POLITICS OCTOBER 22, 2008
It's unlikely the name Sarah Palin would mean much to anyone if not for a man named Nick Carney. Long before she stood up to Republican cronies and "the good old boys" of Alaska, Palin stood up to Carney, a colleague on Wasilla's city council. As Kaylene Johnson explains in her sympathetic biography, Sarah, Carney had the gall to propose an ordinance giving his own company the city contract for garbage removal. In Johnson's telling, it was the first time Palin bravely spoke truth to power: "'I said no and I voted no,' Sarah said. 'People should have the choice about whether or not to haul their garbage to the dump.'" Johnson writes that Palin's vote made Carney into a "political enemy"--the first of many, it turns out.
The episode might serve as a compelling, if small-bore, example of Palin's reformer instincts. Except that, according to those who were present, Carney wasn't quite the crooked trash magnate Palin makes him out to be. For one thing, Carney couldn't have proposed the ordinance because he'd recused himself from the matter. The council, in fact, had asked him to appear as a kind of expert witness on the relevant rules and regulations. "I looked at it as we actually had an expert on the council sharing the information," recalls Laura Chase, a fellow councilwoman. "Not ... conspiring over a contract. There was no way that was happening."
So if it wasn't a sinister garbage conspiracy that put Carney in Palin's crosshairs, what was it? At first glance, the two would have appeared to be allies--both had spent most of their lives in Wasilla and had attended the same high school. But, beyond that, they were sociological opposites in almost every respect. Whereas Palin had bounced around several no-name colleges before graduating from the University of Idaho, Carney held a degree from Dartmouth. Palin seemed preoccupied with her family and church when she entered politics. Carney was preoccupied with histories of the Civil War and World War II (he later contributed a self-published book to the genre) and savored the New York Times crossword puzzle. By the time he joined the city council, Carney had traveled to Asia, Australia, and Central America. He'd run the Anchorage office of Alaska's economic development agency and had served as the state's agriculture director. "I'd dealt with larger budgets by far than the city of Wasilla," he recently told me.
Carney had a wry sense of humor. He was fond of joking that he'd graduated from Wasilla High School in the "top 20 percent"--by which he meant he was valedictorian of his five-person class. Sometimes Palin was the only colleague who didn't get his jokes. "I don't think he had too much patience for her lack of understanding," says John Stein, then the town's mayor. In internal discussions, Carney would be relentlessly logical while Palin was vague and intuitive. "Nick had a way of being direct and to the point, something that Sarah was uncomfortable with," recalls Chase. Which is to say, when it came to garbage removal, what Palin seemed to have chafed against was less the substance of Carney's position than what she felt was his elitist, Ivy League bearing. And, over the next few years, she found ways to get him back.
These days, Palin is engaged in this same fight against elites, though on a considerably larger stage. "I'm not one of those who maybe came from a background of, you know, kids who perhaps graduate college and their parents give them a passport and give them a backpack and say go off and travel the world," she recently told Katie Couric. "No, I've worked all my life." That hardly makes her the first politician to run on class resentments--nearly every conservative from George W. Bush to Mitt Romney has sought a bond with voters by attacking the over-educated and entitled. But more often than not these conservatives are elites themselves; hence the spectacle of Yale legacies and Harvard millionaires (and most of the Fox News executive suite) railing against wine-swilling sophisticates.
Palin, by contrast, may be the first conservative politician since Nixon to experience resentment so authentically. For her, it's not so much a political tool as a motivating principle. A trip through Palin's past reveals that almost every step of her career can be understood as a reaction to elitist condescension--much of it in her own mind.
Before he became her enemy, Nick Carney was actually Palin's mentor--though, like John McCain, his reasons for championing her had much to do with his own political agenda. In the early '90s, Carney and a group of local business leaders decided the city needed a sales tax to fund public services--such as a police force--it could no longer live without. To advance this position in an area not exactly teeming with Great Society liberals, they'd formed a group called "Watch on Wasilla" and persuaded John Stein, then the mayor, to embrace their cause. Carney won his seat on the city council in 1992 on the back of these efforts.
