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Cut, Kill, Dig, Drill

Jonathan Raban

Sarah Palin has put a new face and voice to the long-standing, powerful, but inchoate movement in US political life that one might see as a mutant variety of Poujadism, inflected with a modern American accent. There are echoes of the Poujadist agenda of 1950s France in its contempt for metropolitan elites, fuelling the resentment of the provinces towards the capital and the countryside towards the city, in its xenophobic strain of nationalism, sturdy, paysan resistance to taxation, hostility to big business, and conviction that politicians are out to exploit the common man. In 1980, Ronald Reagan profitably tapped the movement with his promises of states’ rights, low taxes and a shrunken government in Washington; the ‘Reagan Democrats’ who crossed party lines to vote for him are still the most targeted demographic in the country. In 1992, Ross ‘Clean out the Barn’ Perot and his United We Stand America followers looked for a while as if they were going to up-end the two-party system, with Perot leading George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the midsummer polls. In 1996, Pat Buchanan (‘The peasants are coming with pitchforks’) appealed to the same bloc of voters with a programme that was militantly Christian, white, nativist, provincial, protectionist and anti-Washington. In 2000, Karl Rove cleverly enrolled this quasi-Poujadist faction in his grand alliance of libertarians, born-agains and corporate interests. It’s worth remembering that in 2004 every American city with a population of more than 500,000 voted for Kerry, and that the election was won for Bush in the outer suburbs, exurbia and the countryside – peasants with pitchforks territory. For an organisation so wedded to its big-city corporate clients, the Republican Party has been hugely successful in mopping up the votes of low-income, lightly educated rural and exurban residents.

Most large American cities, especially in the West, are situated in counties that extend far beyond the city limits. Liberal urban governments with high property-tax rates and progressive environmental policies wield great power (some say tyranny) over their rural hinterlands, delivering ukases about land use and conservation: brush-cutting is to be limited to 40 per cent of the property; ‘setbacks’ of 100 feet are required from streams and wetlands; new churches are denied building permission because they are deemed ‘large footprint items’ in ‘critical habitat areas’ etc. So the householder or farmer sees ‘the city’ making unwarranted infringements of his God-given right to manage his land as he pleases, and imagines his precious tax-dollars being squandered on such urban fripperies as streetcar lines and monorails. These local quarrels spread to infect whole states. In Washington state, where I live, almost every ill that befalls people in the timberlands and agricultural regions, far from any city, is confidently attributed to ‘liberals from Seattle’, a nefarious conspiracy of wealthy, tree-hugging elitists with law degrees from East Coast universities, whose chief aim is to destroy the traditional livelihoods of honest citizens living on either side of the Puget Sound urban corridor. Poujade – and Jean-Marie Le Pen – would have had a field day here; as, I’m afraid, will the McCain-Palin ticket in November.

Until now, the political leaders who’ve used the movement to their electoral advantage have come to it as outsiders. Reagan the Hollywood actor, Perot the data-processing billionaire, Buchanan the DC journalist, and George W. Bush the energy-industry scion and owner of a merely recreational ranch in Crawford, Texas, have had very little in common with their rural and exurban constituents, and their gestures at farmyard, strip-mall or cowboy-boot cred have tended to come across as phoney and embarrassing. Photographed inside J.C. Penney’s or Costco or Safeway, they’ve looked hardly less exotic than poor Michael Dukakis did on board his ill-advised tank. But the moment that Sarah Palin stepped up to the mike at the Republican Convention in St Paul, and began talking in her homely, mezzo-soprano, Far Western twang, she showed herself to be incontestably the real thing. Americans, starved of völkisch authenticity in their national politicians, thrilled to her presence on the stage. Forty million people watched her speech on television. When she said, ‘Difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull? Lipstick!’ even in the liberal redoubt of Seattle I thought I heard a roar of delighted recognition coming from my neighbours on the hill. Palin doesn’t need to say what Poujade used to tell his listeners, ‘Look me in the eye, and you will see yourself,’ and ‘I’m just le petit Poujade, an ordinary Frenchman like you’: all she needed was her trademark blink from behind her librarian glasses, and to turn on her pert, wrinkle-nosed smile, in order to convince a crucial sector of the American electorate, male and female, that it sees in her a looking-glass reflection, suitably flattering in both form and content, of itself. Sarah, c’est moi.

