alaska and Sarah Palin. I do have a different job now.

P.S. My favourite spin-off of this whole thing is the KodiakKonfidential blog, which I still read for my Alaska news. It went from about 500 hits a day to over 583,000 on Friday. A picture the author Photoshopped of what Palin would look like on Vogue ended up on the cover of at least two Italian newspapers. Love it.


Anonymous said...

I love hearing the background you have on Sarah Palin, Jesse, and the experience of interviewing her (and dancing with her). Hope to continue to hear your perspective as she "jumps onto the national stage," as you say.

jaz chgo

dan said...

One thing I remember about her was how she uses “progress” as a verb and not a noun, as in “we want to progress these issues for Alaska” instead of “we want to make progress.”

dan said...

i love that part

One thing I remember about her was how she uses “progress” as a verb and not a noun, as in “we want to progress these issues for Alaska” instead of “we want to make progress.”

great! it was big mistake tho for mcain to pick her. youheard about trooiperagate now right?

Anonymous said...

Jesse, good to hear from you again. Used to follow your Nome blog.

As a minor blog in Paris on the Kuskokwim, I watched my searches turn up the question, Where is Wasilla and where is Nowhere AK. Interesting graphs make for big excitement as winter settles closer.

löki gale said...

Hi Jesse!

As a woman and a progressive, I have a hard time with Palin. As a rural Alaskan, I have an even more difficult time as I feel her administration often forgets there is more to Alaska than Fairbanks, Anchorage and Wasilla. I hope issues that are important to all of us get brought into the light and she learns from this experience.



Anonymous said...


You're just a heart-beat away from having danced with the potential president of the United States of America.