Heading into that election, Carney and Stein realized their program would go nowhere if they couldn't connect with what you might call Wal-Mart moms--that great mass of voters too busy earning a living and raising their families to follow local politics. "We were lacking lines of communication between the council as it existed and the younger bloc of voters in town," recalls Carney. "We didn't have anyone on there who worked [as a laborer] for a living or who was a housewife."
Carney's daughter had gone to high school with Palin; Stein and his wife knew her from an aerobics class they attended. She seemed bright and energetic and had a winning way about her--the same qualities McCain would notice 15 years later. They invited her to attend a "Watch on Wasilla" meeting and, after a brief interview, asked her to run on their moderate plank. Carney introduced her to local business leaders and campaigned alongside her. "I took her around . .. and said, 'This is a person who supports our points of view. She'll do what she can to make the police force run.' And she did it." It was a bit like Palin's convention rollout in miniature, and the initial effect was similar. Palin breezed into office with Carney that October.
Palin's first year or two on the council went smoothly by all accounts. "I was relatively pleased at the fact that she did communicate back and forth to that group," Carney says. "She would make good decisions." But, in retrospect, there were signs of tension. Though council members routinely bickered with one another, Palin became defensive when she was on the receiving end. "Sarah is intimidated, in my personal opinion, by people who are intelligent," Laura Chase says.
The city had traditionally put up part of the purse for the Iron Dog competition--the grueling, 2,000-mile snow machine race that usually starts in Wasilla--and one year the council considered upping its ante. (First prize could be tens of thousands of dollars.) When a colleague pointed out that Palin should recuse herself because her husband was a perennial Iron Dog contender, she protested, "I don't think I have a conflict of interest here because Todd won it last year. There's no guarantee that he's going to win it this year." As others chimed in to explain the problem, Palin dug in her heels. "Well, it could be perceived that way, but it isn't," she harrumphed.
As a rule, the city's department heads attended every city council meeting. One evening, as the session wound down, Palin mentioned to Mary Ellen Emmons, the library director, that something had been bothering her--a book she thought was overly indulgent of homosexuality. "She said there was no room in our library for that kind of stuff," recalls Chase. Emmons curtly disagreed, but Palin was adamant. She suggested the librarian could at least keep such books in the reference section, where visitors would have to request them. "We don't believe in censoring books," Emmons finally told her, at which point Palin trailed off muttering.
Palin also butted heads at times with Dick Deuser, the city attorney. Deuser was not your average small-town lawyer. He'd attended law school at the University of Minnesota and had worked for a prominent Anchorage firm. At one point, the council asked him about the legality of banning group homes--such as shelters for runaways--a position Palin championed. Deuser had an academic manner and was fond of citing Supreme Court precedent. When he explained that a ban would be unconstitutional, Palin appeared impatient with such legal niceties. "I would describe it this way: Sarah was not an in-depth person. Never has, never will be," Deuser says. "Her instincts are political as opposed to evaluative."
That Palin would feel threatened by the more urbane members of the community is no surprise given her upbringing. Late one September morning in Wasilla, I met a high school classmate of Palin's named Perry Cowles, a warm, scruffy- looking man with a soul patch and hipster glasses. Cowles overhauls hot rods for a living, and his shop sits at the front of a three-acre lot. A few hundred yards back is his residence, which he described to me as "a typical Alaska house: seven hundred feet of living space; five thousand feet of garage space."
For lunch, Cowles took me to a restaurant near the top of Hatcher Pass, a fearsome peak from which, on a clear day, you can see the Knik River off in the distance. He flipped through his high school yearbook while we ate. Almost every page reminded him of another classmate who'd passed away--one who died when his prop-jet crashed, another who drowned in a lake. I got the sense life in small-town Alaska was somehow more precarious than in the lower 48.