Like Wally the Green Monster, Baxter the Bobcat, the Mariner Moose and other giant furry creatures who accompany major-league baseball teams from game to game, Palin is the adored mascot of the anti-fiscal crowd. Her actual performance as mayor and governor counts for little beside her capacity to keep the fans happy during the intervals between play, which she does in the style she developed as mayor of Wasilla and then perfected in her triumphant gubernatorial campaign in 2006. Transcripts and videos from her time in Alaska show her parlaying the barest minimum of rhetorical and intellectual resources into a formidable electoral weapon. The least one can say of her is that she quickly learned how to make the most of herself.

What is most striking about her is that she seems perfectly untroubled by either curiosity or the usual processes of thought. When answering questions, both Obama and Joe Biden have an unfortunate tendency to think on their feet and thereby tie themselves in knots: Palin never thinks. Instead, she relies on a limited stock of facts, bright generalities and pokerwork maxims, all as familiar and well-worn as old pennies. Given any question, she reaches into her bag for the readymade sentence that sounds most nearly proximate to an answer, and, rather than speaking it, recites it, in the upsy-downsy voice of a middle-schooler pronouncing the letters of a word in a spelling bee. She then fixes her lips in a terminal smile. In the televised game shows that pass for political debates in the US, it’s a winning technique: told that she has 15 seconds in which to answer, Palin invariably beats the clock, and her concision and fluency more than compensate for her unrelenting triteness.

She has great political gifts, combining the competitive instincts of a Filipino gamecock with the native gumption she first displayed in her 1996 race to become mayor of Wasilla, when she blindsided the incumbent mayor by running not on local but on state and national issues, as the pro-gun and pro-life candidate. Mayors have no say on abortion or on gun laws, but Palin got the support of the local Evangelicals (it greatly helped that her – Lutheran – opponent’s surname was Stein and her backers put it about that he was a Jew) and of gun-owners who keenly supported a bill, then pending in the state legislature, that would affirm the right of Alaskans to carry concealed weapons into public buildings. On more typical mayoral concerns, she promised to halve Wasilla’s property tax and ‘cut out things that are not necessary’, citing the bloated budgets for the museum, the library and arts and recreation. She won the election with 616 votes to Stein’s 413.

There followed what some Wasillaites saw as her reign of terror. She demanded resignation letters from all the city managers, ridding herself of the museum director, the librarian (whom she was later forced to rehire), the public works director, the city planner and the police chief, who’d argued against the concealed weapons bill and had supported a measure to close the town’s bars at 2.30 a.m. on weekdays and 3 a.m. at weekends (the owners of the Mug-Shot Saloon and the Wasilla Bar had given money to Palin’s campaign). City employees were forbidden by her to speak to the press, and during her first four months in office she provoked a string of appalled editorials in the local paper, the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman:

Wasilla found out it has a new mayor with either little understanding or little regard for the city’s own laws.

Palin seems to have assumed her election was indeed a coronation. Welcome to Kingdom Palin, the land of no accountability.

Mayor Palin fails to have a firm grasp of something very simple: the truth . . . Wasilla residents have been subjected to attempts to unlawfully appoint council members, statements that have been shown to be patently untrue, unrepentant backpedalling, and incessant whining that her only enemies are the press and a few disgruntled supporters of former mayor John Stein.

Surrounding herself with fellow congregants from the Pentecostalist Wasilla Assembly of God and old school chums from Wasilla High, the 32-year-old mayor set about turning the town into the kind of enterprise society that Margaret Thatcher used to extol. She abolished its building codes and signed a series of ordinances that re-zoned residential property for commercial and industrial use. When the city attorney ordered construction to stop on a house being built by one of her campaign contributors, she sacked him.

