After three years of tweeting, hinting and eyelash-batting, on Wednesday Sarah Palin announced that she was not running for president. Her Facebook friends are disappointed. But for Sarah-watchers in Alaska like me, the announcement was long expected, old news.
In 2008, John McCain dumbfounded the nation when he selected Palin as his running mate. She was so obviously unqualified that even Dick Cheney said McCain had made a “reckless” choice; a judgment Palin quickly validated when she famously told Charles Gibson that she was qualified to speak authoritatively about foreign policy because the Eskimos who live on Little Diomede Island in the Alaskan Arctic can see Russia out their front windows.
John McCain is as astute a politician as Dick Cheney is. So why did he select Palin as his running mate? Because as Alaskans knew and the nation soon would learn, Palin, who is as telegenic as Jennifer Aniston, has rock star charisma.
Today, people forget how close McCain’s what-do-I-have-to-lose attempt to revive his flagging presidential campaign came to working. Putting Palin on the ticket instantaneously energized the God and gun base of the Republican Party that McCain had failed to rouse. We’ll never know for sure, but if the economy had not imploded four weeks before the election, that might have been enough. Think about it. But for Lady Luck, quirky doxy that she is, Palin — who in a recent television appearance on Fox News seemingly confused Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain with long-dead San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen — might have been a septuagenarian’s heartbeat away from the presidency.
The evening after the evening Palin hit her Republican convention acceptance speech out of the park, a friend who is a high-ranking Democratic officeholder in Washington called me in Alaska to ask what he should pass along to Barack Obama about what Obama now had on his hands to deal with.
I said three things. First, that Palin’s persona, the hockey mom who wowed the convention delegates, was as contrived as Stephen Colbert’s. Second, that from the Wasilla City Council to the governor’s mansion, at every stop up the line Palin’s political opponents had underestimated her ambition and her ruthlessness. And third, that Alaska is geographically expansive, but politically it’s a small town. For that reason, during the upcoming general election campaign Palin would be out of her league.
With respect to my third point, that is how Palin’s performance on the campaign trail played out. By the week before the election, according to a New York Times poll, 59% of voters agreed with Cheney that she was not qualified to be vice president.
But that meant 41% thought she was qualified. Today most of those voters are either tea party independents or members of the hard-right base of the Republican Party. Since the 2008 election Palin has tried to keep those voters hoping that in 2012 she would run for president. But as any Sarah-watcher in Alaska could have told them, they were being played. It was a bait-and-switch marketing ploy. Running for president was never Palin’s objective.
After the 2008 election Palin returned to her day job as Alaska’s governor. In January 2009, in her annual state of the state speech, Gov. Palin reassured Alaskans that “when I took my oath of office to serve as your governor, I swore to steadfastly and doggedly guard the interests of this great state like a grizzly with cubs, as a mother naturally guards her own.” Then, six months later at a news conference on the lawn behind her house in Wasilla, Mother Grizzly announced she was abandoning her cubs by quitting. Palin’s explanation that day of why she no longer wanted to be governor was incomprehensible. Something about not wanting the state she loved to have a lame-duck chief executive, which, until she quit, it didn’t have.
So why did Palin really quit? Levi Johnston, the Wasilla homeboy impregnator of Bristol Palin, who thanks to her appearance on “Dancing with the Stars” is now almost as famous for being famous as Paris Hilton is, lived for a while with the Palins after the 2008 election. In his book, Johnston remembered what he thought after Palin’s news conference: “I wasn’t surprised. I hate this job, she used to say. I could be making money instead.”
Johnston’s recollection has the ring of verisimilitude because two months before she quit, uber-agent Robert Barnett negotiated a deal for Palin’s ghostwritten hagiography that may have been worth as much as $11 million. Then as soon as she quit, Palin signed with the Washington Speakers Bureau, which quickly got her more than $100,000 for a 90-minute speech. Four months later she signed a seven-figure contract to be a commentator on Fox News. And two months after that, she signed another seven-figure contract with Mark Burnett, who created “Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” to star in her own reality show.
For the past two years that’s how Palin has spent most of her time: promoting books, making paid television appearances, giving paid speeches. During that time she made no effort to establish campaign organizations on the ground in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Nevertheless, with the filing deadline for the New Hampshire primary election less than a month away, until Wednesday millions of Americans were still wondering about her intentions.
The fact that they were demonstrates that politics and celebrity are now so intertwined that Sarah Palin can be a television star and a potential presidential candidate, Al Franken can be a senator, and when Alec Baldwin recently suggested that he might run for public office, no one laughed. In a moment of odd sagacity, Palin lamented recently to her Fox TV pal Greta Van Susteren that the contest for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination had become just another of Burnett’s reality television shows. She was right about that. All that happened Wednesday was that Sarah Palin voted herself off the island.
Donald Craig Mitchell practices law in Anchorage. He is the author of “Sold American: The Story of Alaska Natives and Their Land, 1867-1959" and is now writing a history of Indian gaming.