Or, for that matter, in Anchorage. Though it's only 45 miles away, Anchorage can feel like an alternate universe--a far more affluent and cosmopolitan one at that. In Wasilla, the resentment has sometimes been intense. Cowles had been a hockey player in high school. In those days, the town had a single outdoor rink, which he and his teammates would mop after games and practices. He jokingly recalled how the Anchorage teams would show up in their parents' new cars wearing $200 skates "while we had tennis shoes with butter knives." "I'll never forget--we had a game with a team we were outmatched against," Cowles told me. "Our coach said, 'We can't win. But you go out there and I want blood. I want you to teach these rich kids a lesson.' And we did."
Palin nursed a milder form of this grievance as a high school basketball player. When Palin's coach, Don Teeguarden, arrived at the school in 1976, there were only 300 students and the team was abysmal. To improve, Teeguarden scheduled the powerful Anchorage teams, which, he told me, "was a pretty easy sell" for a no-name like Wasilla. By the time Palin was playing for him a few years later, the Wasilla girls had improved significantly--becoming a state power in their own right--but they still sometimes struggled to be taken seriously. "It was easy to put that small school chip on our shoulder," says Teeguarden. "If an Anchorage school came to Wasilla and we won, it was like it didn't count because they had to travel forty miles. To really get much respect from the Anchorage press, we had to go into town and win."
Palin's church, the Wasilla Assembly of God, also marked her as an outsider. The modern Pentecostal tradition traces its roots to a grassroots religious fervor at the start of the twentieth century. In the ensuing decades, followers tended to be less educated and affluent than their Protestant brethren. The tradition is also more democratic, in that it emphasizes a direct connection with Christ through the Holy Spirit. Hence the Pentecostal practice of speaking in tongues (in which congregants are moved by the Holy Spirit to speak in unfamiliar languages) and the laying on of hands (in which congregants invoke the Holy Spirit and heal one another with their touch).
Paul Riley, the church's founding pastor, personally epitomized the overlay of religion and class in Wasilla. Since Riley's work as a minister wasn't lucrative enough to support his family, he spent years moonlighting as a school bus driver while his wife worked in the post office. He sometimes endured the sneering of local elites. In 1980, he decided to construct a building large enough to house a 1,000-member church--a far bigger flock than he had at the time. It was a massive undertaking that took four years to complete and required $1 million in capital, even with the help of dozens of volunteers from around the country. "I had one banker that was concerned about me," Riley told me. "He said, 'What'll happen if you can't pay back the loan?' I said, 'We'll be here when you're gone.' The honest truth: He was gone before the church was finished. The bank went belly-up. ... I just felt in my own heart that God was giving us direction."
Against this backdrop, Palin suffered her own petty slights and indignities. Growing up, she'd been pushed to great lengths by her hard-charging father, Chuck Heath. Heath had competed in the Boston Marathon and would lead his brood on grueling runs through the Mat-Su Valley. He had exacting standards for his children, sometimes higher than his daughter could deliver on. Palin was, according to classmates, an above-average basketball player, but hardly a star. Even as a junior, she found herself languishing on the JV team.
But Palin compensated for what she lacked in talent (and height) with a freakish intensity. When I asked Elwyn Fischer, another classmate, how Palin got the nickname "barracuda," he thought it had to do with "that little grin thing she does." "She sets her teeth, it looks like she's eating jerky," Fischer said. "Flashing some fang, you know." Teeguarden allowed that "as a young player--freshman, sophomore--she was a bit foul-prone. ... She wasn't about to back down. I'm guessing it was connected to those kinds of things."
Palin is often described in profiles as an academic standout. But, as on the basketball court, she was good but not great. Like most high schools, Wasilla had several distinct subcultures--among them, a religious/jock clique, of which Palin was a part, and a group of more bookish kids that took AP classes and studied theater. "We were considered the geekier, nerdy kids. We were smarter," recalls Elle Ede, another classmate. And yet Palin didn't lack for academic ambition. Rodger Foreman, one of her English teachers, would allow students to appeal their exam grades if they felt they'd been scored harshly. Foreman recalls that Palin regularly availed herself of the appeals process. "She was kind of like that. She thought she was right."
