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Sarah Palin, A View From Anchorage

Supporters and detractors alike can't seem to get enough of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Anchorage Daily News columnist Michael Carey discusses the woman who promises to bring "a little bit of reality from Wasilla Main Street" to Washington, D.C.


Other segments from the episode on October 15, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 15, 2008: Interview with Michael Carey; Commentary on language.


Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Sarah Palin, A View From Anchorage


This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Most Americans first heard the name Sarah Palin less than seven weeks ago. And ever since then, Americans have been asking, so who is Sarah Palin? We're going to ask an Alaskan journalist, Michael Carey, who moderated three debates in which she participated while running for governor in 2006 and has interviewed her, attended her speeches, and watched her in action in the state capital of Juneau.

Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News, where he now writes a column. He also moderates a weekly program on Alaska Public Broadcasting called Anchorage Edition, which features journalists and commentators reviewing the week's news and politics in Alaska. He grew up Fairbanks.

Michael Carey, welcome to Fresh Air. You wrote in one of your columns that you think Sarah Palin has been given a makeover by the McCain campaign. What have you found most unrecognizable about her?

Mr. MICHAEL CAREY (Alaskan Journalist): I think that, for Alaskans in particular and journalists, it's the partisanship that she's shown again, and again, right from the convention, when she attacked Barack Obama and in some ways kind of nastily about attacking him as a community organizer, we saw, and we've seen her since then on the campaign trail going after him and particularly this Bill Ayers routine that she's been given, is my belief to a link - or Obama to Bill Ayers - that the former Weatherman.

This is very disconcerting because here in Alaska, she was a - as a governor, she worked very well with the Democrats. She had friends in the Democratic caucuses in the Senate and House, and she couldn't have got the legislation she wanted passed on oil and gas and ethics without the Democrats.

GROSS: So, does it make you feel like you don't know who she really is now?

Mr. CAREY: Well, this really gets us into some profound questions. The other day in the New York Times, David Brooks wrote, but no American politician plays the class-warfare card as constantly as Palin. Nobody so relentlessly divides the world between the normal Joe six-pack American and the coastal elite. This is a Sarah Palin that we would not have known two months ago, before she went to St. Paul, Minnesota and became the Republican vice presidential nominee. She did not behave in any way like this when she was governor of Alaska.

GROSS: What are some of the things you think we should know about Sarah Palin and how she governs?

Mr. CAREY: Well, one of things I wanted to talk about was how she got elected and what her strengths are. She's become something of a cartoon character for the media and for people who don't like her. And since she hasn't talked to people, it's easy to make things up about her. One of her real strengths was her ability to exploit affinity politics, is what I call it. I'm like you. I represent you. I symbolize you, and this was particularly a strong appeal with the people who lived in a Matanuska Valley where she comes from, from Wasilla.

But also for middle class people, suburban people, and especially, I think, from the kind of feedback I got, frequently very negative from suburban housewives who sent me emails and letters saying, I don't know how people can say Sarah Palin can't be vice president of the United States. I'm a housewife. Look at all I've done look and the contribution I've made. That should be enough to convince people anybody can be vice president. And Sarah Palin represents me. These kind of people would not vote for Hillary Clinton because they disagree with her on the issues, but issues isn't what they care about. What they care about is you are like me. You represent me.

GROSS: Tell us more about how she governs.

Mr. CAREY: She picked three big issues that she wanted to explore and develop and bring into the law. The first was a natural gas pipeline legislation that would allow the construction of a natural gas pipeline from the north slope of Alaska to the Midwest, to Chicago. She got legislation that has the opportunity to produce that, although it's very complicated, and we're not sure if and when a gas line is going to be built, but she got the legislation she wanted. She also wanted to change oil taxes. She wanted to increase the oil taxes on the oil companies, and she also wanted an ethics bill, which she advocated and got.

But her approach really was to go over the head of the legislature and the media and appeal directly to the public, I guess in the tradition of Ronald Reagan. It wasn't, I'm going to sit down in a room with a bunch of people, and we're going to hammer this all out. She didn't do that, and there have been many, many complaints about her sort of hands on style of government.

GROSS: What kind of complaints?

Mr. CAREY: Well, that she - this is from people who are formally in the administration, that she went back to Wasilla, where her home is. She was living at home and, as the line goes, that she was, in effect, governing by BlackBerry and telephone, that she wasn't involved in the day to day cabinet meetings. She wasn't involved in the day to day affairs of government. But we've had good times up here. The budget treasury has been not only full but over full thanks to oil dollars that you've paid us, and these are good times up here or have been.

GROSS: So the oil revenues are a function of the rise in oil prices, although oil prices in the last three days have come done, but that's been very helpful to the state of Alaska, but no governor can take credit for that.

