★ ★ ★
The Tip of the Spear
Sarah Palin and the “Dennis Miller Republican”
I will put Alaskans first.
—Governor Sarah Palin, inaugural address, December 4, 2006
Air Force One broke through the dense layer of clouds over Fairbanks on its descent into Eielson Air Force Base, a sprawling, remote outpost in the most remote state in the union. In what would be one of the last international trips of his presidency, George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush were on their way to Beijing for the opening ceremony of the summer Olympics. But first they would stop at Eielson to refuel and to meet with troops and their families stationed at bases across the vast forty-ninth state.
One in twelve people in Alaska were members of the military or their dependents. The state had shouldered a disproportionate share of the losses and casualties from the nation’s engagement in the Middle East, which was about to enter its seventh year. More than two hundred airmen from Eielson were presently deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries around the world. Scores from other Alaskan bases would soon join them. Bush was there to be the grateful commander in chief: to deliver a pep talk, thank them for their sacrifices, and assure them that deployments weren’t going to be open-ended. In military communities like these across the country, a new reality had set in. Many people had long gotten past the shock of the September 11th attacks and the swell of patriotism that followed. They weren’t convinced the wars in the Middle East were a conflict Americans should be fighting in anymore. Bush would acknowledge the fatigue when he spoke. “These have been tough times on our families,” Bush said. He reminded his audience that their sacrifices were in the interest of America’s mission to keep the homeland safe, and to export the “transformative power of liberty” to places that needed it most. “The terrorists will be denied a safe haven, and freedom is on the march,” the president said, framing the issue in the rhetoric of black-and-white moral clarity he preferred. “I know free societies yield the peace we all want.”
But it wasn’t just the American heartland that had grown weary. The consensus in the Republican Party that Bush was keeping America safe by maintaining a robust military presence in the Middle East had considerable cracks in it. Republicans in Congress were concerned that the public’s impatience with these two costly wars was setting them up for an even bigger defeat on Election Day than the “thumping” they saw—a Bush colloquialism—in the 2006 midterm elections. Some had insisted that future funding for the war be tied to certain benchmarks that the Iraqi government would have to meet. No more blank checks, no more open-ended timetables for troop deployments.
There was one military mother in the crowd that day, August 4, 2008, who was typical in many ways of the family members of the enlisted. Her nineteen-year-old son was set to ship off when he finished his training in a few weeks. She was conflicted—apprehensive but also proud and idealistic about the higher calling he would serve. As a Republican, she was committed to the idea that keeping the country safe meant bringing the might of the American military to the enemy, wherever the enemy tried to hide. She had ambition, agency, and desires of her own. And when the White House reached out to see if she and her family would like to meet the president at Eielson, she said yes right away.
Before Bush met with her and the other military families, he scanned his briefing materials on Air Force One and committed to memory any relevant or unique biographical details about them. But this one mother’s last name stopped him. Never known for his mastery of the tongue, Bush wasn’t sure how to pronounce it. He turned to Laura and asked what she thought.
“Is it Pal-in?” the president asked, sounding the name out as if it rhymed with “gallon.” The First Lady jumped in to the rescue: “It’s Pay-lin.”
Bush, the self-styled “compassionate conservative” who campaigned on the promise that he was “a uniter, not a divider,” had no idea when he stepped off the presidential 747 that afternoon that he was meeting the woman who in one month would be the biggest star in Republican politics—a hybrid celebrity-politician who would torch the model of noblesse oblige leadership that he and his family had personified during three generations in public service. While Palin and Bush were members of the same political party, they were from entirely distinct worlds that were pulling ever further apart. She hadn’t yet experienced the bitterness of being elevated to the national stage only to have some of the GOP’s most powerful figures trash her anonymously in the media as a “whack job” and a “diva.” She didn’t yet know how many Republican voters would see their own aspirations and resentments reflected in her experiences. And she hadn’t yet met the “hardened version of her son she would describe when he returned home from war for good several years later.
The Republicans who thought she was just the populist spark Senator John McCain needed to invigorate his presidential campaign hadn’t yet seen how they were entering into a Faustian bargain and enabling the vehicle for their own destruction. The forty-third president was vaguely aware of the chatter about Palin as a dark horse vice presidential contender for McCain. But he hadn’t given it much thought beyond the attempt he made at a humorous icebreaker when he met her that afternoon.
“Madam Vice President!” Bush exclaimed, extending his hand.
Sarah Palin was only thirty-two when she was elected mayor of Wasilla, the small city where she had spent most of her childhood. It sits in Alaska’s Mat-Su Valley, where glaciers and wilderness meet the exurban sprawl of Anchorage, about forty-five minutes to the south. The area was known for its high concentration of evangelical Christians, earning it the nickname “the Bible Belt of Alaska.” It had higher poverty rates than its big-city neighbor. The location and demographics were not incidental in the creation of Palin’s political identity. In certain crowds, saying someone was from “The Valley” carried a class stigma that many of its residents didn’t appreciate. And that tension was never far from the surface in local politics. Memorably, it erupted in a messy episode in 2004 when the son of Senator Ted Stevens, a towering figure in the state who had represented Alaska in Washington for four decades, called a woman from Palin’s hometown “valley trash” in an email. The woman leaked the correspondence to the local media, igniting a backlash from outraged Valley denizens. They didn’t take the slight lying down, and some even tried to reclaim the label with T-shirts that said proud to be valley trash. Outwardly, Palin wore her “Valley Trash” identity with pride. Inside, she resented it. “Rightly or wrongly, the chip on her shoulder was always from the sense that ‘You guys look down on us,’ ” says Lindsay Hayes, who worked for Stevens and later joined Palin’s speechwriting team when she became the vice presidential nominee. She reserved much of her disdain for those she believed wanted to stop people like her without the right background and pedigree from advancing in state politics—none more so than the “good ol’ boys” she antagonized in the Alaska GOP. “She felt, ‘We’re the ones who do all the work. You’re corrupt. You’re making money hand over fist. Who the hell do you guys think you are?’ ” Hayes adds.
Copyright © 2022 by Jeremy W. Peters. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.