‘Don’t retreat, reload’: The character and career of Sarah Palin

Dennis Phillips

Geoffrey Dunn The Lies of Sarah Palin: The Untold Story Behind Her Relentless Quest for Power, Melbourne, Scribe, 2011 (464 pp). ISBN 9-78192184-423-2 (paperback) RRP $35.00.

Joe McGinniss The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, New York, Crown, 2011 (321 pp). ISBN 9-78030771-892-1 (hard cover) RRP $32.95.

Sarah Palin Going Rogue: An American Life, New York, HarperCollins, 2009 (413 pp). ISBN 9-78006193-989-1 (hard cover) RRP $39.99.

In September 2008, when Republican presidential candidate John McCain named Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate, some Australians likened the self-described ‘maverick’ Palin to Australia’s own political maverick, Pauline Hanson. Both women are attractive, energetic, conservative, populist, blunt and—how to put this tactfully—lacking in philosophical sophistication. The University of Southern Queensland’s Robert Mason suggests both Hanson and Palin were able ‘to associate their gender with frontier images of Queensland and Alaska’ in ways that differentiated them from conventional politicians and provided them with ‘the moral authenticity to challenge the political establishment’ (2010, pp. 185–199).

Tom Switzer, editor of The Spectator Australia and a thoughtful student of American politics, begged to differ. Palin, he pointed out, is ‘not the new Pauline’ (Switzer 2009). As so often happens when comparisons are made between Australia and the United States, superficial similarities tend to overshadow substantive differences. The two women emerged from entirely different social and historical contexts. Among many other differences, Palin has had a significantly greater impact on national politics in the United States than Hanson has in Australia. Palin is also a more complex and puzzling individual than Hanson.


Because Palin’s personal life and political career are both so mired in controversy, it is difficult to separate the truth from myth, rumour, allegation and self-promotion. So, let’s begin with some basic and incontestable biographical facts. A logical starting point should be her own account in her best-selling autobiography, Going Rogue: An American Life, published in 2009. Palin dictated the material and evangelical author Lynn Vincent wrote the book. To the casual reader, Palin’s account of her life comes across as a folksy ‘girl-next-door’ Cinderella story in which, after heroic struggles against seemingly impossible odds, good triumphs over evil. Caution is advised. In The Lies of Sarah Palin, by far the most informative of the three books under review here, Geoffrey Dunn describes Going Rogue as ‘riddled with lies, fabrications, omissions, misstatements, and distortions’ (pp. 4–5).

Sarah Louise Heath was born in Sandpoint, Idaho on 11 February 1964. When she was three months old, her schoolteacher father (Charles ‘Chuck’ Heath) moved the family to Skagway, Alaska. In the early 1970s, the Heath family (Sarah had one brother, Chuck Jr., and two sisters, Heather and Molly) settled in the ‘one-horse town’ of Wasilla, population less than 4,000, in Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Valley (Palin pp. 7–9, 17).

Sarah Palin enthused her supporters, but she absolutely ignited her critics.

Palin graduated from Wasilla High School in 1982. Aspiring to a career as a sports reporter, she briefly attended university in Hawaii before she switched to the University of Idaho where she graduated in 1987 with a degree in communications/journalism. In 1984, while still a student, she won the Miss Wasilla Scholarship beauty contest, and then went on to finish third in the Miss Alaska pageant, where she was named ‘Miss Congeniality’. In Going Rogue Palin writes that parading around in a beauty pageant initially seemed a ‘horrendous’ idea: ‘I was a jock and quite square, not a pageant-type girl at all’. She says friends persuaded her to enter these contests because the scholarship money would cover her tuition fees and enable her to graduate from university debt free (pp. 42–44).