Mr. CAREY: No. But I think - that's absolutely right, and the reverse is true, too, that she hasn't had to go to the legislature and say, we're going to cut this program, we're going to cut that program, and we're going to raise people's taxes. And with that kind of money in the treasury, with oil at one point a hundred - almost 140 dollars a barrel, we were in the big money and made choices easier for her and for the legislature.

GROSS: In fact, there's something called the Alaska Permanent Fund, and this is the fund in which the state's percentage of oil profits are stored. And some of that money is given out in the form of checks to every man, woman, and child in Alaska, every eligible man, woman and child in Alaska. And Sarah Palin authorized giving an extra $1,200 per person this past year because oil revenues were so high.

Mr. CAREY: That's a very good example, and actually, the idea of giving money to people for an energy rebate, as they called it, although it wasn't really a rebate. It was really an energy gift. Started in the legislature, Sarah Palin ran with it, made it popular after a couple of false starts, in which the ideas that she had for the specifics didn't work very well, but certainly, the success of this program - I mean, I got a check for $1,200 on top of $2,000 from the Permanent Fund. People are very happy to get that, and it's nice to see the governor's signature on the various documents.

GROSS: So has that boosted her popularity?

Mr. CAREY: I think she was popular before that, and you have to remember, whatever she's done nationally, she was immensely popular here for reasons we could go into. When she left here for St. Paul and the convention, her favorable numbers have come down recently for - primarily because of this partisanship and the absentee governance that she's more or less shown us, but she started here very, very popular.

GROSS: When you say absentee governance, do you mean governing from Wasilla or, you know, on the campaign trail or both?

Mr. CAREY: In this case - this place - in this case, governing from an airplane, someplace we don't know where, or the various stops that she makes.

GROSS: Let me quote something from the New York Times, and tell me if this squares with your perceptions of how Sarah Palin has run the state government.

Through her political career, she has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her, and sometimes blurred the line between government and personal grievance. According to a review of public records and interviews with 60 Republican and Democratic legislators and local officials, interviews show that she runs an administration that puts a premium on loyalty and secrecy.

Mr. CAREY: I don't know about the secrecy so much, but certainly the loyalty is clear. And in some respect, I'm not sure how much different that is than some other governors we've had, although there might be questions about the competency with which it's carried out.

What's striking to me in that quote is that it is a reference to her personal life and her professional life. I think Sarah Palin, especially in Troopergate, but also living at home in Wasilla and getting per diem, having her children travel with her, the role of Todd Palin, all of that suggest that she has a lot of difficulty separating the personal from the professional.

And I talked to a former aid of her, somebody who knew her very well, who has known her from childhood. I said that to him, she has trouble separating the personal to professional. He said, you're wrong, Michael. I said, what do you mean? He said, for Sarah Palin, there is no difference between the personal and the professional. It's the exact same thing.

GROSS: You mentioned the role of Todd Palin. What are some of the questions that have been raised in Alaska about his role in her administration?

Mr. CAREY: The basic question is this, how does the spouse of the governor suddenly become involved in policy questions on a day to day basis, sitting on meetings with other members of the government, and in the case of Walter Monegan, the commissioner of public safety who was fired in the Troopergate matter, when Walter Monegan went in to find out about the Palin's concerns about Trooper Wooten, he was met by Todd Palin in the governor's office.

In the past, it's true that governor's wives have played important roles in their lives as personal confidants and also gone out to dedicate schools and advocate for breast cancer and that sort of thing, but I don't think you could find anybody with any experience here who would say the idea that you go into the governor's office, expect to meet the governor, and you wind up sitting with Todd Palin is anything that ever happened before.

GROSS: I'd like to ask you about Todd Palin's relationship with the Alaskan Independence Party. You know, what we've been reading in the national press is that he was affiliated with the party between 1995 and 2002, and this is a party that's described as a secessionist party. And the McCain campaign motto was America first. The Alaskan Independence Party motto is Alaska first. What do you know about his involvement and Sarah Palin's involvement with the party?

Mr. CAREY: Not a lot, but I do know quite a bit about the Alaskan Independence Party. I knew the founder of the party very, very well, Joe Vogler from Fairbanks, who is now deceased. And this was essentially a small splinter group of people who were very unhappy with the federal government's land and resources policies up there. And they had the idea that somehow, maybe Alaska could be independent. But mostly, it was a vehicle for protest. I don't remember - and for perhaps influencing elections.

I don't think that there was anybody who felt that this was a serious matter. They took petitions to the U.N. and so forth. But I don't think anybody thought that they were either dangerous. I mean, mostly, what the public thought and the reporters thought, that these were people who like to agitate - like to raise hell with the federal government, sometimes were pretty good at it, but it wasn't something to be taken seriously as a movement or that it was in any ways a threat to the republic.

