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If only Joe Miller had been what he said he was

Craig Medred

Upwards of 60,000 Alaskans clung to the myth of Joe Miller on election night in Alaska despite the storm of revelations that followed the Senate candidate's victory in the August GOP primary, and there is something noble about that. Yes, there were some cynics in the Miller camp, old-school, party-line Republicans who cared not a whit that Miller was something of a modern day "Soapy" Smith.

"Sarah Palin in pants'' is how one of them, who is not a Palin fan, described him. But Miller was the party's guy, the winner of the primary, the man chosen by the party faithful, and by God, the thinking among this group went, "If that's what the party faithful want, then it is the responsibility of a party member to hang in there, hold his or her nose, and cast the Miller vote." But these people were a minority.

Voting for Miller was a lot easier for most of the 70,000 Alaskans who blacked in the oval of the Yale-educated lawyer from Fairbanks by way of Kansas. They believed. They took Miller for what he claimed to be -- a sensible conservative. I refuse to use that Palin-spawned label, "commonsense conservative," here. I've spent much of a lifetime writing about people dead in the Alaska wilderness because sense isn't common.

Miller, to his credit, didn't really seem to buy that common-sense idea either. All campaign long, the first words out of his mouth were that he was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Yale Law School. Old, established, elite, East Coast institutions, these are two of the best schools in the world. They aren't in the practice of counting on common sense to help young people get ahead in life. They are in the practice of teaching people to think. And Miller excelled at both institutions.

What the hell happened afterward became the big question of this year's election. What the hell was Miller's story in Alaska?

Alaska tends to attract two kinds of immigrants. Adventurers who want to live in or on the edge of America's Last Frontier, where life is a little edgier than anywhere else. Even metropolitan "Los Anchorage," we must remember, bills itself as the "Big Wild Life,'' and it is. Almost nowhere else in the world do you run the risk of stumbling into a grizzly bear in a city park. And that up-close-and-personal encounter with a moose, as portrayed in the old TV series "Northern Exposure,'' is more likely in Anchorage than in any city anywhere. Some Alaska immigrants come for this, or for the authentic, closer-to-the-land connection to the still truly wild Alaska that exists just beyond the road system.

And then there is that other group Alaska attracts -- con artists, schemers, ne'er-do-wells and end-of-the-roaders looking for that place at the edge of civilization where the rules are lax and the tolerance for oddballs is high.

Animal-loving, grizzly-bear petting, destined-to-die-early Timothy Treadwell was drawn to this like a moth to a light. The same for scripture-quoting fanatic, and later convicted child molester, "Papa Pilgrim." And then there was John Lindauer, the onetime chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage who tried to buy an election as governor with his wife's millions and ended up so deep in charges of election fraud the GOP actually withdrew its nomination of him; and Victor Jorge, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher and trusted Anchorage television anchorman (back in the day when people in the media were actually trusted) who turned out to have concocted nearly his entire backstory, and, of course, the aforementioned "Soapy" Smith, who Anchorage author Charles Wohlforth has described as running a "scam-pire" in Skagway back in the Gold Rush days.

There is a bit of many of these people in a lot of Alaskans living here now, too. It's what helps make Alaska interesting. Some of the most entertaining people I've met in almost 35 years of Alaska journalism are those whose only connection to the truth is a half-truth.

That Joe Miller turned out to be one of them is unfortunate. That he took some Alaskans for a ride on a Soapy Smith railroad is just sad.

There are among Miller supporters a lot of good and decent people, people who love their country, people who yearn for American greatness, people who work hard to make the U.S.A. a better place and ask for nothing in return, people put off by the country's slow but steady march toward socialism because they believe, by God, that work is a part of life.

I like these people. I tend to agree with these people. I think it is an inescapable fact that work defines us as individuals. I have met damn few scallywags and misfits among the working class, and a lot of them among the idle classes, both rich and poor. I remember once, years ago, working for a certain Anchorage newspaper that did a Christmas outreach series featuring stories about the struggling among us. It was an effort to raise money for the less fortunate. It was extremely well-intentioned, but the people it attracted often were not.

