Palin exposed state to celebrity culture

November 17, 2009 

Sarah Palin, a onetime beauty queen, a mother of five, the Republican candidate for vice president in 2008, and the former governor of Alaska, has a new incarnation: author.

Her memoir, "Going Rogue: An American Life," out Tuesday, is already a best seller. In what was trumpeted as a "world exclusive," Ms. Palin sat down with Oprah Winfrey on Monday to discuss the obvious controversies in which she has been a participant -- among them, the dismal Katie Couric interview, her conflicts with the McCain campaign and her difficult relationship with Levi Johnston, the father of her grandson. Her book tour, much of which will be conducted by bus, promises to attract the energy of a "tea party" rally and the hoopla of a presidential campaign.

As the country continues to be fascinated with Ms. Palin, here is what continues to fascinate Alaskans: how a woman who takes pride in calling herself a homemaker from Wasilla brought celebrity culture to the Last Frontier.

No other Alaskan can match her stardom. Ted Stevens, a senator for four decades, became only briefly notorious after being indicted on corruption charges. Only hockey fans recognize Scott Gomez (formerly of the New York Rangers, now of the Montreal Canadiens). The four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion, Susan Butcher, died in 2006. The skippers on the Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" are not household names.

It all happened so fast.

In March 2008, I ran into Ms. Palin at the start of the Iditarod in downtown Anchorage. She had no entourage, no security, only her daughter Piper -- who wanted to go home. We chatted about her beautiful parka with its wolverine ruff.

Sometime around then, I also interviewed her on a radio call-in program. As we waited to go on air, I asked her where she got her long, round O's -- as in her pronunciation of the name of her 2006 Democratic opponent in the governor's race, Tony Knowles, "Tooon-y Knooowles." She leaned over and asked, with an air of confidentiality, "Do you think I should hire a voice coach?"

Her life changed when she was nominated for vice president, and ours did too. Reporters, photographers and anchormen descended on our state. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Alaskans were interviewed. Few of us previously understood just how exhaustively the American news media would follow a celebrity story. The Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 drew plenty of national journalists, but far more came to cover Ms. Palin. Sometimes her fame was contagious: Young Levi Johnston has become a tabloid figure quoted authoritatively on the Palin family's private life.

Ms. Palin exposed Alaskans to a larger universe. We learned how celebrity is created through images, words, legends and, in a few cases, outright fabrication.

Several times after the 2008 Republican convention, I had a variation of the following experience in restaurants, bars and waiting rooms. Someone sitting nearby would blurt out "Look!" and point upward as if having seen an apparition. There she would be on a television screen overhead -- campaigning before a huge throng in Pennsylvania, North Carolina or somewhere else Outside, as Alaskans call the rest of the country. In that "Look!" I heard a mixture of pride and amazement. Because there, right in front of us, was an Alaskan -- a neighbor from down the road -- standing on the biggest stage in the world.

But Ms. Palin's celebrity is unlikely to have a lasting effect on Alaska politics. Her movement was not inheritable, not transferable. She did not reshape the state. When she still held office, her fame was mostly an annoyance to legislators who felt she was too busy pursuing national ambitions to talk to them. The 2010 gubernatorial race is likely to be a contest between candidates promising competent, meat-and-potatoes government to constituents who grew sick of their governor staring at them from magazine covers as they waited in the supermarket checkout line. For the time being, it appears that American celebrity culture will remain in the Lower 48.

For the record, I don't believe Sarah Palin will ever hold national office. She inspires many right-wing activists and enchants some members of the conservative news media, but the independents and moderates decisive to any presidential bid won't send her to Washington with "quitter" on her resume. Still, she's likely to remain in the limelight for years to come.

If that makes you scream, don't scream at Alaskans. We only made her governor. The nation made her a celebrity.


Michael Carey is a former editorial page editor of the Daily News and host of KAKM's "Anchorage Edition." E-mail, mcarey@adn.com. This column first appeared in The New York Times.

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