Sarah Palin: conservatives find the girl of their dreams
The Alaskan governor’s family life and political views press the right’s buttons
When Sarah Palin stepped into the spotlight as John McCain’s running mate in Dayton, Ohio, and promised that women could “shatter that glass ceiling once and for all”, it was an electrifying moment in a presidential election that had already produced its share of upsets and surprises.
History was on the march again the morning after Barack Obama became the first African-American to accept his party’s White House nomination. After the fireworks, the 80,000-strong crowd who had cheered Obama to the skies at the Mile High stadium in Denver woke up with a hangover.
“We may be seeing the first woman president. As a Democrat, I am reeling,” said Camille Paglia, the cultural critic. “That was the best political speech I have ever seen delivered by an American woman politician. Palin is as tough as nails.”
With her beehive hairdo and retro specs, Palin, 44, has a “naughty librarian vibe”, according to Craig Ferguson, the Scottish comedian who stars on late-night US television. However, the selection of Palin, the governor of Alaska and a mother of five, as the first female Republican vice-presidential nominee is no joke for the Democrats.
Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio chat show host, exulted, “We’re the ones with a babe on the ticket” — one, moreover, with a reputation as a tax-cutter and corruption buster in her job as the first woman governor of Alaska.
Palin’s selection on the eve of the Republican convention in St Paul, Minnesota, has set the stage for an epic battle for the votes of women, African-Americans, evangelical Christians and the young. The demographic wars that dominated the contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton are now set to be replicated in the national election.
Will America fall in love with Palin or will she fizzle, like Dan Quayle, the vice-president to George Bush Sr who could not spell “potatoe”? Can she help McCain to defeat Obama, a modern political phenomenon, who drew a record-shattering television audience of nearly 40m — more than the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing — to watch his convention speech?
“Good Lord, we had barely 12 hours of Democrat optimism,” said Paglia. “It was a stunningly timed piece of PR by the Republicans.”
Whether Palin’s selection is more than a political stunt depends on how she handles the electoral pressure cooker. With the election in November, there is no time for on-the-job training. Karl Rove, Bush’s former aide, offered a guarded welcome to the “gun-packing, hockey-playing” governor, sayhing: “We’ll get a taste in the next five days of how well she does in the 62 days that follow.”
After Obama’s acceptance speech was wiped from the front pages, even he was forced to acknowledge that she “seems like a compelling person . . . with a terrific personal story”. Republicans are hailing their potential new vice-president as the all-American girl of their dreams.
Palin is gunning for the 18m women who voted for Hillary Clinton — a third of whom have not made up their mind to back Obama, according to the latest polls. McCain specifically deployed the language of feminism and civil rights when announcing her candidacy. “She stands up for what’s right and she doesn’t let anyone tell her to sit down,” he said.
Palin’s parents learnt that she had been selected by McCain while they were heading for a remote camp in Alaska to hunt caribou. “I was speechless,” her father said. The skin of a grizzly bear that he shot drapes the sofa in her office.
The more Republicans examined Palin’s record, the more they liked it, although some are fearful of buyer’s remorse. She was born in the conservative heartland of Idaho before moving to Alaska as a baby. At school she was nicknamed Sarah Barracuda on the basketball court because she was so competitive and she led the prayers before each game.
She was a “hockey mom” who cut her teeth at the parent-teacher association before becoming mayor of Wasilla, a suburb of Anchorage with a population under 7,000. In 2006 she beat the corrupt male establishment in Alaska to win the governorship. She opposes same-sex marriage, but one of her first acts in office was to veto a bill blocking health benefits for gay lovers of public employees.
She hunts, ice-fishes and is a crack shot who knows how to fire an M16 rifle. “I was raised in a family where gender was not going to be an issue,” she said. “The girls did what the boys did. Apparently in Alaska that’s quite commonplace.” No softy, she sued to stop the federal government making polar bears an endangered species and favours drilling for oil in the Arctic wildlife refuge. However, she also levied a windfall tax on oil companies.
Palin was glamorous enough to have entered beauty contests to earn money for college. She was crowned Miss Wasilla in her home town and was runner-up in the 1984 Miss Alaska contest. “They made us line up in bathing suits and turn our backs so the male judges could look at our butts. I couldn’t believe it,” she told Vogue, more amused than outraged.
Counterbalancing McCain’s reputation as a political dinosaur, Palin smoked pot when it was legal in Alaska, admitting, “I can’t claim a Bill Clinton and say I never inhaled”, and her children, Track, 19, Bristol, 17, Willow, 13, Piper, 7, and Trig, four months, have hippie-sounding names. Track, who joined the US infantry in September last year, is about to be deployed to Iraq. “It has really opened my eyes to international events and how war impacts everyday Americans like us,” she said.
On stage in Ohio, the Palin family looked every bit as photogenic as the Obamas on their big night in Denver. Todd, her rugged husband, is part Yupik Eskimo and is four-time champion of the 2,000-mile Iron Dog snowmobile race. If that is not macho enough, he is a member of the steelworkers’ union and a seasonal oil production operator for BP, from which he earned $93,000 last year. He also helps to run the family’s commercial fishing business. They eloped in 1988 to avoid the cost of a wedding. “We had a bad fishing year so we didn’t have any money,” he said.
Like his wife, he is able to swap the traditional roles. “My husband loves being a dad as much as I love being a mom,” Palin said. “I’ve got great help there.”
She needs it. They “wanted enough kids for a basketball team”, she once said, but Trig was born this year with Down’s syndrome. Palin knew there were complications while she was pregnant but never considered an abortion. When he was born, she said, “I’m looking at him right now and I see perfection. Yeah, he has an extra chromosome. I keep thinking: in our world, what is normal and what is perfect?” Undaunted, she held a meeting as governor three days after giving birth. “I just put down the BlackBerrys and pick up the breast pump,” she said of her life as a working mother.
Left-wing websites such as the Daily Kos are leading the chorus of disapproval for now. “Having had two children at home at the age of four months, I know how much help they need even without unfortunate medical conditions,” said one tut-tutter.
Republican women, however, are delighted by Palin’s example. Kellyanne Conway, 41, a Republican pollster and mother of three, said, “I really feel mother knows best without the peanut gallery giving unsolicited advice. She strongly conveys to women today that you don’t have to choose between a successful career and motherhood. You do have to make sacrifices, but you can have it all.”
Evangelical Christians could turn out in droves for Palin, a member of Feminists for Life who opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest, if she maintains her promise.
Deborah Fikes, a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals, said: “I would just trust that the child is not neglected in any way. There are millions of women who work. Why is it that the father cannot provide the same standard of care? There has been an evolving view of working women even in conservative Christian circles.”
Fikes said Palin was an inspiring choice: “I didn’t think the Republicans would pick a female candidate for another decade, but John McCain is not a typical conservative leader.”
Other conservative women have pointed out that Palin was a much more effective counterweight to the super-competent and glamorous Michelle Obama than Cindy McCain, wife of the Republican candidate.
Cindy, a beer industry heiress who bought the seven homes that McCain cannot remember and once said the only way to travel around her home state of Arizona was by private plane, was under fire last week from her own half-sister. She said she was voting for Obama after Cindy had repeatedly claimed to be an “only child” and never expressed regret that her father had ignored her half-sister in his will.
In fact, even though the Clinton aides could barely conceal their satisfaction when she was chosen, the woman who Palin upstages most of all is Hillary. If Obama wins the election, Hillary will have to wait until 2016 to stand again. And if he loses, Palin will be first in line to become America’s first woman president.