On 29 August 1988 Sarah Heath eloped with Todd Palin, a Wasilla-based salmon fisherman. Witnesses to the wedding consisted of ‘a nice elderly man with a walker and a kindly old lady in a wheelchair’, both recruited from a nearby old folks home. Sarah lived to regret excluding family and friends from the wedding: ‘I heard later that Mom bawled … I tell my kids now that I’ll wring their necks if they do what I did’. Palin’s first child, Track, was born on 20 April 1989. A second pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Four more children followed: Bristol in 1990; Willow, 1994; Piper, 2001 and Trig, 2008 (Palin pp. 49–51, 55–57, 66, 82, 238).


Palin’s political career began in 1992 when she was elected to the Wasilla City Council. She became Mayor of Wasilla four years later, defeating the incumbent, Jack Stein, by a vote of 661 to 440 (Palin pp. 63–64; McGinniss p. 67). It was a modest beginning to what would become a spectacular political career.

In 2002 Palin made an unsuccessful bid to win the Republican Party’s nomination for the office of Lieutenant Governor of Alaska. This campaign, along with her previous experience as President of the Alaska Conference of Mayors, gave her a statewide profile. In 2003 Republican Governor Frank Murkowski appointed Palin to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (AOGC). Working on the AOGC enabled Palin to develop her growing interest in resource development. It also exposed her directly to the complex and corrupt networks that linked Alaskan oil with Alaskan politics. Co-operating with concerned Democrats in the state legislature and demonstrating considerable personal courage, Palin filed a series of ethics violation charges against key members of her own (Republican) party. Early in 2004, after praying ‘long and hard’ on the matter, Palin resigned from the AOGC, declaring she could ‘effect change’ more effectively from outside the organisation than remaining constrained within it (Palin pp. 89–93, 98–99; Dunn pp. 86–89).

By 2006 the corrupt connections between Alaskan oil and the Alaskan state government had become so obvious that some of the legislators took to openly referring to themselves as members of the ‘CBC’—the ‘Corrupt Bastard Club’. Campaigning on a ‘clean government’ reform platform while simultaneously promising to ‘get government out of the way’, Palin successfully challenged incumbent governor Murkowski for the Republican nomination. She went on to defeat former governor Tony Knowles in the November general election (Dunn p. 78). Palin served as governor of Alaska from December 2006 until July 2009 when, with 18 months still to run in her first gubernatorial term, she resigned abruptly claiming she was being forced to defend herself against frivolous charges of alleged ethics violations (Dunn pp. 338–343).

Despite her meteoric rise from the Wasilla City Council to chief executive of America’s 49th state (Hawaii was the 50th), Palin remained unknown to the general public in the ‘lower 48’. That changed overnight in August 2008 when John McCain, the Republican Party’s nominee for President of the United States, announced he had selected Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate. McCain hoped that Palin would be a ‘game-changer’ infusing his tired campaign with new vitality and appeal (Dunn p. 184).

Palin’s first big public test came quickly. On 3 September, before a packed Republican Party Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota and with a television audience estimated at 40 million viewers, Palin delivered her acceptance speech for the vice-presidential nomination. It was a fiery address ‘rich in hyperbole and dripping with sarcasm’. She attacked Barack Obama with such ferocity that, as a self-described ‘Pit Bull with lipstick’, she pumped angry blood into the veins of the struggling Republican Party faithful. Palin had arrived and she loved playing the role of an angry, clawing ‘Mama Grizzly’ (Dunn pp. 205–212).

To Palin, this world really is divided between good and evil.

Writing in The Atlantic in June 2011, Joshua Green described Palin’s acceptance speech as an ‘alchemic moment of excitement and fantasy when Sarah Palin became the star of national politics’. The speech was ‘a full-throated assault on Barack Obama, rooted in deep cultural resentment’. As a ‘grievance-driven’ expression of intense cultural resentment, the speech inadvertently revealed more about Palin than it did about Obama. As always in her political career, Palin portrayed herself as a ‘maverick’ and an ‘outsider’, ignoring the fact that the 2008 presidential election was her seventh political campaign for public office. Whatever else her acceptance speech may have done, it marked the introduction to the nation of ‘the most polarizing and divisive figure in contemporary American history’ (Green 2011; Dunn pp. 199, 209).