By 1996, a cultural shift in Alaska had emboldened Palin to take on Carney and Stein and enforce her own sense of right. Since it came online in the 1970s, Alaska's oil pipeline had attracted legions of Sunbelters--oil men from Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana. They were largely right-wing evangelicals who preferred Wasilla--where land was cheap, zoning was minimal, and taxes were low--to the more uppity environs of Anchorage. Their presence led to a proliferation of conservative churches and anti-government attitudes. By 1994, the same Republican tide that swept the Democrats from Congress had reached the Mat-Su Valley as the conservative hordes came of age.
In 1996, Palin was also asserting herself more and more. For example, she'd demand to know why Stein, the mayor, had "raised the budget." Stein and Carney tried to explain that he'd done nothing of the kind--that, when a city grows, businesses collect more in tax revenue, but that new residents also increase demand for public services. Palin wasn't appeased. She'd say things like, "'Oh, okay. Well, that's the way you think about it,'" Stein recalls. "I was thinking--these are things she should know better. Why is she asking me these stupid questions?"
Carney saw ulterior motives. During a break one evening, he stopped Palin as she was heading to the restroom. "Sarah, it sounds like you're running for mayor," he said, half-joking. Palin turned red and became visibly upset. "What makes you say that? I never said I was running for mayor." "You never denied it, " Carney responded. Palin just repeated herself and stomped off.
Within a few months, Palin was officially challenging Stein and exploiting the cultural shift masterfully. She welcomed a national anti-abortion group in to carpet bomb Wasilla with pink postcards affirming her pro-life bona fides. She orchestrated an NRA endorsement and a mailing from the group falsely proclaiming Stein, a lifelong hunter, "anti-gun." (Stein complained to the local newspaper that Palin was telling voters he wanted to "melt down" all the firearms in the state.) And, in a move practically out of Karl Rove's playbook, she dwelled on how Stein's wife used her maiden name, going so far as to demand a marriage certificate as proof of their nuptials. Palin's campaign literature proclaimed her "deeply devoted to conservative family values"--all in the context of an ostensibly nonpartisan election. (Stein himself was a moderate Republican.)
Upon winning, Palin moved quickly to punish her snooty tormentors. Days after she was elected, the city council became deadlocked over how to fill two seats--Palin's and another that had opened up when its occupant won higher office. Palin insisted on making her own appointments, a move of dubious legality sure to irritate Carney. When he objected, she simply cut off discussion. She later accused him of sabotaging her proposed candidates. As she explained to the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, the local paper: "'It was brilliant maneuvering I had to do to deal with the impasse.'" "And," the same article continued, "the look on Carney's face when she appointed Steve Stoll and Dianne Keller told her the strategy worked, she said."
Within a year, Palin had blown through her personal enemies list. She had demanded the resignation of Emmons, the librarian opposed to censorship (who successfully fought for her job), and Irl Stambaugh, the city's police chief. Among Stambaugh's crimes? Insufficient enthusiasm when Palin asked him to file a weekly report listing "at least two positive examples of work that was started, how we helped the public, how we saved the City money, how we helped the state, how we helped Uncle Sam," according to The Seattle Times.
Palin also persuaded allies on the city council to can Dick Deuser, the city attorney. "She wanted yes-or-no answers ... and he would give her more sophisticated answers," recalls Anne Kilkenny, the local gadfly and author of an anti-Palin e-mail that became nearly ubiquitous after Palin joined the GOP ticket. "She hated it. ... She'd get very irritated, really irritated."
And Palin took every opportunity to humiliate her former mentor. "She had people coming in, castigating me," Carney recalls. "Anything I proposed, even innocuous resolutions, went down to defeat." At city council meetings, Palin would sit and chitchat with allies at great length while Carney held his hand waiting to speak. Finally, toward the end of the meeting, Palin would turn and ask, "Oh, Nick, did you have something to say? Well, keep it brief."
To this day, Palin's most impressive achievement--the one that vaulted her to the governorship and made her a candidate for vice president--was partly an outgrowth of these same resentments. In 2003, thenGovernor Frank Murkowski appointed Palin to be the "public member" on the three-person Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (AOGCC). She resigned from the position eleven months later and, not long after, helped bring to light the ethical problems of a fellow commissioner named Randy Ruedrich.
