The unfolding Sarah Palin story, perhaps the most interesting political saga in Alaska's young history, has been difficult to understand and place in context because it is so unprecedented. We use history to orient ourselves to reality, and Palin is, as she has said, mavericky; there's nothing like her in our Alaskan past.
There have been outspoken and powerful women who became national celebrities and who bear some resemblance to Palin. One was Mary Elizabeth Lease, the Kansas populist orator of the 1890s who helped popularize the Populist Party. Lease was a fiery speaker who worked for women's suffrage, temperance, and farmers and workers' rights. With the rise of industrialization, Lease charged, America no longer was a democracy, but an oligarchy controlled by Wall Street monopolies. She called for nationalization of banks and railroads, and unionization of all labor, all of which were radical ideas in her time.
But like Palin, Lease's oratory was flawed. She could set a crowd to hooting and hollering by reciting the multiplication tables, one critic allowed, but when examined, her speeches proved to be uninformed, her mind untrained, and her reasoning illogical.
"It lacks sequence," one reporter wrote, and "scatters like a 10-gauge gun." On a number of occasions Lease denied making statements which thousands had heard her make clearly. In later years she wrote and worked as an editor, but the celebrity of her Populist days faded quickly as her speeches became more erratic.
Some have compared Palin to Amiee Semple McPherson, the charismatic California evangelist of the early 20th century. McPherson is often described as a "media sensation;" she pioneered the use of radio for gospel preaching. Her International Church of the Foursquare Gospel drew millions during her lifetime and continues in existence today. McPherson lost credibility after an unexplained disappearance of five weeks in 1926, during which she claimed to have been abducted. Several aspects of her story were inconsistent. This part of McPherson's biography bears no relation to the Palin saga. But the captivation with celebrity, the adulation by a core audience, and the appearance of insincerity all do.
What is most difficult to relate to reality in Palin's chronicle is her rejection of civic responsibility. Citizens do not expect their elected officials to quit. The public anticipates that politicians will do their duty, staying the course to tackle the challenges of governance and leadership, regardless of the ideology or methodology, and despite lack of approval and support. To quit seems inconsistent with the ego that characterizes politicians generally, and cynical in its dismissal of the obligation to honor on the public's trust.
This is not like Edward VIII abdicating the English throne to marry Wallis Simpson. In a democracy politicians ask for the voters' trust. To violate that trust by quitting in mid-stream suggests that for Palin, the voters, and more broadly, the citizens of Alaska simply don't count.
Any predictions about how Palin will be remembered in Alaska history are surely foolhardy at this point. She may retire entirely from public life; she may remain a popular political figure for years; she may run for President. But she certainly will be remembered as the governor who quit, and the quitting is unlikely to be viewed positively, though there will be less opprobrium if she runs for higher political office than if she does not.
In attempting to contextualize Palin, much has been written about the corrupting nature of celebrity. Commentators frequently note that the stargazers are as corrupted as the star, i.e., that without the visible adoration of the crowd, there can be no celebrity. Further, several have argued the idolization often enough brings out the subject's baser nature, encouraging convictions of superiority and entitlement.
Interestingly, most of the glorification of Palin has not come from within Alaska, but from Outside, a circumstance likely to continue in the future. And her attractiveness for Alaskans will surely lessen after her formal retirement this weekend. Palin's public future, if there is one, will be national, not local.
Walking away from high public office is not unprecedented, as the case of Edward VIII suggests. But it's a difficult phenomenon for the mind to grasp, and the sour impression it has left with Alaskans will last long.
Steve Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.