Having come to power saying that her agenda was to pare down Wasilla to ‘the basic necessities, the bare bones’, she surprised its citizens when she redecorated the mayor’s office at a reported cost of $50,000 salvaged from the highways budget; its new red flock wallpaper matched her bold, rouge-et-noir taste in personal outfits. Another $24,000 of city money went on a white Chevy Suburban, known around Wasilla, without affection, as the mayormobile. She hired a city administrator to deputise for her in the day-to-day running of Wasilla’s affairs and employed a lobbyist in DC to wheedle lawmakers into meeting the town’s ever-expanding list of claims for congressional ‘pork’ (so named from the antebellum custom of rewarding slaves with barrels of salt pork). That expenditure, at least, paid off: during Palin’s six-year tenure as mayor, the federal government doled out more than $1000 for every man, woman and child in Wasilla. Her pet project was a $14.7m ice rink and sports complex, which opened in 2004. It is said to be lightly used, it has left the city servicing a massive debt, and a Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit continues over the bungled way in which Palin acquired the land on which it’s built.

Present-day Wasilla is Palin’s lasting monument. It sits in a broad alluvial valley, puddled with lakes, boxed in on three sides by sawtoothed Jurassic mountains, and fringed with woods of spruce and birch. Visitors usually aim their cameras at the town’s natural surroundings, for Wasilla itself – quite unlike its rival and contemporary in the valley, Palmer, 11 miles to the east – is a centreless, sprawling ribbon of deregulated development along a four-lane highway, backed on both sides by subdivisions occupied by trailer-homes, cabins, tract-housing and ranch-style bungalows, most built since 1990. It’s a generic Western settlement, and one sees Wasillas in every state this side of the 100th meridian: the same competing gas stations, fast-food outlets, strip malls and ‘big box’ stores like Wal-Mart, Target, Fred Meyer and Home Depot, each with a vast parking lot out front, on which human figures scuttle with their shopping trolleys like coloured ants, robbed of their proper scale. (It has to be said that Pierre Poujade, champion of the small shopkeeper, would have been outraged by this sight.)

Wasilla is what inevitably happens when there are no codes, no civic oversight, no planning, when the only governing principle in a community is a naive and superstitious trust in the benevolent authority of the free market. Palin’s view of aesthetics was nicely highlighted in 1996, a few months before she ran for mayor, when a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News happened to light on her in an excited crowd of five hundred women queuing up in the Anchorage J.C. Penney’s, waiting to snag the autograph of Ivana Trump, who was in town to hawk her eponymous line of scent.

‘We want to see Ivana,’ Palin said, who admittedly smells like a salmon for a large part of the summer, ‘because we are so desperate in Alaska for any semblance of glamour and culture.’

The blot on the Alaskan landscape that is Wasilla is the natural consequence of a mindset that mistakes Ivana Trump for culture.

Palin’s political gumption was never better exercised than it was five years ago. Follow closely this rather intricate sequence of manoeuvres, because it reveals a lot about her. In 2002, towards the end of her term as mayor, she mounted an underfunded run for the office of lieutenant-governor, and came a close second in the Republican primary. She then attached herself to the gubernatorial campaign of Alaska’s junior US senator, Frank Murkowski, speaking by his side at every possible opportunity. The reason? If Murkowski won the governorship, his Senate seat would be in his gift, and Palin had set her heart on going to DC. On the trail, she fêted him, slathering on the butter and topping it with jam. Murkowski won, the vacancy in the US Senate yawned, and Palin went to Juneau for an interview. After due consideration, the new governor – this being Alaska – decided that the person best qualified for the job was his own daughter, Lisa. He could hardly have delivered a more insulting blow. However, his largesse was not yet exhausted and he gave Palin the consolation prize of a seat on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, a part-time job that paid $122,400 a year – good money, but not at all what she was after.