Even as Sarah Palin enthused her supporters, she absolutely ignited her critics. When McCain named Palin as his running mate, the American Left went berserk. For publications like Rolling Stone, Palin was ‘a symbol of everything that is wrong with the modern United States’. McCain had proven himself unfit for the presidency by selecting as his running mate ‘the most obviously unqualified, doomed-to-fail joke of a Bible-thumping buffoon’. Palin was nothing more than a ‘puffed-up dimwit’, a ‘rifle-toting, serially pregnant moose killer’ (Taibbi 2010).

When the 2008 US presidential campaign finally ended, the Democrat ticket of Barack Obama and Joe Biden defeated the Republican team of John McCain and Sarah Palin by a popular vote (in round figures) of 69 million to 60 million. Obama/Biden won 52.9 per cent of the vote to McCain/Palin’s 45.7 per cent. The Electoral College margin was 365 to 173, a decisive victory for the Democrats (Federal Election Commission 2008). Debate continues on the extent to which Palin contributed to, or detracted from, the Republican Party’s struggle to compete with Obama’s popular and effective campaign.


It is one thing to trace the progress of Sarah Palin’s political career, but quite another to discover the essence of her character. Her parents, her childhood experiences, the environment in which she grew up and a host of other factors shaped her. Interestingly, her memoir Going Rogue, a book dismissed by Geoffrey Dunn and others as superficial and self-serving, is remarkably revealing—more so, no doubt, than she intended.

Palin’s formative years were influenced by three main factors: religion, sport and geographic isolation. Originally of Catholic stock, the Heath family enthusiastically converted to a rowdy and extroverted brand of evangelical Protestantism when they moved to Wasilla. Joe McGinniss devotes an entire page of The Rogue to listing individually more than three dozen Protestant evangelical churches and religious groups in tiny Wasilla (McGinniss, p. 5).

Sarah Heath became a ‘born again’ Christian when she was only ten years old. Her basic religious views seem to have changed little since then (Palin p. 22). Geoffrey Dunn treats Palin’s fundamentalist spiritual beliefs as merely another affectation carefully crafted as part of her political image. While Palin has certainly deployed her religion as a political weapon, evidenced by her frequent public references to ‘Providence’ and ‘God’s plan’ for her life, there is little doubt that her religious convictions are genuine. Indeed, that’s part of the problem. Palin believes implicitly in a personal God, one who takes a deep and abiding interest in every aspect of her life. God opens doors for her; she merely walks through to embrace the next grand opportunity or challenge.

In Going Rogue Palin repeatedly declares that her life is in God’s hands and developing according to God’s plan. On the last page of her book (that is, on the ‘Acknowledgements’ page), Palin asks readers to do what she did as a child, and ‘… invite Him to take over’. She goes further and challenges readers to ‘test’ God: ‘Test Him … You’ll see there is no such thing as a coincidence’ (Palin pp. 68, 111, 330–331; McGinniss pp. 53, 56, 65, 126, 143, 256).

Palin was famous for being famous and very good at it.

Palin’s deep-seated ‘God is on my side’ conviction goes a long way toward explaining why she comes across as so rigid and divisive. There is little room for compromise in Sarah Palin’s world. She is an absolutist. You are either for her or against her. To Palin, this world really is divided between good and evil, the righteous and the damned, her way and the wrong way. Make your choice! (Dunn p. 11).

Growing up in Wasilla reinforced Palin’s tendency to view the world in stark, dualistic terms. Alaskans have long referred to the ‘lower 48’ states (and the world at large) as the ‘Outside’ (Palin p. 42; Gourevitch 2009, passim). Alaska achieved statehood only five years before Sarah Palin was born. Just as her religious upbringing taught her the spiritual world was divided between ‘the elect’ and the rest, so her physical world was divided simplistically between the insiders (Alaskans) and ‘Outsiders’ (everyone else). Dunn notes that ‘isolation, both internal and external, has been the definitive factor in Alaskan politics’, and so it is with Alaska’s most famous politician (pp. 14–16).