GROSS: Does this strike you at all odd that Sarah Palin's husband would be affiliated with a party with a secessionist interest?

Mr. CAREY: Not around here. I mean, that's part of the problem of context. To the rest of the country, it must sound really weird. But around here, there are probably any number of people who, as younger people, pass through the Alaskan Independence Party and a lot of other parties around here. I don't think people would think too much about it.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Carey, former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News, where he now writes a column. We'll talk more about Sarah Palin after our break. This is Fresh Air.

We're talking about Sarah Palin with Michael Carey, former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News, where he now writes a column. He also hosts a weekly news wrap-up program called Anchorage Edition on Alaska Public Broadcasting.

Now, the special investigator on the Troopergate story, who was appointed by a bipartisan committee of the state legislature, found that Sarah Palin permitted her husband to use the governor's office and the resources of the governor's office to contact subordinate state employees in an effort to get Trooper Wooten fired, and that that proves - it presented a conflict of interest, and that she abused her power by violating the ethics statute.

In an editorial this week in your newspaper, The Anchorage Daily News, the lead read, Sarah Palin's Reaction to the Legislature's Troopergate Report is an Embarrassment to Alaskans and the Nation. She claims the report vindicates her. She said the investigation found, quote, "no unlawful or unethical activity on my part." Her response is either astoundingly ignorant or downright Orwellian. When the editorial says that her response is an embarrassment to Alaskans, is that the impression you've been getting, that a lot of Alaskans are embarrassed by her reaction to Troopergate or by the Troopergate story in the first place?

Mr. CAREY: Well, the Troopergate story started out very sympathetic to her because she felt that there was a rouge officer who was threatening her family and somebody who had been an intimate of that family. It's now changed significantly as people have learned the lengths that the Palins and the Heaths, that's her parents, and perhaps others have gone to punish Trooper Wooten.

When Governor Palin responded, in person, to the report that Steve Branchflower issued, the investigation the legislature had, and just dismissed all concerns by saying I'm vindicated, it's just - it's absurd. It's not - it's fictional. I don't know what else you can say about it.

And on Friday after the report was released, I was downtown, went to the legislative information office, where the legislature meets her in Anchorage during the interim when they're not in Juneau, and the report was released. And the governor's press secretary or press representative, a part of the McCain-Palin campaign, came down and said the exact same thing to the reporters who were assembled there, that this was complete vindication of the governor. All you have to do is read the first five or six pages and know that that's not true.

GROSS: What are the possible consequences that Sarah Palin will face?

Mr. CAREY: Politically, she's already suffering some of them. And that is a very bad relationship - coming relationship with the legislature if she returns here. It's unclear because Mr. Branchflower, the investigator, did not make any recommendations about whether a prosecutor would get involved in this, whether a prosecutor wouldn't, whether the legislature would want to get fully involved in this when they meet as a group in January, or what the next step might be. And, of course, there's this personnel board which has hired a lawyer, that's part of the administration, to look into this and presumably, they're going to have a report. So, this is not going to go away.

GROSS: How do you think the Troopergate investigation played out differently as a result of the McCain campaign efforts to intervene?

Mr. CAREY: I think, for Sarah Palin, it was pretty much a disaster. It seemed to me what they wanted to do was cast this as a totally partisan endeavor on the part of a bunch of rogue Democrats in the state legislature who are out to get Sarah Palin on behalf of Barack Obama.

GROSS: They being the McCain campaign?

Mr. CAREY: Yes, the McCain campaign. And so, what we have now, I mean, if you wanted to look at it this way, Sarah Palin is saying, I was completely vindicated by a rouge investigation operated by a bunch of Obama supporters. It seemed to me, what the McCain group was out to do was muddy the water so much up here that it would all seem confusing, and people back where you are would say, you know, I know something in Alaska happened, but it's all kind of a headache, and I can't figure it out. And it's too bad Sarah Palin had trouble with somebody who was threatening her family.

GROSS: But the reality was?

Mr. CAREY: The reality was the report - it said she violated the ethics law, and you have to remember, she ran as a reformer. That was her primary plank, and we're in an era now where Ted Stevens, our senior senator, is being tried in Washington D.C. as we speak. There are former legislators in jail. There was a lobbyist who went to jail. One of the biggest campaign contributors of the Republican Party is a witness against Stevens. He's about to go to jail. And so, the reformer we have has now been found to have violated the ethics law.

GROSS: Meanwhile, reporters from around the country have been going to Alaska to investigate Sarah Palin, you know, the newspapers, weeklies, magazines, internet publications. What are some of the things you've learned about Sarah Palin and her administration from reports, from outsiders?