The aggrieved Palin reluctantly accepted. She now had Murkowski in her sights, and he might have been wise to consider the fates of the Wasilla police chief, city attorney, museum director and others who had dared to cross her in the past. She chaired the Conservation Commission (in Alaska, the word ‘conservation’ means something rather different from what it means elsewhere), on which she was joined by the chairman of the state Republican Party, Randy Ruedrich, a former oil company manager, and Dan Seamount, a geologist. She kept a watchful eye on Ruedrich, and office gossip came back to her with the news that he was conducting Republican Party business on his state computer, in state time: an ethics violation with which she was intimately familiar, since she’d been caught doing the same thing back in Wasilla, where the mayoral letterhead, fax machine and email account had been used in her campaign for the lieutenant-governorship a few months before.

Palin reported Ruedrich to Murkowski, but the governor, already mired in accusations of incompetence and worse, refused to take her calls. More Nancy-Drew-style detective work suggested that Ruedrich was misusing his position as impartial regulator to shill for a coal-bed methane company. One would give a lot to have been a fly on the wall at commission meetings during the summer and early autumn of 2003, as the improbably well-named Mr Seamount, a leftover from the previous Democratic administration, sat quietly by during the sulphurous confrontations between Ruedrich and Palin, who quickly made public both her complaints against Ruedrich and the governor’s refusal to take notice of them. As she told the Anchorage Daily News on 7 November 2003, ‘It’s distracting, it’s confusing, it’s frustrating. It’s not fair to Alaskans to have these questions about a possible conflict hanging over the head of this agency.’ Late the next day, Ruedrich resigned from the commission. Palin herself, forbidden by the governor to discuss the Ruedrich affair with journalists, resigned – to great acclaim in the Alaskan press – in January 2004.

The timing of these moves was immaculate. Murkowski was fast becoming the most unpopular governor on record, and the leaders of the state Republican Party, the ‘good ol’ boy network’, as Palin calls them now, had already attracted great public odium for their cronyism and underhand dealings with the oil and gas companies. The FBI was preparing to move in. At the last count, at least 14 public officials, oil company executives and Alaskan politicians (including the state’s senior US senator, Ted Stevens, and its only US congressman, Don Young) are now either on trial, indicted, under federal investigation or in jail, and it’s probable that there are more charges and more suspects still to come.

After she left the commission, Palin told people that her whistleblowing had ‘destroyed her political career’ – a calculated disingenuity if ever there was one. But she came closer to the truth when, in an understandably cocky op-ed piece, published in the Daily News in April 2004, she wrote: ‘Success in the sports arena is essentially the same in the political arena . . . All I ever really needed to know I learned on the basketball court.’ Following Murkowski’s appointment of his daughter to the Senate, Palin had taken possession of the ball, dribbled it brilliantly through the ranks of her slower-witted opponents, leaped for the hoop, and scored a clean slam dunk.

Alaskan journalists fawned on her. At a low point in the state’s political history, especially for Republicans, Palin had bravely stood up against the leaders of her own party and exposed corruption. She’d taken on the governor, the party chairman and the oil companies, and unselfishly sacrificed her hopes of advancement in the process. At that time, it would have been unseasonable to suggest that simple jealousy and opportunism might have played as large a part in her actions as moral principle, and the Daily News bestowed on her the ultimate newspaper accolade when it used her first name only in a headline on the front page of its B section: ‘What Would Sarah Do? We’ll See Come the Next Big Election’. Eight years before, in her first appearance in the paper, she’d been a fishy-smelling nonentity in the crowd of fame-suckers at J.C. Penney’s; now she was a beloved statewide mascot.

It was as a mascot (‘New Energy for Alaska!’) that she ran in the 2006 gubernatorial election, humiliating Murkowski in the primary, and comfortably beating Tony Knowles, a former governor and the Democratic candidate, in November. When she took the oath of office in – appropriately – the Carlson Center sports arena in Fairbanks, the crowd of six thousand broke into a deafening chant of ‘Sarah! Sarah! Sarah!’ and had to be silenced before the ceremony could go on.

