Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Jonathan Raban: Cut, Kill, Dig, Drill

(The best analysis yet of the Sarah Palin phenomenon.)

Cut, Kill, Dig, Drill
by Jonathan Raban
London Review of Books


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.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

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