Another bit of prose that ended up on the cutting room floor:
Any American who has even casually followed the news since the presidential election of 2008 can surely recite the thirty-second biography of Sarah Palin:
Grew up hunting and fishing in Wasilla, Alaska . . . co-captain on a state championship basketball team . . . Miss Congeniality in the Miss Alaska pageant . . . married handsome high school sweetheart who races snow machines . . . Mayor of Wasilla . . . youngest-ever Governor of Alaska . . . McCain’s VP nominee . . . five children, the youngest with Down’s Syndrome . . . telegenic . . . born-again Christian . . . conservative.
This Cliffs Notes-esque version of her resume is accurate but shallow. What this superficial understanding of the highlights and milestones of Sarah’s life doesn’t offer us is real insight into the questions that lie between the bullet points:
· What draws a stay-at-home mom to wade into the contentious world of local politics?
· What skills and gifts propel her rapid climb to higher offices and global visibility?
· From whence springs the drive that twice compelled her back to work, first as mayor and then as governor, within days after giving birth?
· What traits keep her in the fray after becoming the favorite mockery target of the nation’s standup comedians, fake news anchors, sketch comedy writers and left-wing bloggers; and the constant focus of vicious and bizarre conspiracy theories about her baby?
There are other questions that go beyond fascination of the People magazine variety and connect to issues that could impact the lives of every American—indeed every person on the planet. Specifically, in a season in which Sarah’s name is frequently mentioned as a contender for the presidency in 2012, we are compelled to wonder:
· What kind of leader would she be?
· What drives and informs her worldview?
· What strengths and weaknesses does she bring to any future role she undertakes?
The search for answers to these deeper questions requires a trip to another time and place. That time is the 1970s. The place is Wasilla.
As the ptarmigan flies, Wasilla lies only 15 miles due north of the Anchorage outskirts, but to get there by car one must drive all the way around the long Knik Arm of Cook’s Inlet that stretches northeast to touch with salty fingers the icy mouth of the Matanuska River. It is this river, and its sister, the Susitna, from which the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the Mat-Su Valley take their names.
From almost any vantage point in the river-carved, lake-dotted valley, craggy mountains are seen in the distance. The broad valley itself is the breadbasket of Alaska, with numerous farms and ranches separated by large stands of white-barked Paper Birch and evergreen Spruce. Though the summers are short, it is astonishing what one can grow on eighteen to twenty hours of sunlight per day—as the 100-pound cabbages and 75-pound rutabagas annually on display at the Alaska state fair bear silent witness.
The twin centers of commerce in this largely rural borough are Palmer and Wasilla. The former was born as a Depression-era relocation project to homestead 200 struggling families from Wisconsin and Minnesota, offering them 40 acres of free land and a fresh start in Alaska’s wild interior. They brought to the valley their experience in handling cold and snow; and a distinct speaking accent betraying traces of the Scandinavian roots.
Wasilla, on the other hand, is a point in the valley where several roads happen to meet. It is the community in which Sarah Palin would grow up and the place to which she would return immediately after college. It is where she and her husband would choose to establish their home and raise a family. Indeed, so powerfully bonded to the valley would she grow, that when she became the youngest and first female governor of Alaska, she would temporarily move the executive offices from far-away Juneau to Anchorage, just so she could spend as much time as possible in her modest home rather than the governor’s mansion.
In the light of all we know, it is easy to understand why a man with the passions and values of Chuck Heath would fight to get his young family to a beautifully harsh and demanding place like the Mat-Su Valley. But that doesn’t explain what makes a woman like Sarah Palin fight to stay there.
After John McCain made Sarah his surprise choice for a running mate in August of 2008, a locust swarm of reporters descended upon Wasilla—a place they’d been told was Alaska’s fourth-largest municipality—ravenous for information about the obscure Alaska governor. Many of these denizens of New York, Washington, and Los Angeles came away rolling their eyes and clucking their tongues at what a small and charmless place the town seemed to them. One profoundly unimpressed journalist remarked that there was simply no “there” there.
It’s true that Wasilla defies traditional conceptions of a small town. At first encounter, the place seems to have no center—just random scatterings of businesses along several arms of the highways and state roads that mingle in that spot. The official records say it is home to more than 8,000 people, and yet one sees few houses or neighborhoods from the main roads. The newcomer is compelled to wonder: “Where is everyone?”
Upon further investigation, you notice scores of narrow roads branching off the highways and disappearing into the forest. Most lead to small, meandering subdivisions carved out of the woods and laid out in expansive wooded lots. The homes on them are obviously positioned to take best advantage of whatever views are offered in that spot. Curb appeal doesn’t seem to be the primary concern of most homeowners. Utility and durability seem to be the supreme value, and understandably so. The winters are tough on a house here. And it is the aesthetics of the land, not the house, which people hold dear.
Visit a while and you’ll notice which architectural detail homeowners prize above all others. It is the strategically placed picture window. Wasilla is our window into the soul of Sarah Palin.