Palin’s father, Chuck Heath, further encouraged a dualistic mindset in young Sarah. He instilled in her a ferociously competitive attitude on the sporting field and in life generally. The sport itself—basketball, hockey, athletics—didn’t matter. What counted was winning. The merciless, even vengeful, lessons her father, her coaches and her culture taught her on the sporting field have been obvious in all aspects of her life. She learned as a child that sport is merely another aspect of life’s competitive struggle. Just as Palin’s spiritual world is divided between the saved and the ‘lost’, so her physical world is a zero-sum game in which someone wins and someone loses—and there is nothing worse than being a ‘loser’. As a sportsman and a father, Chuck Heath, agreed implicitly with American gridiron coach Vince Lombardi’s famous dictum, ‘Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing’ (Maraniss 2000, p. 365).

As a high school student, Palin wrote, ‘I lived for basketball’. She played the game ‘furiously’ and earned the nickname ‘Sarah Barracuda’, Dunn says, as much for the way she treated her team-mates as for her attitude toward opposition players (p. 22). During her senior year (1982), the Wasilla Warriors women’s basketball team defeated a highly favoured side from Anchorage for the state championship title. Palin writes, ‘That victory changed my life’, proving to her that ‘hard work and passion matter most of all’. Then this remarkably revealing statement: ‘Everything I ever needed to know, I learned on the basketball court’ (pp. 39–41).

As if to prove the point, Palin’s autobiography skips over her five years as a student at three different universities with little comment except for the beauty pageants she entered. She says she looked forward to her political science classes, but no political scientists are mentioned, nor any inspiring teachers, or political theories or ideas (pp. 44–47). Dunn notes that throughout her university career, Palin was involved in few collegiate activities, ‘no sports, no college government, no extracurricular intellectual pursuits’ (p. 52).

It is as if everything Sarah Palin ever learned really was on the high school basketball court. Two of her most striking characteristics are an apparent complete lack of intellectual curiosity and the fact that she never seems to have challenged any of the provincial ideas and values she learned as a child in Wasilla. In a crushing indictment, Dunn discovers in Palin a contemporary reproduction of the reactionary American ‘Know-Nothing’ movement of the 1850s, as well as an example of what Richard Hofstadter identified in 1964 as ‘the paranoid style in American politics’ (p. 10).


From her first public appearance as a vice-presidential candidate, Palin over-shadowed her running mate. She was born in February 1964; McCain in August 1936. The contrast was stunning. McCain ‘simply could not hold a candle to Palin in terms of charisma or personality. It wasn’t even close. He knew it. So did she’. McCain suddenly became ‘a sideshow’ in his own presidential campaign, ‘playing second fiddle to her main event’ (Dunn p. 199).

Palin also knew how to capitalise on something McCain did not fully understand or particularly enjoy. She was drawn instinctively to the more narcissistic opportunities afforded by the revolution in modern communications, especially advances in the so-called ‘social media’. New outlets such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etcetera invited users to actively publicise and market themselves as never before. Millions became secular evangelists of the self. Writing in The New Yorker in December 2009, Sam Tanenhaus described the emergence of the politics of ‘the singular self’. It suited Palin to a T.

Sarah Palin is still only 47 years old.

Thanks to McCain’s dubious appointment potentially placing her a heartbeat away from the most powerful political office in the world, Palin became a global celebrity. Suddenly famous for no clearly identifiable reason other than McCain’s dubious gesture, Palin was famous for being famous and very good at it. Tanenhaus concludes, ‘the true meaning of Palinism is Sarah Palin—nothing more and nothing less. She is a party unto herself’ (Tanenhaus 2009). It is more than a little disconcerting that 60 million Americans saw no problem with this and cast their 2008 presidential ballot for McCain/Palin.

