Unlikely Liberal

Sarah Palin's Curious Record
as Alaska's Governor

By Matthew Zencey

Potomac Books. 209 pp. $24.95

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Reviewed by Steve Weinberg


The word liberal carries lots of meanings in the realm of electoral politics. But none of those meanings would seem to apply to Sarah Palin, who during 2008 rocketed to renown as the Republican Party vice presidential candidate.

Palin and presidential candidate John McCain positioned themselves as "conservatives," which carried the connotation of "anti-liberal."

Well, it turns out that the Sarah Palin who potential voters saw and heard during the 2008 campaign barely resembled the Sarah Palin who had served as a small-town Alaska mayor and then as the state's governor.

Whether that matters a lot circa 2013 is open to question. Palin, born in 1964, is certainly young enough to seek national office again. Whether she will is uncertain. But even if Palin's turn in the political spotlight has ended, the dichotomy she embodied during 2008 is instructive in so many ways that it is difficult to quantify.

During Palin's rise to prominence in Alaska, including her governorship, Matthew Zencey was observing her and writing about her for the Anchorage Daily News. Zencey joined The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2010 (he now works as a freelance editor and writer), but he was not finished writing about Palin. Hence the book Unlikely Liberal.

For seekers of truth, Unlikely Liberal is a powerful book. First, however, a warning about what it is not, straight from Zencey: "You'll have to look elsewhere if you care about Bristol's pregnancy, the feud with Levi, Trig's birth, the state of Palin's marriage to Todd, her career in high school basketball, Piper's progress in school, and other parts of Palin's personal life." Readers unfamiliar with those names probably do not read People magazine carefully.

Zencey's decision to omit almost all references to Palin's personal life is grounded in a somewhat old-fashioned but reasonable journalistic code, as explained by the author: "In my view, a politician's personal life is a public issue only if it reveals hypocrisy on a political question or significantly compromises his or her ability to do the job."

As a vice presidential candidate seeking to impress a national audience, Palin arguably tumbled into the pit of hypocrisy more than once. But, as Zencey stresses, his book is not about the vice presidency. It is about governing Alaska. During her term, Palin did not become a hypocrite so much as an occasional liar of convenience. There is a difference.

For readers who know little about Alaskan politics and who wonder whether Palin matters any longer, Zencey attempts to grab their attention cleverly, by inserting a quiz at the beginning of the book. He poses six questions that can be answered true or false. The answers to all six would be "true." Then Zencey asks six more questions. The answers to all six would be "false."

A sampling: "She pushed for and signed the biggest tax increase in Alaska history." The answer: True. Despite the McCain-Palin platform in the run for the White House, as governor Palin resembled a tax-and-spend liberal.

Another sampling: "Most Democrats in the Alaska legislature staunchly opposed Palin's three biggest legislative initiatives because they knew she was a rising star in the Republican Party." The answer: False. During her first year as governor, Republican Palin worked smoothly with Democrats in the legislature.

Some of Zencey's findings make Palin look like a skilled, honest, maverick politician. Some of his findings make her look alternately dishonest and clueless. The book is not a hit job, that is for sure. It is a carefully researched examination of a governor who quite likely would have remained obscure except for McCain's choice of her as a running mate without a careful vetting of her political record or her personal life.

Zencey grapples with these realms as he evaluates Palin's governorship: her combative, complicated relationship with gigantic gas and oil companies in a state where energy extraction matters above all else; her overall environmental record; her fiscal policies; her stances on social issues such as abortion and gay rights; her ethical lapses; and her poor record as a manager of government employees.

After Palin and McCain lost to Barack Obama and Joseph Biden, Palin returned to the governorship of Alaska. But she had frayed lots of relationships during her brief fling with national politics, and she could not regain her influence.

When Palin resigned the governorship before the end of her term, she offered numerous plausible reasons. Zencey does not believe most of those reasons, and, as a result, began to disrespect her in ways he had tried to suppress while writing about her at the Anchorage newspaper.

His ultimate judgment of Palin is harsh: "Like George W. Bush, Palin is personally likable. Like Bush, she is inarticulate and intellectually shallow . . . . When John McCain picked her, she lacked the experience, judgment, and temperament to serve as either vice president or president. She still does."

Steve Weinberg is a biographer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.