There was a time when Sarah Palin was normal by Alaska standards. Way back before the hoopla, and way before she endorsed Donald Trump , she made sense as a politician here. That’s not the case any more. I’m told she lives in Alaska most of the time, but she’s invisible in public life.
But back in the day, I liked her – and so did many in my community. I’m not conservative, but she grew on me when I worked as a reporter in Anchorage in the mid-2000s, and the reason had nothing to do with politics. She was a kind of regular person I recognized as of this place. Tough, funny, pragmatic. She loved Alaska like I did. If you didn’t know her then, it’s hard to explain or believe.
One day, during her time as governor, my editor pointed out a picture of her in our newspaper one day. The photograph had been taken in Barrow, the nation’s northernmost city. Palin was wearing a kuspuk (an Alaska-Native-style jacket), holding her newborn, talking to a woman in a grocery store about the high price of food. The image had exactly the this-is-Alaska-life realness that resonates deeply here, where voters prize authenticity most of all.
If the grocery store photo-op was planned, my boss said, she was brilliant. If it wasn’t, she was a natural.
I don’t think it was planned – she wasn’t calculating like that, and most Alaska politicians aren’t that sophisticated. At the time, Palin’s politics could only be described as moderate. Democrats liked her. She had no problem with taxing oil companies or handing out money to help people with fuel costs. She believed in climate change. As for the word-salad syntax problem everybody makes fun of? Up north, nobody cared. Maybe it even added to her regular-person cred (our long-serving representative Don Young suffers from the same affliction.)
Above all, Palin was nice. If a reporter called her office, she called back on their cell phone: “Hi, this is Sarah.” Like most people here, she was religious, but didn’t talk about it publicly. Like most people, her family hunted and owned guns, but she didn’t talk too much about that either. She was fuzzy on policy details, but only insiders noticed. She made a big deal about government corruption .
“She wanted to be liked and, as a result, was likable,” said a reporter friend of mine who covered her as governor. “Her only real enemies were white-guy boys club oil politicians who were getting indicted by the feds.”
I interviewed her right after she announced she was pregnant. She laughed off people who said it would be a problem, calling them cavemen. I didn’t have children then but now that I do, I can better appreciate her hustle. She had four kids, including one serving in the army. A war was on. She was expecting a baby with Down’s syndrome (and pretty soon she’d have a teenage daughter who was pregnant.) Through it all, she remained tough and positive.
Then the sky opened up and plucked her from this far-flung state. There she was, on national television. She quit calling us back. Soon afterwards came all the talk about God and guns. Being real had been her superpower, but a few months on she’d say anything just to stay in people’s Twitter feeds.
I rode along in the motorcade the day she came back to the state to vote. We whizzed out to Wasilla, and she emerged from her black SUV wearing a Carhartt jacket. The outfit was self-conscious. Alaska schtick. Not her thing. But she’d already recalibrated for an audience that wasn’t us. Then John McCain lost. She peaced-out on being governor.
For many here, that was the end.
It’s hard to keep track of what happened next. The internet Sarah-ploded. There was Fox News, reality television, the book, the steady stream of social-media snits, the house in Arizona, a family run-in with the cops and Bristol’s baby-mama drama.
When I read the news story recently about Track Palin assaulting his girlfriend and threatening to kill himself, I remembered this sweet interview with Palin years ago in a running magazine . It was about Track as a teen, planting water bottles for his mother on her training route. Politics is a messed-up prism, and he didn’t ask to have his life examined through it. Could she have known how hard this would be on her children?
Anybody who lives here has occasional bouts of a far-north inferiority complex. You start to wonder if you’d be as successful in the Lower 48, or if you’re just benefiting from the state being basically a big small town. You imagine a larger stage. Palin probably felt that way, and then she got her stage. She made money. She got famous. But does she seem happy to you? The world has been mean. Beneath the toxicity, I detect brittleness. I wonder if she thinks about what she left behind in Alaska. I wonder if she misses it.
These days, you can’t find people here who have something nice to say about her last decade in politics. Nobody wants to talk about Palin.
There is speculation from time to time about her running for state office, but chances seem remote. Dermot Cole, a columnist at the Alaska Dispatch News, told me Alaskans don’t take her seriously.
“She has long since become part of the entertainment business, which is what she has in common with Trump,” he wrote in an email.
Dave Stieren, a conservative radio personality in Anchorage, told me Palin’s story is full of irony.
“Even though she doesn’t know who Shakespeare is, she’s a figure out of Shakespearean tragedy,” he said. “She’s a person of exceptional means with no place to really call home.”
On occasion someone I know sees her in a yoga class or in the stands at a hockey game. Once, a friend encountered her really early in the morning, with no makeup, in Wasilla Walmart. She looked tired, almost ghostly, the friend said.
Who knows why Palin was up that early, but I imagine it was to shop in peace in her home town. Just like the regular Alaskan she used to be.
__Julia O’Malley for guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2016