Then she went back to Juneau and started sacking state officials, from the attorney-general down, so that she could replace them with malleable old friends from her church and Wasilla High.

Alaska is unique among the states in that every permanent resident without a felony conviction is entitled to a share in the proceeds from its oil and gas resources. Each autumn, eligible Alaskans receive payments based on the interest accrued by the state’s Permanent Fund during the previous year. In 2007, Palin again ‘stood up to Big Oil’ when she successfully forced a bill through the legislature which raised the tax on oil companies’ net profits from 22.5 per cent to 25 per cent, ensuring a gush of money into the Permanent Fund and a hike in the size of cheques sent out to the citizenry. The move was strongly resisted by the Republican establishment, always averse to taxing ‘windfall profits’ and zealous in the defence of its cronies and contributors in the oil industry, but it was wildly popular among ordinary Alaskans, bred to expect handouts, whether from the federal or the state government. That year, Palin announced the biggest payment in six years, $1654, with a whoop of ‘Oh, baby!’ Late this summer, with oil prices still at around $125 a barrel, she was able to trump that number with an all-time record of $2069, plus a further one-off payment of $1200 to help Alaskans deal with the spiralling price of gasoline and heating fuel. For a hard-pressed family of four, that translated into a cheque for $13,076 – a jackpot figure, equivalent to 45 weeks of pay at the Alaskan minimum wage rate of $7.15 an hour, enough to pay cash for a new Ford Focus, or put down the deposit on a pretty nice house. (The federal poverty line for a four-person family is just over $20,000.)

It’s no wonder that Palin’s approval rating stands at more than 80 per cent in her home state: populist leaders are rarely able to reward their constituents with lavish contributions to their personal bank accounts, and there’s nothing like money for making people feel generously bipartisan. (Imagine how the polls might change if every family in Britain received a cheque for a little over £7000, personally signed, as it were, by Gordon Brown.) The Evita-like adulation that ‘Sarah’ was gaining in Alaska began to spread as a rumour through the nation in February, when she was first tipped as a possible running-mate for McCain, with Rush Limbaugh, the far-right radio rabble-rouser, as her noisiest fan. Her reputation for levying taxes on big business in order to fill the pockets of the common man – Alaska’s own Robin Hood – struck a profound chord in the hearts of the ‘dittoheads’, as Limbaugh’s faithful sheep describe themselves, and when McCain eventually nominated Palin, Limbaugh took to calling him John McBrilliant, having previously abused him as a traitor to the Republican cause.

Before Palin, McCain was lucky to draw a crowd of a few hundred; with Palin, he has been rallying Obama-sized turnouts of many thousands. Liberals have tried to comfort themselves by putting this down to her novelty value, a quality they hope will pass its expiry date well before the November election, and by dismissing her as another Dan ‘Potatoe’ Quayle or Admiral ‘Who am I? What am I doing here’ Stockdale, two of the last century’s most memorably inept vice-presidential choices. Many hope that the present financial crisis will so deepen and darken that McCain’s cavalier attitude to economics (‘Not something I’ve understood as well as I should’) and Palin’s seeming total ignorance of the subject will scare American voters into electing Obama. They expect reason to prevail and disenchantment to set in as Palin’s many contradictions and untruths are exposed in the press and on TV. They believe that her views on abortion are alienating all but fervently Evangelical and Catholic women. The line to spin over the dinner table is that ‘she only energises the base.’

But as politicians of both parties in Alaska have discovered, underestimating Palin nearly always turns out to be a fatal error. For – when on form – she has the ability to connect with that surly mass of occasional, floating voters who feel themselves to have been disenfranchised by more orthodox politicians and who respond to her as a paragon of domestic good sense and decency in a world rendered ever more incomprehensible by the dark arts of the elites.