Mr. CAREY: Well, I really didn't know particularly much about her years as the mayor of Wasilla. And maybe a person in my role should have known more, but you have to think of it this way. How much would the editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Daily News or The Inquirer know about what goes on in Haddonfield, New Jersey or some place like that? Wasilla was 40 miles away, and for us, political reporters, it really wasn't particularly important who was the mayor of Wasilla if there wasn't some kind of scandal.

So now, we know some of the details of how she governed, that she removed people, that she seemed to be at odds with a number of people, that she was very determined and argumentative in some ways. But some people might just see that as principled. I've also been struck by how much nonsense people have been willing to believe. For example, you may have seen the list of books that Sarah Palin banned. It took a long time to get people to stop believing in that list.

So, there was that kind of thing, plus Babygate, if you remember that, the rumor that Sarah Palin had actually faked a pregnancy because it was her daughter who was having the baby. This was all the rage at the Republican convention as a story. And it took a lot of hard work and a lot of journalists up here to convince stateside reporters that wasn't true. I should say that, obviously, when you have a New York Times or Los Angeles Times, CNN, and some of the greatest news organizations in the whole world up here, you're going to get some very good reporting, a lot of detail, and they did that kind of thing. There's no question about it.

GROSS: What's it been like to have a lot of campaign people all around? And I assume that there are people from the Obama and the McCain campaigns in Anchorage.

Mr. CAREY: The McCain people are here. They are working with local people. They have their own headquarters. I have seen some of them. The Obama people, I've seen less, because - I wouldn't say they're out of view, but what they're doing is working day to day to try and turn out the vote and get people to vote and get voters. They're not fighting this bush war over Troopergate and over Palin's qualifications.

GROSS: Has the McCain campaign been working hard to spin the press as far as you know?

Mr. CAREY: Oh, absolutely. I mean, here's just an example how far do you want to go with that. The other day, a spokesman named Taylor Griffin was quoted by the Associated Press on the matter of Todd Palin and his intervention to the government, his participation in the government. And Mr. Griffin was quoted as saying, Todd Palin hasn't done anything differently than other spouses have done on behalf of their partner who is governor, president, or whatever. Todd Palin is no different than Eleanor Roosevelt. That's almost a direct quote. And what we're really in here, Terry, is the land of - when you get quotes like this, who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?

GROSS: So, what's the difference between Todd Palin and Eleanor Roosevelt?

Mr. CAREY: I think the obvious things is that Todd Palin is in, on a day to day basis, of actually participating in the decisions and using his office to pursue what appears to be a vendetta against one state trooper in the classified system, a union employee. I never heard anything like that with Eleanor Roosevelt.

GROSS: What about this - has the McCain campaign been trying to spin the Alaska press?

Mr. CAREY: Yes, but I think they're clearly much more interested in the effect that news reports out of here - outside. They know they're going to get the votes here, so it really doesn't make much different. And besides, they're going to go home to wherever they came from, and if they leave a big mess here, it'll be us; it'll be up to us to clean it up.

GROSS: We're talking about Sarah Palin with Michael Carey, former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News, where he now writes a column. He also hosts a weekly news wrap-up called Anchorage Edition on Alaska Public Broadcasting. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is Fresh Air.

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about Sarah Palin with Michael Carey, a journalist who has covered her in Alaska. Carey moderated three debates she participated in while running for governor of Alaska. He's interviewed her, attended her speeches, and watched her in action in the state capital, Juneau. Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News, where he now writes a column. He also moderates a weekly news wrap up called Anchorage Edition on Alaska Public Broadcasting.

What has Sarah Palin's position been on the environment in Alaska? Let's start with something we've been reading about a lot in the national press, and that is that she helped defeat an initiative that would have stopped the state's current program to limit the wolf population by shooting them from the air. And this is an effort to protect the moose population that the wolf population preys on. Is that controversial in Alaska?

Mr. CAREY: Oh, this is - this is - in 1963, I was a college freshman. We were asked to write an essay on a controversy. I picked that one.


Mr. CAREY: The elimination of wolves. This is a hardy perennial. It goes back into the 1950s, when wolves were being killed by dropping poison in various forms of meat from the air in the area where there were wolves. We've had - Alaskans have been bitterly divided about this for my lifetime. And it's drawn the outside attention of outside environmentalists and outside hunter groups.

The debate very simply seems to be, if we get rid of the wolves, we'll create more moose for moose hunters and villagers, native villagers in remote Alaska. And we've had petitions, we've had initiatives, we've had court cases, we've had legislation and the battle goes on. And for the moment, Sarah Palin's on the winning side, which is the side that has developed legislation and policies to kill wolves.

GROSS: I know you've been doing a project researching and writing about the creation of ANWR, the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. Sarah Palin advocates drilling for oil in ANWR. John McCain has opposed that, and Sarah Palin has said she hopes to change his mind on that. How controversial is drilling in ANWR within Alaska?

