Quotes of the Day

Sarah Palin
Tuesday, Sep. 23, 2008

Open quote

On Monday, Sarah Palin's lawyers announced the Alaska governor's intention to cooperate with the Troopergate investigation.

Sort of.

Palin won't actually cooperate with the original investigation — the one approved unanimously by a majority Republican committee in the state legislature this summer, which Palin welcomed in a spirit of transparency and accountability before she became the Republican Party's vice-presidential nominee. The Alaska Senate Judiciary Committee had started the inquiry when former public safety commissioner Walt Monegan alleged that he might have been dismissed for not firing the allegedly loutish state trooper Mike Wooten, who was in a bitter custody battle with Palin's sister Molly McCann and was accused of threatening members of the governor's family. The investigation has since been painted by John McCain and Palin backers as a purely partisan exercise, particularly because the committee chair, state senator Hollis French, is an Anchorage Democrat who made several seemingly prejudicial statements to the media early on, including that the probe could yield an "October surprise" right before the election. Palin spokeswoman Meg Stapleton says French has already made up his mind about the governor's guilt and at this point is "just leading people into an ambush."

Instead, Palin plans to cooperate with an investigator from the state personnel board. That investigator is a Democrat, but the board's three members are political appointees who ultimately answer to the governor herself. (One was appointed by Palin, the other two by her predecessor.) They got involved only after Palin took the unusual step of filing an ethics complaint against herself in early September to spark an investigation that her lawyers hoped would overshadow — and effectively kill — the legislature's inquiry.

But the Alaska senate inquiry is moving ahead. Last week, after many of Palin's aides and associates, as well as her husband, reversed their positions and refused to testify in front of the legislative committee, French said the senate investigator would issue findings on the matter in early October with or without their testimony. As if to parry that move, Palin's lawyer, Thomas Van Flein, met with the personnel board's investigator on Monday and promised that he would furnish a list of who would be interviewed on Tuesday. The McCain campaign told the Associated Press that after Tuesday, the entire personnel board process would be confidential and that the campaign would have no further comment. The Alaska personnel board is "the only legal forum in the state for the Monegan inquiry," Palin's spokeswoman explained.

For many Alaskans, all this maneuvering is a bit too clever. Palin's jockeying doesn't just clash with her previous image as a good-government reformer. It strikes some here almost as a matter of state sovereignty. There was grumbling when the McCain campaign brought in a high-powered cheechako (that's an outsider), former federal terrorism prosecutor Ed O'Callaghan, to dictate the governor's strategy and deal with the media. Spokeswoman Stapleton says O'Callaghan is in Alaska because she and Van Flein need the extra help, and that the media have made this a national issue, so bringing in advisers from outside of Alaska is only appropriate. But the campaign's public bashing of Monegan, a widely respected, longtime public official in the state, didn't help its case. Now that O'Callaghan's hardball tactics are becoming clearer, the complaints have grown louder, from all sides of the political spectrum.

(See photos of Sarah Palin on the campaign trail here.)
(See photos of Sarah Palin's rise here.)

As the Anchorage Daily News wrote in a blistering op-ed over the weekend: "Is it too much to ask that Alaska's governor speak for herself, directly to Alaskans, about her actions as Alaska's governor?" One longtime observer — a Palin fan who says she's done "brilliant" things in the state — worried aloud to me over coffee in downtown Anchorage that allowing the McCain campaign to antagonize both parties in the legislature on Palin's behalf could even lead to her eventual impeachment, if her bid to become Vice President fails and she returns to the state with a little less political luster.

That seems far-fetched, but the whole affair is a rarity in Palin's charmed career: a political miscalculation. To many observers, the underlying accusations in Troopergate are not all that damning. Many Alaskans have sympathy for the anxiety and frustration the Palins felt over Wooten's continued employment. In Anchorage, I've heard time and again that Palin could have avoided further scrutiny with a single convivial mea culpa at the outset, apologizing in particular for her initial inaccurate denial that anyone in her administration, including herself, had contacted Monegan about Wooten. Stapleton says the firing was a personnel matter that the state attorney general advised Palin not to comment on initially. But still, Alaskans say that if Palin had ignored that advice and spoken openly to the public, she could have defanged any investigation and signaled to Alaskans that even as the vice-presidential nominee, she would still be the same supposedly straight-talking Sarah they had voted for overwhelmingly.

But almost every move she has made related to Troopergate since she was named McCain's running mate has damaged her credibility and standing. Most recently the shifting public explanations for why Monegan was fired have looked shaky — at one point, it was that they didn't share the same general law enforcement priorities, at another it was that he hadn't done enough to crack down on rural bootlegging, and most recently it was for his unauthorized travel to Washington to lobby for federal dollars. After many Democrats complained that the McCain campaign appeared to be trying to run out the clock on the investigation, the campaign's announcement that Palin would work with the personnel board is designed to blunt such criticism and show voters nationwide a renewed openness in the case. But it's unclear whether the board will actually reach any findings before the Nov. 4 election.

Even in iconoclastic Alaska, there are rabid Democrats and rabid Republicans who now view Troopergate only through the lens of national politics. But far more people, on both sides, see this as a more nuanced situation, and one that may end up costing Palin more here than it ever should have.

(See photos of Sarah Palin on the campaign trail here.)
(See photos of Sarah Palin's rise here.)

Close quote

  • Nathan Thornburgh / Anchorage
  • She now says she'll cooperate with an investigation over which she has more control. Some Alaskans are starting to miss the old Sarah Palin
Photo: Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty