What John McCain did not know about Sarah Palin before he made her his partner is nearly everything that the public ought to know about someone who could soon be their president: What exactly has she done and what principles moved her to do them?
But McCain may pay no price for the failing. He turned a terrifying weakness — Palin was a complete stranger to American voters and nearly so to him — into a stunning advantage. By the deft use of lies and distortions McCain, Palin and their surrogates turned a blank canvas overnight into a portrait of a stylish Joan of Arc.
The media passed along the image of a fiercely ethical, moose-hunting foe of government taxing and spending and unbending defender of family values. There was nothing not to love, and a star was born. When some papers sent reporters to Alaska or to Alaska newspaper files to get the facts they were denounced as left-wing conspirators.
Only a little vetting through the files of the Anchorage Daily News and the Wasilla Frontiersman produces the lineaments of a typically political and opportunistic public life. As a councilwoman and mayor at tiny Wasilla and as governor for 20 months, she exhibited the consummate political skill of saying one thing, doing the opposite and getting credit for both. Mike Huckabee owns the patent. He governed as a tax-and-spend liberal but politicked as a tightfisted conservative.
Palin, McCain and all the Republican surrogates who spoke up for her on the network shows touted two iconic images that came to represent her storied career. She sold the former governor's “luxury jet” on eBay “and made a profit,” McCain told cheering delegates, and when Congress sent hundreds of millions for the legendary “bridge to nowhere” she told Congress, by her account, “thanks but no thanks” — they could keep all the millions.
Neither was true.
Gov. Frank Murkowski, Palin's political benefactor until she ran against him, had bought a 23-year-old jet to get around Alaska, which is more than twice the size of Texas. All his opponents in the 2006 election, Democrat and Republican, ridiculed him and said they would sell the plane if they got elected. Palin put it on eBay, which Murkowski had done successfully with many other state assets, but the state got no worthy bids. So the state sold the plane at a private auction and, rather than the profit that McCain claimed she got, the state took a loss of $500,000.
McCain, who really has fought pork-barrel spending like the fabled bridge to Ketchikan, characterized Palin as a fierce foe of them, and her alleged refusal to accept the appropriation for the bridge was the emblem of her principled stand. But that was a stretch if not an outright lie.
As mayor of Wasilla she hired a lobbyist close to Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, the pork barrelers in chief, to get earmarks for her town, and they delivered millions. As governor, in 18 months she submitted $453 million in earmark requests to Congress, roughly $650 for every person in Alaska.
As for the bridge, she supported it when she was running two years ago. Congress stopped the bridge earmark, but the state's Republican delegation got the money appropriated for whatever purposes Alaska wanted to spend it on. The bridge cost by then had far outstripped the appropriation. Contrary to her assertions now, Palin told Congress, “thanks a lot.” She spent every dime on other pork projects and said she was asking transportation officials to come up with another plan for the bridge.
Stevens was indicted this spring and Young is under criminal investigation. They are whipping boys now, but two years ago she was praising them for their pork-barreling success, including the bridge. “And our congressional delegation, God bless ‘em,” she said. “They do a great job for us. Rep. Don Young, especially God bless him. We're very, very fortunate to receive the largesse that Don Young was able to put together for Alaska.”
McCain said again and again last week that he just couldn't wait to turn Palin loose on the free-spending Congress. What would she do? Shoot them? And this week we learn that Palin has paid herself a daily expense for living at home and for taking family members to public events.
Her big monuments as governor are her promotion of the trans-Canada gas pipeline to the states and the big windfall profits tax on oil, which financed the $1,200 checks she is sending to every person in Alaska — the source of her current popularity. Both were pushed by the former governor, and Palin opposed them. Candidate Palin said the pipeline should stay in Alaska and furnish gas for Alaska's needs, not the lower 48, and she said she would fight taxes on the oil companies. But the legislature liked Murkowski's plans, and once elected, a la Huckabee, she adopted them as her own.
This wouldn't bother McCain, or a lot of us, but the family-values people might profit from a little vetting. Palin once confirmed that she had smoked marijuana, explaining that while it violated federal law it was not against the law in Alaska. Anyway, she said, she didn't enjoy it much.
As a city official, Palin fought efforts to force Wasilla's bars to close at 3 a.m. rather than 5 a.m., as the police chief wanted, and she joined the campaign against a state law to close bars earlier. She fired the police chief although objections from bar owners who supported her might not have been the full reason she fired him. According to the Wasilla newspaper in 1993, she explained that the chief intimidated her with his size (6 feet tall and more than 200 pounds) and the “stern” way he looked at her.
She's a few votes and a heartbeat away from the presidency.