Mr. CAREY: Not particularly. I would say that she's on the side of the traditional piety here. I'm in favor of opening up ANWR. Of course, when politicians were asked to explain, well, what about John McCain? He doesn't want to open ANWR. Then they come back, and Palin has and say that they're going to enlighten him. They're going to explain it, and after I've had a sit-down with John McCain, he'll see that it's the right thing to do.

The Democrats do the same thing when they ran for Congress or the U.S. Senate by saying, you know, when I get a chance to really explain to Nancy Pelosi how this all works, they'll be in favor of it. There are people here, probably 30, 35 percent, who are against opening ANWR. But the overwhelming thought is yes, it's the right thing to do. We need the oil. It's good for us. It's good for America, the usual pieties.

GROSS: How strong is the environmentalist movement in Alaska which opposes the drilling?

Mr. CAREY: It is stronger than whatever the numbers are. We have an environmental movement that's 50 years old here, at the very least, and it's long - the environmental movement here has long believed that protecting ANWR is issue number one. It's the Holy Grail of the environmental movement. No drilling in ANWR, and they have prevailed at every turn thus far, to the anger of Ted Stevens and a whole lot of other - three or four generations of politicians.

GROSS: Sarah Palin has said that she isn't sure if human behavior is what's responsible for global warming. How does that play in Alaska, the state that is most affected by global warming?

Mr. CAREY: I suspect that's kind of a mixed bag because, on the one hand, there is sort of a resistance here to the idea of global warming, or there has been because people felt, well, it might be bad for the oil industry and for oil exploration and oil development. Therefore, it's going to be bad for me. Whatever the merits of it are.

But there had been other people, including Senator Ted Stevens, who said, you know, I'm not going to sit here and think too much about who caused global warming, but we need to do something because some of our villages and people and the polar bears are being affected, so let's get some money out there and do some research, and that's been Stevens' response. So she probably is in the majority in being skeptical of global warming, but there are definitely people here who just look around, they're worried about it and probably would not share her view.

GROSS: Sarah Palin has spoken a lot about how she took on big oil as governor of Alaska. What exactly did she do in that category?

Mr. CAREY: There are two things in particular. One is, she raised the oil company's taxes, and that is something that she deserves credit for. And second, this gas line legislation, which I mentioned earlier, of creating a gas line up - it's going to cost perhaps $40 billion, it's now suggested, from the North Slope to Chicago to deliver natural gas to the Midwest. She championed the process that the oil companies did not want, the major companies up here, British Petroleum, Exxon and so forth, and she prevailed.

I think - she also was very lucky in that this was a period in which Alaskans, for the first time, had turned somewhat against the oil companies or were unhappy with them because they hadn't built this gas line and because of the corruption allegations and the facts of corruption.

GROSS: From what I've read, this gas pipeline is far from a done deal. And there are some concerns about how the deal she signed could end up losing money.

Mr. CAREY: That's correct. That's not a done deal, and the state of Alaska put up $500 million for this proposal. I guess the whole thing could lose money, but that hasn't been so much of a sticking point as the question of how the Canadian companies that are involved in this would finance it, when it would start, where they actually go, and so forth. But they have the permit. They now have the blessing of the state of Alaska and the Palin administration to proceed, and we'll see what they do.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Carey, former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News, where he now writes a column. We'll talk more about Sarah Palin after a break. This is Fresh Air.

We're talking about Sarah Palin with Michael Carey, former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News, where he now writes a column. He also hosts a weekly news wrap up called Anchorage Edition on Alaska Public Broadcasting.

Sarah Palin's home is in Wasilla. The governor's home is in Juneau, the state capital. But Palin often preferred to stay at her home in Wasilla rather than in the capital, and she billed taxpayers for 312 nights spent in her own home during her first 19 months in office, charging a per diem allowance as if she was staying, you know, on - at a hotel on official business. That story has been in the national press. Were Alaskans aware of that before the story broke nationally?

Mr. CAREY: They were aware she was staying at her home in Wasilla, but there wasn't a detailed awareness of how many nights it was, how much she got, and so forth. This is yet another very good example of governor and her family failing to separate the personal from the private. I mean, people understand up here that the governor has to stay someplace, and if you're not staying in the mansion in Juneau, you're probably saving some money on that.

She likes to say, well, I got rid of the cook in the mansion. I didn't need that kind of support. But there's no indication that Governor Palin sat down with anybody in the administration, lawyers or the kind of administrators who should know these things, and said, OK, what are the rules here? What can I claim for per diem at home; what can I not? What's legitimate; what's not? There's no indication there was any of that.

