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How Sarah Palin made herself irrelevant in Alaska

Amanda CoyneThe New York Times,Tony Hopfinger
Aaron Jansen illustration

When Sarah Palin abruptly resigned as Alaska’s governor in July 2009, she said she no longer could be an effective leader. The state was spending “millions of dollars” (it turned out to be closer to a half-million) to knock down bogus ethics complaints against her, bloggers were attacking her baby son, Trig, and a “full-court press” had judged her unfairly. Palin promised that her resignation was for the best for Alaska and America.  “(N)o more ‘politics as usual’  and I am taking my fight for what's right - for Alaska - in a new direction,” she said in her speech then.

But since that day, she’s built a fortress and has barely been seen in this state in the flesh. Apart from endorsing tea party candidate Joe Miller in his unsuccessful race against Alaska's Sen. Lisa Murkowski, she hasn’t weighed in on Alaska issues, even as her successor is busy trying to unravel some of her signature legislation.

Perhaps anywhere in the country people would frown on a governor who walked out on them for no reason other than she possessed a thin skin and hubristic ambitions her state role couldn’t fulfill. But to Alaskans, quitting is something you don’t do. You can get away with a lot in this state. You can fall off barstools, have affairs, suffer from drug problems, forget to brush your hair, wear anything you want, live in any kind of structure you desire, and still have friends and family, still command purpose, still pursue a livelihood. You don’t need a degree to be respected, nor do you need money or connections.

But unless you’re on to something much bigger and much better, like running for president, say, you stick it out with the rest of us, no matter how icy the road, cold the temperature, tall the mountain, rough the sea, no matter how miserable it is. And often it is indeed miserable. But then something happens: the rescuers arrive, the seas calm and a whale pod arrives, the bear runs away, an old man wearing a wolf hat pedals by on a bicycle with moose antlers duct-taped on the handlebars and places a ten-pound silver salmon in your hands. You stop to help a villager, who has never seen stoplights, cross a road. The whirl you see in the far distance is a sled dog musher, gliding across the snow, chasing the song of the northern lights into a great white unknown. The clouds clear. The mountains emerge. The sea sparkles. The tundra erupts with life, and you fight on.

The one possible excuse for Palin to not fight on is if she was running for president. But that is no longer the case for Palin, as she announced Wednesday that she will not seek the GOP's presidential nomination.

When they elected her governor in 2006, many Alaskans were concerned that old-guard politicians -- like Lisa Murkowski’s father, Frank (who appointed his daughter to the U.S. Senate after he was elected governor) -- had grown apart from the people, that they couldn’t be trusted with the state’s affairs. The FBI was busting up a corruption ring between the oilman who’d allegedly done favors for a slew of other Alaska politicians. Sarah Palin was a forty-two-year-old Republican who had been causing a ruckus within her party for the past two years. Out of the ashes of cronyism and corruption, she was born. The FBI’s sweeping corruption investigation seemed to confirm for many Alaskans that Palin -- a self-described reformist advocating government transparency -- was the real deal, pure and courageous for standing up to those “corrupt bastards” in her party. In contrast to those good old boys, Palin seemed squeaky clean. By then, Palin had divided the Alaska Republican Party, winning over a group of conservative Alaskans who, in retrospect, might have been the first tea partiers of America, and riding their backs all the way to the governor’s mansion in late 2006.

For a brief moment under her tenure, Alaskans largely came together and were reminded of the idealism around which the state had been formed in the first place. It was an idealism borne out of a philosophy of collective ownership of the state’s oil, which funded nearly 90 percent of state government through taxes, royalties, and fees paid by the oil companies. Some in the past had tried to wrench Alaska away from its corporate dependency, but the fight had proved too difficult. But then Palin swept into office, promising to bring Alaskans back to the days when they loved and respected their state and each other. To bring Alaska back to its constitution, penned in a time, before the oil boom, when the dream was pure and Alaska-size.

“I will unambiguously, steadfastly, and doggedly guard the interests of this great state as a mother naturally guards her own,” Palin told Alaskans. “Like a nanook defending her cub.”

And she did -- until she didn’t anymore.

Palin’s support in Alaska began to crumble before Sen. John McCain picked her as his running-mate in the 2008 presidential election. Alaskans began to see around the edges into things they didn’t much like: a tendency to gossip, to lash out at critics, and be overly preoccupied. Her support plummeted when she got back after the '08 election, and those tendencies seemed to encompass her. Since resigning as governor, Palin has penned a best-selling memoir, landed a gig with Fox News, starred in a reality TV show about her and family, promoted SarahPAC, her political action committee, made millions and now is a national celebrity/political pundit -- a figurehead in the evolving tea party movement.

But none of that impresses most Alaskans.

Unlike Sarah Palin, former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, who died last year in a plane crash, didn’t give up. As Palin was running for vice president in 2008, Stevens was convicted in federal court for not disclosing gifts and renovations to his cabin from a corrupt oilman. Stevens fought federal prosecutors and the judge tossed his convictions six months later.

Neither did U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski give up last year when she lost reelection in Alaska’s GOP primary to Palin-backed Joe Miller. Murkowski picked herself up and waged an impossible campaign as a write-in candidate, beating Miller and Democratic opponent Scott McAdams in the general election last November -- the first to win a U.S. Senate election as a write-in since Strom Thurmond, of South Carolina, in 1954.

On Wednesday, Palin said in a statement, “I look forward to using all the tools at my disposal to get the right people in there who have a servant’s heart," she said in her statement, adding that she will remain on the "mission to help wake up America to what’s going on in this country.”

"I can be more effective and more aggressive in this mission" without being a candidate, she added.

We in Alaska have heard that one before.

Amanda Coyne and Tony Hopfinger are the co-authors of "Crude Awakening: Money, Mavericks, and Mayhem in Alaska," the story of America’s oil province, where politics and oil blurred on the day wildcatters struck it big in 1968. Their opinions are their own.

Contact them at editor(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Contact Tony Hopfinger at or on