Gov. Sarah Palin, Democrat

For a moment, enter a parallel universe. How would the news media treat her?
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Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.

For a moment, enter a parallel universe. How would the news media treat her?

Imagine for a moment that Gov. Sarah Palin was a liberal, pro-choice Democrat but that everything else about her life and career was the same. If she was Sen. Barack Obama's nominee for vice president, what would her media coverage be like? Probably something like this ...

Democrats Strike Gold in Alaska

ANCHORAGE — Fresh from her jaunty, popular appearance on Saturday Night Live, the mom from the American Outback, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, continues to inject new life into the country's mainstream as Sen. Barack Obama's vice presidential running mate.

"When I said I wanted a reformer, I meant it," said Obama, who threw caution to the wind with his selection of Palin. The Obama campaign was impressed with the former PTA mom who took on Big Oil and dethroned the old boys' club that ran Alaska politics for more than a generation. "As The New York Times and Washington Post have frequently pointed out, Gov. Palin is the only candidate on either ticket with executive experience," Obama said. "And more importantly, she has experience fighting the powerful on behalf of the people — and winning."

Palin's executive experience is thin — two terms as a small-town mayor and less than two years as governor — but her rapidly growing circle of admirers point out that her accomplishments dwarf those of many veteran governors. And they like the fact that Palin, America's most popular governor at the time she was tapped as Obama's running mate, hails from well outside the unpopular D.C. establishment.

"She's exactly what the Democrats needed," said Party Chairman Howard Dean. "Someone who hunts, fishes, raises a family, and battles Alaska's most powerful interests on behalf of the working class people she grew up with. She connects naturally with the very voters Democrats need to win this election. And she's the only person on either ticket with any business experience. What a 10-strike."

Those battles began when Palin, who had served two terms as the popular mayor of Wasilla, was appointed to Alaska's powerful Oil and Gas Commission. As related in a two-part cover story in Time, Palin resigned her six-figure job on the commission to blow the whistle on a pattern of unethical behavior by other commission members. One was allegedly sharing sensitive commission data with oil lobbyists while seeking contributions to the Republican Party, which he chaired. He eventually received a heavy fine. The state's Republican attorney general, also targeted by Palin, resigned from office.

From there, Palin took aim at Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski, who had made what critics called a sweetheart deal with the oil companies for a natural gas pipeline to the Lower 48. Palin ran against Murkowski, made the pipeline deal the major issue in the race and defeated him by 30 points, becoming one of eight women governors in the country. Upon taking office, she tore up Murkowski's pipeline deal and negotiated a new one that included competitive bidding.

More recently, Palin raised taxes on oil companies earning record profits and used the money to send rebate checks to Alaskans. Her Republican critics complain that she requested $197 million in earmarks, but many media outlets quickly pointed out that her Republican predecessor requested $350 million in earmarked projects. "Sarah Palin is ending Alaska's earmark addiction," said Missouri's Democratic senator, Claire McCaskill. "And during this economic downturn, while most Governors are struggling with rising deficits, Alaska is running a surplus."

That kind of political courage has reassured foreign-policy heavyweights who were intially concerned about Palin's lack of expertise about all things overseas.

"Like Barack Obama, she has little foreign policy experience," said former Secretary of State Colin Powell. "But I once worked for a former governor who was criticized for lacking sophistication about foreign affairs. It turns out that Ronald Reagan's instincts more than made up for his thin resume. Gov. Palin has some of those same instincts."

Hollywood also appears smitten with Palinmania.

"The Palin story is like a Frank Capra movie," noted actor Matt Damon. "The only difference is that her story is true."

"Hollywood hasn't seen a narrative like hers since Marie, added Susan Sarandon, referring to the 1985 film starring Sissy Spacek about a woman who courageously battles corruption against powerful politicians in the state of Tennessee.

But enthusiasm for Palin provoked a scurrilous campaign against her by ideological opponents. Shortly after her nomination, ugly rumors that Palin's recently born son was actually her grandchild forced the family to disclose that her 17-year-old daughter is expecting a baby.  

"Never before has the life of a national candidate's child been fodder for a political campaign," wrote an angry Andrew Sullivan, one of America's most influential bloggers. "That it briefly took center stage in the campaign against Sarah Palin reveals the depth and desperation of the armies of intolerance arrayed against her. It's the right-wing attack machine in overdrive."

The disclosure briefly caused a flurry of Internet and tabloid speculation, but the mainstream press maintained a dignified silence, as it has when other candidates' children were enmeshed in social or legal turmoil.

"It would have been unseemly for us to devote news coverage to Gov. Palin's daughter when we didn't pay attention to John Edwards impregnating a staff aide when he was running for president," said New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. "We don't play favorites here."

The media have also been quick to correct another Internet rumor — that Palin tried to ban library books while serving as Wasilla's mayor. As all three TV networks have now reported, Palin never tried to ban a single book, the town librarian was not fired, and in fact she served throughout most of Palin's first term, before leaving her position in 1999.

"I'm so glad we were able to correct that inaccuracy," said CBS anchor Katie Couric. "That's what we're here to do, separate fact from fallacy. Neither party has a monopoly on truth."

Still more recently, an erroneous media report claimed that Palin tried to have Alaska's schools teach creationism alongside evolution.

"It was never true and I'm glad we set the record straight," said New York Times columnist Frank Rich. "What she actually said is that she welcomed free and open debate on the orgin of life. Why would anyone not wracked with intellectual insecurity find that idea threatening?"

When some of Palin's critics suggested that a mother of five with a special-needs baby shouldn't pursue national office, professional women across America took umbrage, particularly in the news media.

"What are we, back in the '50s?" exclaimed The Washington Post's Sally Quinn. "The idea that a woman can't balance a home and family on the national stage but a man can is beyond objectionable. It's an insult to women. It's laughable. And anyone who would say otherwise simply looks like a fool."


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Carlson

John Carlson

John Carlson is a contributing columnist covering politics in Seattle and Washington state.