GROSS: Sarah Palin's religious views strike some people as extreme. For example, in 2005, she attended a service at her former church, the Wasilla Assembly of God, where a bishop from Kenya prayed over her, asking Jesus to keep her safe from every form of witchcraft, and he had claimed to have driven out a witch from his village in Kenya. In June, she told a group that his prayers helped her to become governor. Have her religious views been seen as extreme at all within Alaska?

Mr. CAREY: Here in Alaska, many people would say, oh, the woods around Wasilla are full of backwards preachers. There's just lots of them out there, and the important thing is what did she do as governor for many people, not what did she believe. During the campaign, she's signed a number of conservative questionnaires showing that she was somebody who was interested in the agenda of the far right. That would be on things like teaching creationism in the school, abortion issue, church and state relationship, and so forth. And the question of gay rights will also be in there.

But she did not pursue that when she actually became governor. Those issues did not get on the front page, however, nationally, It's clear that one of the reasons she was picked is her fundamentalism. I've got friend - calls from friends of mine in the east, Boston, New York, and so forth who are worried about Sarah Palin and her religious views, which they categorize as extreme based on what they knew about these various backward preachers in Wasilla.

And they were really worried, I think, that in time of stress, of national crisis, if Palin was a president of United States, she would call up some backward preacher in Wasilla and ask him what to do and he'd say, just a minute, I'll get back to you. Let me look at the book of Revelations.

And that's sort of a caricature, but what's important about it is, her religious views didn't seem to be matched and don't seem to do matched by a depth of knowledge about other subjects, about complex international matters, until the question would be, would she in a time of stress fall back on what - the little she know and what the little she knows is the biblical. Let's put it that way.

GROSS: Many people aren't sure what to make, though, on the fact that Sarah Palin agreed to take on the candidacy for vice president at a time when she had a newborn baby with Down's Syndrome and a teenage daughter who is pregnant out of wedlock. Does that make her a role model of the independent superwoman who can do it all, or is it too good to be true? My question is what, to your knowledge, has Sarah Palin done in terms of policy initiatives to help women who want to manage or have to manage having a working life and raising a family at the same time?

Mr. CAREY: This is a really interesting question, and it goes to the heart of my idea of affinity politics. You are like me. And so Sarah Palin is the woman who has a daughter who is getting married at a very young age. She's just had a baby. She's governor. She's kind of super mom. She's doing all these things and struggling by all these kind of personal issues, as well as the burdens of campaigning.

And there are people who see themselves in her, not the political part of it, but see the struggle in her. What they - and they're really not particularly interested in a policy agenda. I think in - maybe there are friends, as they call themselves, the McCain people up here call themselves the Truth Squad. They can correct me, but my sense of what Sarah Palin has done in policy matters to help this kind of working woman as pretty close to nothing. But for some of those people, it's not important what she does. It's who she is.

GROSS: What could she have done that she didn't do?

Mr. CAREY: Well, I mean, there would be - we have enough money that you could undertake healthcare initiatives that would be tremendously beneficial to families. That would be the first thing that would come to my mind.

GROSS: Day care?

Mr. CAREY: Yeah, and that kind of thing, too. The state could get much more active. I mean, there are programs up here, and she didn't fight them. But it's clear that we have enough money in the bank that if this was really important to somebody, in other words, having this kind of insurance policies and care for children policies, that she would have pursued them. I guess you would say, and in fairness, to back up a little bit, that she's tried to bring forth some policies that would help rule Alaska and people who need - for example, protection under the law in bush parts of Alaska.

GROSS: Now, in wondering about Sarah Palin's experience as a governor and how much experience she has to be vice president, I wonder if there are certain things about governing Alaska that are very unique to Alaska. And the example I'm thinking up here is the oil revenues from the oil industry, and the state gets a certain percentage every year of the oil sales profits. So the state has been quite prosperous, even during times when the rest of the country hasn't, and there's a huge surplus.

Mr. CAREY: Yeah. Well, there was. I mean, with oil going down to $78 Alaska oil and then going up to 83, I don't know what it is today. But at one time, it was - they had $144 a barrel, we have big surplus last year. That's how we can give everybody $1,200. Yes, she's been blessed with governing and learning how to govern, in an era of great affluence.

And here in Alaska, what you learn is to deal with natural resource issues. There's no question about that, fisheries and oil and gas issues. Those will be things that would come that - if not natural or things she would have to know about. But the complexity of urban life, I think, is something that just would be foreign to her.

Earlier, you asked me about keeping Sarah Palin under wraps, and why would the McCain campaign do that? And I think that they're afraid of revealing what the truth is, that Sarah Palin is a very nice person who has a unique ability to connect with people, people who are particularly are like her, but is not a very experienced person. And somebody said, well, what does she know about the world is as good, and importance of the question is, what does she know about her own country?

GROSS: What do you question about what she knows about her own country?

