They called themselves the elite six and the name was meant to be ironic. This was Wasilla, Alaska, 30 miles north of Anchorage, in the early 1990s when the sagging economy meant, as a local recalls, “everyone had dust on their ass.” There was nothing élite about this little town on the stretch of highway along the railroad. And there was nothing élite about the group either six stay-at-home moms who sought one another out to escape the house and get some exercise in the long northern winter. They would do their step aerobics, then drive to a local diner for coffee and dessert. It was a lifeline in lean times.
The women are still friends 15 years later, still living in the same valley, still meeting up, though less often than before. They make time for their annual Christmas-ornament exchange the first week of December, just the six of them. They used to make the ornaments by hand, but who has the time now This year they exchanged store-bought pieces.
All of the Elite Six gathered at a bridal shower in Wasilla on Sunday, Aug. 24. But one of them was in a rush. She showed up to say hi and drop off a present. She talked about her plans to take the kids that Friday to the state fair, a once-a-year festival of giant cabbages, salmon quesadillas, hippie jewelry and gun-rights information booths. “That was just her doing her Sarah thing,” says Amy Hansen, 45, with a laugh. “Showing up in sweats, saying ‘Oh, I can’t stay long.’ But can you believe she came by at all”
It turns out Sarah Heath Palin wasn’t actually going to the state fair. Three days later, she was secreted to a waiting plane that took her to Flagstaff, Ariz., and then driven to John McCain’s ranch near Sedona. It seems that one of the Elite Six had gotten out of the house and clear out of Alaska. She was about to become the second female vice-presidential candidate in history and the first ever for the Republican Party.
That began one of the most unlikely and remarkable entrances onto the national stage in memory more flash mob than debutante ball, culminating in her Sept. 3 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. Reporters scrambled to book any flight heading north or west, followed shortly after by a hurried McCain vetting group a jump team, it was called of lawyers and media handlers. By then, the strangest rumors about this unknown governor and the people who elected her were cascading across the lower 48. Does everyone up there really eat moose Did Palin fake the pregnancy of her son Trig Do Alaskans even want to be a part of the U.S. The first target of the opportunistic frenzy was the governor’s 17-year-old daughter Bristol, whose pregnancy, the town had thought, was nobody’s business but is now the stuff of tabloid covers. For a moment everyone stood, hat in hand, reflecting on the sad humanity of it all. Then the yawping, screeching cage fight that is American politics resumed.
Everyone can agree that Palin is no Beltway creature, but in less than a week, the country has uncovered at least half a dozen new Palin personas that are competing to share top billing on her Wikipedia entry. She’s a beauty queen turned sportscaster turned governor. An anticorruption crusader in an oil-soaked, scandal-racked state capital. A caribou hunter who also showcases her femininity in fashion shoots. An Evangelical with very sharp elbows and worldly ambitions.
Above all, Palin has proved to be a shrewd political operator who slyly fought her way upstream through her state’s cutthroat politics, someone more formidable than her image might suggest and more than some in her own party are willing to acknowledge. For all her savvy, or maybe because of it, she has been launched headlong into the role of a lifetime, for which almost nothing could have prepared her. To parse out who she is and who she might become, you need to be here, between the Chugach and the Talkeetna ranges, on the shore of Lake Lucille, in the town of Wasilla.
An Alaskan Life
The mayor of the matanuska-susitna Borough an area the size of West Virginia that includes Wasilla is a one-armed dentist and pilot named Curt Menard. He and his family have known the Palins for decades, and hanging on a wall in his home is a picture that, though grainy, probably sums up Palin’s childhood. It shows her as a high schooler in 1981, in a root cellar with family and friends, helping skin, cube and cure a whole moose. Palin is standing in the middle of all the butchery in track shorts, flashing her now familiar beauty-queen smile.
Palin was the third of four children born to Chuck and Sally Heath. Chuck was a teacher and track coach; he was well known for long-distance runs though the valley, sometimes with his kids at his side. Sally looked after the children, and when they were all old enough for school, she went to work as the school secretary.
It wasn’t a well-connected or privileged family, but Chuck’s position as a teacher meant that all of Wasilla knew him. By the time she finished high school, Palin had made a name for herself as a standout girl a star basketball player and an avid hunter who won the local beauty pageant and placed second statewide. Her marriage to high school sweetheart Todd Palin upped the family’s Alaska quotient: he was part Yupik native and all man. He would go on to become a commercial fisherman and part-time oilman and win the nearly 2,000-mile Iron Dog snowmobile race four times.
She moved far away to attend college at the University of Hawaii in Hilo but she did so with a tight nucleus of three friends from high school, according to Kaylene Johnson, author of Sarah, a biography of Palin published earlier this year. The group quickly transferred to Hawaii Pacific University, but that didn’t work out either; they missed the winters, Johnson says. Palin moved with one of the girls to North Idaho College in Coeur D’Alene in 1983. When Palin did finally strike out on her own, it was to transfer to the University of Idaho at Moscow where her brother was enrolled.
She graduated in 1987 with a degree in journalism and a minor in political science. She returned home to the valley and concentrated on commercial fishing and starting a family. On the side, she slowly eased into local politics, from PTA activism to a Wasilla citizens’ group to a seat on the city council. Her family never got in the way, says Hansen. “She had her kids before she got in politics,” she says. “She always had a lot of support from friends, from family.” In Palin’s convention speech, she described herself as “just your average hockey mom who signed up for the PTA because I wanted to make my kids’ public education better. When I ran for city council, I didn’t need focus groups and voter profiles because I knew those voters and knew their families too.” And they knew her.
The Making of a Pol
In her first big race, for mayor of Wasilla, Palin was a polarizing figure who introduced issues like abortion and gun control into a mayoral race that had traditionally been contested like a friendly intramural contest. John Stein, the mayor at the time, had helped Palin get into politics a few years earlier. He had no idea that he was about to become the first casualty of her ambitions. He doesn’t begrudge her running against him he had been in office for nine years but he says she changed the stakes when she sought outside endorsements and injected hot-button politics into a small-town race. “It was always a nonpartisan job,” he says. “But with her, the state GOP came in and started affecting the race.”
Palin often describes that 1996 race as having been a fight against the old boys’ club. Stein’s memory is different. “It got to the extent that I don’t remember who it was now but some national antiabortion outfit sent little pink cards to voters in Wasilla endorsing her,” he says. Chas St. George, a Palin friend who worked on Stein’s campaign, says he has no reason to dispute Stein’s recollection of events but doesn’t remember Palin’s conduct as beyond the pale. “Our tax coffers were starting to grow,” he says. “John was for expanding services, and Sarah wasn’t. That’s what the race was about.”
One thing all sides agree on is that the valley was in flux. The old libertarian pioneer ethos was giving way to a rising Christian conservatism. By shrewdly invoking issues that mattered to the ascendant majority, she won the mayor’s race. While she may have been a new face, says Victoria Naegele, who edited the local Frontiersman newspaper then, Palin also knew how to get the party establishment on her side. “The state party gave her the mechanism to get into that office,” says Naegele. “As soon as she was confident enough to brush them off, she did. But she wasn’t an outsider to start with. She very much had to kowtow to them.”