She belongs to no elite. After drifting through five colleges in six years, she eventually secured a degree in journalism at the University of Idaho, less ivy than sagebrush league. Short of majoring in chiropractic, she could hardly have had a higher education less offensive to the Limbaughites. As Obama stands tarred in their eyes by his Columbia and Harvard connections, so Palin represents the healthy values of the church and the outdoors against those of the deeply suspect East Coast universities.

Importantly, she’s unimpressed by ‘science’, whether it’s the science of evolution, anthropogenic climate change or the Endangered Species Act. In a period of stagnant wages and rising unemployment, science has been vilified as the enemy of working-class jobs in such industries as mining, timber, agriculture and construction. It is also – especially in the phrase ‘best available science’ – very widely seen as the cause of unpardonable infringements of individual property rights. When, for instance, Palin contentiously advocates drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, she both promises well-paid jobs and champions the precious American liberty to do what the hell you like in your own backyard. Likewise, her fight against listing the polar bear as an endangered species, even as the sea ice melts under its feet – which has entailed blandly denying the findings of her own state scientists – sits well with a large, disgruntled rural sector of the population which has seen jobs lost, mills closed and property devalued in order to protect such critters as the northern spotted owl and the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly. The director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance says that her motto is ‘cut, kill, dig and drill’ and that she lives ‘in the Stone Age of wildlife management, and is very opposed to utilising accepted science’. For many voters, that’s ample reason to see her as a folk hero.

She has nicely positioned herself for national consumption as the enemy of the effete and over-sophisticated cities; a ‘gal’, as she says, from the remote provinces, untainted by the stain of the urban. In her convention speech, she managed to paint Wasilla as if it were the idealised small town of sentimental memory, complete with the drugstore soda fountain, barbershop striped pole, sociable Main Street and rosy-cheeked postmistress. ‘Long ago,’ she said, comparing her own rise with that of the 33rd president,

a young farmer and a haberdasher from Missouri, he followed an unlikely path – he followed an unlikely path to the vice presidency. And a writer [Westbrook Pegler, the McCarthyite newspaper columnist] observed, ‘We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity,’ and I know just the kind of people that writer had in mind when he praised Harry Truman. I grew up with those people. They’re the ones who do some of the hardest work in America, who grow our food, and run our factories, and fight our wars. They love their country in good times and bad, and they’re always proud of America.

By implication, then, big city people are unpatriotic (Palin’s last phrase was a sneer at Michelle Obama, a lifelong Chicagoan); they are insincere slackers and draft dodgers – in a word, liberals. The passage reminded Republicans of their party demographics, their strength in the exurbs, and prepared the ground for an assault on the metropolitan manners and mores of their Democratic opponents, in a depressingly effective piece of hokum.

In Alaska, she has deployed her end-times fundamentalist beliefs with considerable adroitness, nimbly walking the tightrope between pleasing the church crowd and reassuring her secular constituency of her essential moderation. She appears to have learned from her early experience in Wasilla, when, pressed by her backers in the Assembly of God, she suggested to the librarian that such ‘unsuitable’ books as Daddy’s Roommate and Pastor, I Am Gay be removed from the library, only to backtrack later with the claim that she was merely asking a ‘rhetorical’ (she meant hypothetical) question. Since then, as governor, she’s handled such issues with impressive wiliness. When the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that gay partners of state employees must receive the same benefits as heterosexual spouses, the legislature passed a bill to block the payments. Palin made clear her sympathy with the bill’s intent, but refused to sign it on the grounds that to do so would be to ‘violate my oath of office’. Similarly, she endeared herself to Evangelicals during her gubernatorial campaign by saying that ‘intelligent design’ should be taught alongside evolution in the state’s public schools: ‘Teach both,’ she said, but then declined to back a bill which would have made that teaching mandatory. Playing politics by the rules of basketball, improvising her moves according to the requirements of the moment, she is too opportunistic (some say pragmatic) to be an ideologue. While she likes to trumpet her narrow theology, with its stress on Calvinist predestination and the imminence of the Rapture (the Iraq war is ‘a task that is from God’), she simultaneously manages to embody her state’s peculiar brand of live-and-let-live libertarianism.