Through it all, Palin’s controversial family life contributed to her notoriety and raised further questions about her carefully cultivated political image. Many of her close friends did not even realise she was pregnant when, in April 2008, Palin gave birth to a baby with Down’s syndrome named Trig. In The Rogue Joe McGinniss devotes an entire chapter to the unusual circumstances and subsequent rumours surrounding Trig’s birth. Then, on 1 September, the opening day of the 2008 Republican National Convention, the Palin family announced that Sarah’s unmarried eighteen year old daughter, Bristol, was pregnant to boyfriend, Levi Johnston. Bristol’s baby, named Tripp, was born in December. For his part, Johnston decided he had had enough and took off to pose nude for Playgirl magazine (McGinniss pp. 271–289).

Meanwhile, Sarah Palin had discovered celebrity street was paved with gold. Thanks more to her notoriety than to anything else, Palin transformed herself from what she liked to describe as a patriotic, working class country girl into a very wealthy superstar. In 2009–10 she earned an estimated $US13 million in speaking fees, television contracts, book royalties, etc. Her contract with Fox News alone was worth an estimated $US1 million. She was paid $US2 million for her ‘reality’ TV show, Sarah Palin’s Alaska. Her second book, America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag, published in late 2010, like Going Rogue before it, hit the best seller list. Not bad for a country girl—and none of this includes the funds accumulated by her political action committee ‘SarahPAC’ (Jackson 2011; Gross 2010).


Even as Palin’s fame and personal fortune have grown, so too has her tendency to be her own worst enemy. During the 2010 mid-term campaign to elect members of the US House of Representatives, Sarah Palin’s political action committee produced controversial TV ads depicting selected Democrat congressional districts in the crosshairs of a gun sight, presumably targeted for defeat by Palin and her supporters. On 8 January 2011 a gunman opened fire at an Arizona shopping centre gathering featuring Gabrielle Giffords, the incumbent Democrat congresswoman. Giffords was shot in the head but survived. Six other people were killed and thirteen wounded.

Giffords survived brain surgery and began a long, heroic struggle to recover. Debate raged over the extent to which Palin’s gun imagery and her militant ‘don’t retreat, reload’ campaign rhetoric contributed to an atmosphere that encouraged direct violence. Indeed, prior to the shooting, none other than Giffords herself had publicly warned, ‘Sarah Palin has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district and when people do that they’ve got to realize there are consequences’. After the tragedy Palin expressed regret for what had happened, but denied any possible link between her campaign rhetoric and direct violence. Instead, she defended her constitutional ‘free speech’ rights against what she saw as an unwarranted attempt to silence her. Dunn describes Palin’s response to the shooting as ‘an act of political narcissism in the extreme’ (pp. 414–423).

After the Arizona shooting, Palin continued to play a cat-and-mouse game with the media and the public over whether or not she would run for the presidency in 2012. Finally, in early October 2011, Palin announced she would not be a candidate. Two months prior to that announcement, Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker noted how Palin’s career had trailed off into ‘a series of money-making and self-promoting stunts’. It was time for the Palin circus to fold its tent. Palin was finished, wrote Parker, ‘It’s over’.

Maybe. But this is the famously unpredictable Sarah Palin we’re dealing with here. In 2009, Vanity Fair editor Todd Purdum wrote:

Palin is at once the sexiest and the riskiest brand in the Republican Party. Her appeal to the people in the party (and in the country) who share her convictions and resentments is profound. The fascination is viral, and global.

Kathleen Parker may be correct, but Sarah Palin is still only 47 years old. Who can say with certainty that her bizarre political career really has come to an end?


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Until retirement in 2010, Dennis Phillips taught US politics and history at The University of Sydney and Macquarie University.