Ruedrich shared some of Nick Carney's qualities. He was well-educated (he'd come to the commission with a Ph.D. in engineering) and impatient with his intellectual inferiors. (As Palin crammed to get up to speed on energy issues, consuming several books recommended by her staff, Ruedrich seemed to scoff at her credentials.) But, unlike Carney, Ruedrich also violated ethics rules. After several months, it became obvious that Ruedrich was interacting privately with companies the aogcc regulated. Some of them, such as BP, owed him deferred compensation from earlier employment.
Ruedrich's hauteur created tension with Palin from the get-go. "I got the impression he was surprised he wasn't made chairman instead of her," says Linda Berg, then an AOGCC administrative staffer. (A Ruedrich spokesman denies this.) "He was just arrogant. That's the biggest thing I remember." This appears to have exacerbated some of Palin's own insecurities. "She would say she wasn't qualified for the job," her fellow commissioner, Dan Seamount, told me. "I differed with her. She brought a lot."
In addition to serving on the commission, Ruedrich headed the state Republican Party, and he would spend hours each day fielding calls on his cell phone. He also had a habit of bypassing Palin and speaking directly with contacts in Murkowski's orbit. Before long, Palin told Seamount that Ruedrich's private meetings really bothered her and reported them to her supervisors. Though Ruedrich eventually resigned, Palin worried about a possible cover-up. She quit the commission after urging the administration to come clean.
It was a classic even-paranoids-have-enemies case. "[Ruedrich] didn't think she was much of a threat, nothing to be dealt with," says Seamount. Had Palin been a more mellow and forgiving soul, Ruedrich might have been right. But he badly miscalculated.
Although Palin did Alaskans a service by blowing the whistle on Ruedrich, it's not exactly reassuring that a potential vice president is prone to vendettas that will on occasion be justified. One evening, I paid a visit to Anne Kilkenny, who had by this point ascended to local icon status. Kilkenny is a stout woman with a pretty face and a flair for the dramatic. Midway through our conversation, she turned to me and lowered her voice: "What happens to me if Sarah Palin wins?" Kilkenny believes she's on Palin's enemies list, though she concedes she doesn't know for sure what Palin thinks of her.
It's easy to see Kilkenny as Palin's culture-war antithesis. She grew up in San Francisco and holds a degree from Berkeley. She proudly calls herself a social liberal. But Kilkenny isn't so easy to stereotype. Her husband, Pat Johnson, hails from a conservative Wasilla family that's been close to Palin's for decades. Pat's mom Eileen once belonged to a Christian women's group that included Palin's mother--"I used to walk with a limp, but my leg grew two inches after the ladies laid their hands on me," Eileen told me.
Kilkenny initially supported Palin. But, once the mayor bludgeoned the town librarian about book-banning, Kilkenny and a group of concerned residents held a meeting to mull a possible recall. After much debate, they decided to help Palin become a better mayor instead.
The group's efforts reflected a kind of establishment delusion--the hope that if you just surround the rough-hewn outsider with the right advisers and submerge her in the proper environment, she'll eventually assimilate. It's a delusion that's playing out all over again on the McCain campaign, amid all the briefings with the likes of Henry Kissinger and Joe Lieberman. Give Palin a few months in the Old Executive Office Building, the thinking goes, and she'll become Adlai Stevenson. But it never quite works out that way. As Nixon demonstrated, the forces of class resentment can be allconsuming and elemental.
"I remember after the recall meeting how I was going to help her," Kilkenny told me. Palin had a habit of smacking gum during city council meetings. Kilkenny thought more people would take her seriously if she knocked it off. "So at the next council meeting, I sat next to her mom. I said, 'Tell Sarah to ditch the gum.'" And the response? "She didn't take it too well."
Could Sarah Palin despise Anne Kilkenny because Kilkenny once suggested she refrain from chewing gum? I'd like to believe it's not true. But I'm honestly not so sure.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor of The New Republic. This article originally ran in the October 22, 2008, issue of the magazine.