Mr. CAREY: Well, I mean, does she - I don't find anything that would really be familiar with the exceptional diversity of modern American urban life.

GROSS: Let me ask another question about the Alaska Permanent Fund, and again, this is the fund in which a percentage of oil revenues are stored, and some of it stays in the fund is invested and is used by the state, and some of it is divided in checks to every men, women, and child who qualifies in Alaska. There's billions of billions of dollars in this fund.

Mr. CAREY: It was 40 billion the other day, then it went down to 30, and that's probably back up a little bit. But it is billions, there's no question.

GROSS: Yet Alaskans get more money per person from Washington than any other state, at least that was a case in 2005, according to the tax foundation. And so ear mark projects like, you know, the Bridge to Nowhere, and I know that bridge never got built, but the Palin administration kept the money for it and invested it in other projects.

I guess the question for taxpayers in other states is, if Alaskans have so much revenue, billions and billions of dollars in the Alaska Permanent Fund, why should taxpayers from other states, particularly other states, you know, that are in the hole because times haven't been as good and revenues haven't been big like that, why should they be paying for Alaska infrastructure projects? Is that a fair question to ask?

Mr. CAREY: Sure it is. And it's a heck of a racket, isn't it? That we can have no sales tax. We have no state property tax. Ee have no state income tax. We get, I think, this year, we're second behind Virginia, maybe it's for the last year, in federal dollars coming into Alaska. And that we expect this as our due.

Ted Stevens has made it clear. And how he was able to do this, by becoming that dominant figure of the Republican Party on the Appropriations Committee in Washington, D.C. And the viewers who are unhappy about this, and, of course, the Bridge to Nowhere really highlighted the problems and the issues, need to ask their own legislators, why do you let Alaska do that? And so far, the answer seems to be, because they can.

GROSS: How do you think your state, the state of Alaska, is being changed by all the attention Sarah Palin is getting?

Mr. CAREY: Well, I don't know. If you sort of - if you believed only Maureen Dowd, you'd think we were just hillbillies who - the only thing we knew how to do was shop at Wal-Mart and talk. But I think, nationally, people are taking a closer look and sort of wondering. And here's a whole caricature of the place, and it's sort of like, you know, Sarah Palin riding the moose, the cartoon version of this, right. Everybody's an outdoorsman and hunter. I think what - it's a really good thing for the reporters that come up from all over the world to get a much realer sense of what this place is about and how it operates, and it's less of a kind of fictional construct in people's heads.

GROSS: Sarah Palin's poll numbers have dropped I think from the 80 percent somethings to the 60 percent something...

Mr. CAREY: Right, yes.

GROSS: Category. So 60 percent is still pretty darn high.

Mr. CAREY: It's a very good. Most politicians in America would die to have it.

GROSS: And what makes her so popular in Alaska?

Ms. CAREY: Sarah Palin has been wonderful, wonderfully skilled at exploiting and developing and exploiting contrast. By that, I mean contrasting herself with whoever is her sort of major opponent of the moment. When she ran against Governor Frank Murkowski for election, she was the new fresh face of reform, and he was the old, tired, worn-out previous administration. When she ran against Tony Knowles, who was a Democrat, again, she was new and fresh. This was in general election in 2006. And he was yesteryear. He'd been governor in the past.

She ran against the oil companies as the reformer. And they were, of course, cast as the big, bad, old oil companies. And then, finally, when she was actually pursuing the ethics bill, which is a specific matter of reform, here was Sarah Palin who had stood up to the oil companies, stood up to the Republican Party, and was now going to come up with the new ethics bill, and she was standing up against guys like Bill Elm, the corrupt oil field executive who's now a witness in the Ted Stevens' trial. So that's one of the things she's done.

She's also Alaska's first female governor. She's Alaska's first suburban governor. She's Alaska's first governor born after statehood. This whole, new, fresh, I'm like you. I'm one of your neighbors. We can all do it together. She's been very, very good at that.

GROSS: How do you think Sarah Palin's reputation and her relationship with the state legislature and the press will be different if she losses the vice presidency and returns to her position as governor in Alaska.

Mr. CAREY: It's quite clear that partisanship that she exhibited in this campaign is going to hurt her, first of all, in the attacks that she made on Barack Obama, which in - at the Democrat - the Republican convention, you may remember were, in some cases, quite sarcastic when she made fun of him for being a community organizer. That went down very badly here with any number of people who are just involved in trying to make their community a better place.

But with the legislature, she really needed those Democratic votes to get legislation that she wanted passed, and I think the conversation that she's going to have with Democratic leaders is going to be extremely unpleasant for her, if she has it at all.

GROSS: Michael Carey, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. CAREY: Thank you. It's been my pleasure.

GROSS: Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News, where he now writes a column.

Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
For Candidates, An Accent on Authenticity


One of the things Sarah Palin has become famous for is her often folksy way of speaking. Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, has been listening to Palin, as well as to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and George W. Bush and has been wondering about the connection between accents and authenticity.

Mr. GEOFF NUNBERG (Linguist): I don't think there's ever been an era when politicians' speech and accents got so much critical scrutiny. During the primaries, a clip of Hillary Clinton's brief foray into Southern intonations made the rounds of the Internet and cable shows under the heading Kentucky Fried Hillary. Last January, William F. Buckley criticized John Edwards for manipulating audiences with a carefully maintained Southern accent. And Barack Obama has been knocked for occasionally falling into what some people called a blackscent that is upbringing didn't entitle him to.

It isn't just Democrats who come in for this. George W. Bush has been derided for exaggerating a west Texas twang that sounds nothing like the way his brother Jeb talks. And the reactions to Sarah Palin's speech mirror all the intense feelings she's aroused. It's grating. It's charming. It's illiterate. It's folksy. It's contrived. It's genuine.

You could blame the new media for some of that. Time was when candidates could tailor their speech to audiences in South Carolina or New York without having to worry that an audio clip of every y'all or youse would be instantly posted on the web for the rest of the country to chew over.

But none of this would interest us if accents didn't seem to offer a window on character. Mention somebody's accent, and you unleash all the jargon of authenticity. Karl Rove charges that Hillary calculates everything, including her accent and laugh. And Obama's linguistic shape shifting led the African-American conservative Shelby Steele to ask, who's the real Obama? What's his voice?

If authenticity is a matter of heeding your true inner voice, then it isn't surprising that people listen for signs of it in the way you speak. And our idea of an authentic accent reflects our idea of the authentic self. It's the natural speech you drew from your surroundings when you were growing up, unfiltered and uncorrected. It's how you sound when you're talking to yourself. It's also a delusion, or at least if speech is like the self, it's because both of them are a work in progress.

My own speech covers a lot more territory than it did when I was growing up in a New York suburb. Sometimes, it shifts toward what people would hear as nondescript eastern. And sometimes, it gets pretty sidewalks of New York, particularly when I'm talking to friends from college days. But it doesn't make sense to ask what part of that is my authentic voice. You grow up, you meet new people, you start to talk differently. If you still sound the same way you did when you were 15, you haven't been getting out enough.

So, what if George Bush came relatively late in life to west Texas and its g dropping ways? It's part of who he is now, and I bet it's how he sounds when somebody wakes him up in the middle of the night. It's hard to imagine that Hillary could have spent 14 years in a Little Rock law office or that Obama could have worked on Chicago's south side without picking up some of the local cadences. Shifting among accents isn't a sign of fragmented self but only a complicated one, though, in the age of YouTube, it's probably not a smart tactical move if you're running for national office.

Of course, there are politicians who don't feel the need to tailor their accents to their audiences, like John McCain and Joe Biden. Maybe that's a sign of their inner constancy, or maybe it's just because they aren't trying to create the illusion of a personal relationship with the audience that the others are after. But this all plays out very differently for politicians who have rural or popular roots, like Bill Clinton and Sarah Palin.

As a part of our moral slang, authenticity implies quaintness or local color. It's a word we use for Creole cooking, not haute cuisine. And when people talk about authentic accents, they're not thinking of the middle class suburbs but the places like South Philly, Fargo, or Hot Springs, Arkansas, not to mention Wasilla. So, like Bill Clinton, Palin can signal authenticity by refashioning her original accent rather than by acquiring a new one. You can see how this developed if you pull up the YouTube video of her as a 24-year old Anchorage sportscaster fresh out of college. She wasn't in control of her accent back then. She scattered the desk with drop g's. Purdeau was killin' Michigan. They're pullin' out of reach.

It's strikingly different from the way she talks now in her public appearances. Not just because she's much more poised, but because she's learned how to work it for effect. When she talks about policy, her g's are decorously in place. She never says reducin' taxes or cuttin' spendin'. But the g's disappear when she speaks on behalf of ordinary Americans. Americans are cravin' something different or people, are hurtin' because the economy is hurtin'. It's of a piece with the you betcha's, the dog gones, and the other effusions of spontaneous candor.

Now, a lot of people find this engaging, but I don't think anybody really supposes it's artless. It's a skillfully stone washed self impersonation. I can actually picture her and her friends playing at this way back in high school. The fact is that no group is so unself-conscious that they don't get a kick out of parodying their own speech. Brooklynites do a creditable Brooklyn and every Valley Girl can do an uncanny Valley Girl. And with all credit to Tina Fey, she wouldn't be so brilliant at doing Sarah Palin if Sarah Palin weren't so good at doing herself.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the school of information at the University of California at Berkeley. You can download podcast of our show on our website, I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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