I'm not even sure I ever wrote a story for the series. It seemed that every time I went out to do an interview, I ran into some minor-league scam artist -- a man collecting disability though he wasn't really disabled; a woman collecting unemployment while employed; people living off the support provided their small army of children. The problem wasn't that Anchorage had a shortage of people struggling and in need of help from the rest of us; the problem was that a whole bunch of people drawn to demand assistance didn't really need the help.

They were, sad to say, a lot like the guy Joe Miller turned out to be.

Alaska Dispatch got involved in a lot of digging into Miller's past. Almost everyone was involved. Jill Burke and Patti Epler in particular did impressive work, despite the heat they took for it. There was too much hiding in Miller's closets that the fans of Miller preferred be left there.

I can understand that. But here's what those people need to understand: The job of good, old-fashioned journalism is to shine a bright light into dark corners.

That's what we did. That we, and some other media, found unsavory facts in those corners is just the way it is. Personally, I would have preferred to find Joe Miller's closets empty and spit-shined clean.

But they weren't. What we found lurking in Miller's closets was -- pardon the plain language here, but the honest words are the right words -- the detritus of a conman and a liar.

This was clear from his first days in the state in 1995 when he lied about his residency and his financial situation in order to obtain a $5 resident hunting/fishing license reserved for the indigent, and it continued right on through to his term as a part-time lawyer for the Fairbanks North Star Borough when he stole into the offices at lunch hour to sneak onto the computers of co-workers and impersonate them in voting in his very own online poll aimed at toppling Alaska Republican party chairman Randy Ruedrich.

When the borough finally figured out what Miller had done and called him to task, of course, he lied.

In between the 1995 starting point in Anchorage and the end point in Fairbanks, there was a whole lot more, but it's not worth repeating.

Most everyone in Alaska knows the story. Miller was much of the worst of the bad things said about lawyers. By the time we got done researching his background -- and the file full of unfavorable information is far larger than that which has been published -- the only thing about Miller of which I was sure was that you couldn't believe much, if anything, of what he said.

And I, unfortunately, like a lot of what he said. He was right about much.

The country has overspent. The country does need to deal with its financial problems. Government does have its fingers in too many pies. Business is in some cases choking on unnecessary regulation. And Alaska's future does rest in development of the state's resources, though which resources and how to develop them are things Alaskans have been fighting about since statehood.

As to whether Joe Miller actually believes any of these things, I don't have a clue. All I know that Joe Miller believes is that he wants to be senator. He might even believe he deserves to be senator or is "destined" to be senator. Certainly he's showing no signs of giving up in that quest now even though 65 percent of the state has made it clear they want anyone but Joe Miller.

Miller could at this point do the graceful thing, concede the election, save everyone from what is sure to be a drawn-out count of all write-in ballots for Lisa Murkowski, and who knows how many lawyerly arguments about whether someone who wrote "Misa Lurcowsik" really meant "Lisa Murkowski."

But nobody expects Miller to do the classy thing. Because to do so wouldn't be Joe Miller.

Early on in this campaign, when I didn't know the real Miller well, I wrote an essay about the similarities between Joe Miller, the attorney and son of Kansas, and Alaska legend Joe Vogler, the attorney and son of Kansas famous in the North for founding the Alaska Independence Party.

An old friend from Fairbanks who'd grown up around Vogler took me to task for that essay. Joe Vogler, he said, would have taken Joe Miller "out behind the woodshed and kicked his ass.''

At the time, I had no clue as to why. So I just sort of laughed and said "whatever.'' I was to learn. Now, in post-Election Day Alaska, I know, and because I know, I feel for the people who believed -- or still believe -- in Joe Miller. I like most of those people. They're my kind of people. They have grit ground into their hands and dirt under the fingernails they try constantly to get out in the name of good hygiene (trust me, I know this problem well) but never really can. They are good, honest, hard-working people, and I only wish the same could be said of Miller.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.