The unfolding details of ‘Troopergate’ will probably not seriously damage her, because the nation seems to have decided that her ex-brother-in-law, Mike Wooten, is a low-life skunk (‘He tasered the kid’) who deserved everything he got. Her various family troubles, including Wooten and her pregnant teenage daughter, help to underscore her authenticity as the people’s candidate; and so do such peccadillos as charging the state $60 per diem for living in her own house in Wasilla. Some politicians (the late Charles Haughey, plain ‘Charlie’ to all Ireland, comes to mind) have the invaluable knack of reminding their constituents of their own easily forgivable improbities, and Palin appears to be one of them. Proven hypocrisy is another matter, but though her time as mayor and governor has been studded with incidents of bullying, meanness and an unseemly thirst for personal revenge, no one has called her a hypocrite, so far as I can tell.

The most likely cause of her undoing will – strangely – be the McCain campaign. In St Paul, unveiled as the goose who could lay for the Republicans the golden egg of the presidency, she brimmed with the inflated self-assurance of the small-world conqueror, and held a national audience in the palm of her hand as she recited the same confident platitudes that served her so well in Alaska. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and McCain and his advisers should have left well alone, left ‘Sarah’ to be her vote-winning self. Instead, they seem to be no less alarmed by her than liberals are, and have taken to force-feeding her, stuffing her gullet with ‘talking points’ on foreign and domestic policy. Under their frantic tuition, Palin has recently looked less likely to lay the golden egg than to produce inferior goose-liver pâté.

On 17 September, she was temporarily released from the crammers and allowed to take questions at a town hall meeting in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where someone in the crowd said that there was in certain circles a ‘perception’ that foreign policy was not her forte. Palin replied:

Well, I think because I am a Washington outsider that opponents are going to be looking for a whole lot of things that they can criticise, and they can kind of try to beat the candidate here who chose me as his partner to kind of tear down the ticket. But as for foreign policy, you know, I think that I am prepared, and I know that on 20 January, if we are so blessed as to be sworn into office as your president and vice president, certainly we’ll be ready. I’ll be ready. I have that confidence. I have that readiness, and if you want specifics with specific policy or countries, go ahead, and you can ask me. You can even play stump the candidate if you want to. But we are ready to serve.

At which point, McCain leaned into the microphone to say: ‘She’s commander of the Alaskan National Guard.’ A little later, she was asked a friendly question on her top subject, energy policy, specifically oil.

Of course, it’s a fungible commodity and they don’t flag, you know, the molecules, where it’s going and where it’s not. But in the sense of the Congress today, they know that there are very, very hungry domestic markets that need that oil first. So, I believe that what Congress is going to do also, is not to allow the export bans to such a degree that it’s Americans who get stuck holding the bag without the energy source that is produced here, pumped here. It’s got to flow into our domestic markets first.

This was a new and startling Sarah Palin, the dim student, flustered by more teaching than her poor head could bear. Molecules! Fungible! Commodity! She flung the words like bean bags at a blackboard. She never talked this way in Alaska, and would never have done so in Michigan, if her new tutors hadn’t succeeded in temporarily addling her brains. More, much more, of the same gibberish was on display in her recent extended interview on CBS with Katie Couric. On the proximity of Russia to Alaska: ‘It’s very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia as Putin rears his head and comes into the airspace of the United States of America, where – where do they go? It’s Alaska.’

She may yet regain her poise. Her populist appeal is still enormous, and it’s far too early to start dancing on her grave, as some commentators have already tried to do. Palin’s campaign-trail mistakes will not calm that deep groundswell of public feeling of which she is now the national figurehead. But, for the last few days, as her education at the hands of her captors has proceeded, we in the cities, with our elitist liberal ideas and our stark terror of what further harm the United States might inflict on itself and the world under a third consecutive Republican administration, have been just a little less likely to wake up screaming at three in the morning.

26 September

Jonathan Raban
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