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Op-Ed

Sarah Palin's emails: There's hardly any there

It may be shocking, but as governor of Alaska, Palin spent a lot of time trying to do the job she had been elected to do.

June 15, 2011|By Michael Carey
(Craig Ruttle / Associated…)

It's a challenge to get Alfred Hitchcock and Sarah Palin into the same paragraph. Let's try.

Hitchcock popularized if not invented Hollywood's use of the McGuffin in film: something of uncertain, unclear, unknowable or perhaps no value — a necklace, a secret document — that characters will go to extraordinary lengths to obtain. That's what those 55-pound boxes of Palin emails Alaskan officials handed over to reporters in Juneau on Friday seem like to someone who has covered Palin since she ran for governor in 2006.

A McGuffin.

A McGuffin that the nation's great news organizations, in some cases aided by hundreds of citizen volunteers, pored over while offering running commentary on the 24,000 pages of emails as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls miraculously unearthed from a desert cave.

The first Palin emails posted on my newspaper's website included a message to Palin from a staffer explaining that a technician was going to remove her computer from her office for repairs; a staffer's alert that fry bread (an Alaska delicacy) would be sold in the Capitol later that day; an update from a Washington staffer describing the Bush administration's view of several Alaska policy matters; praise for Palin from Alaskans who liked her stand on oil tax revisions; and additional praise from admirers delighted that she had become the Republican candidate for vice president.

There followed emails that had been redacted by staffers working for Gov. Sean Parnell. Parnell was elected lieutenant governor on the Palin ticket and succeeded her as governor after she resigned in 2009. His administration justified the many redactions on a broad variety of grounds — attorney-client privilege for one — but it is obvious Parnell's minions didn't err in favor of the public's right to know.

But know what?

If the emails have a tale to tell, it is this: Sarah Palin was a typical governor of a state of less than a million people until John McCain selected her as his running mate. After that, she became a celebrity and morphed into the tweeting, whining, high-decibel right-wing scold whose name excites or infuriates Americans as she continues to make millions of dollars from her fame on television and traveling the country, drawing endless media attention.

As governor, the emails show us — if we didn't know it already — that Palin had concerns about media coverage and was often unhappy with Alaska's largest newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News. She found dealing with Alaska's lone congressman, 78-year-old Don Young, unpleasant because he is blustery and long-winded. She had difficulty with certain legislators, including Republicans.

She wasn't close to many members in her administration and relied on just a few people, including her husband, for support. She devoted an exceptional amount of time to matters of little import because they appealed to her personally, or because she was offended by some Alaskan who spoke out and she was determined to set him or her straight. Religion was deeply important to her.

Although she has a journalism degree, she is in no way a polished writer whose email prose leaves you begging for more. She is an ordinary stylist and ordinary thinker.

These characteristics don't bring Abraham Lincoln to mind. But they aren't symptoms of incompetence either. Many of Alaska's governors have feuded with the media, struggled with the Legislature, run amok pursuing trivia, relied on only a handful of advisors, wearied of the congressional delegation rolling the truth downhill in the direction of the Capitol, and written unimpressively. Palin's open reliance on her Christian faith, however, is definitely different than her predecessors, a first.

Then again, whatever you think of Palin, she is a woman of Alaska firsts. First female governor, first governor born after statehood in 1959, first suburban governor, first governor to be nominated to a presidential ticket, first governor to become an international celebrity, first governor to abandon the job and make herself a wealthy private citizen, and now first governor whose emails have been provided to the media for the world's examination.

"What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out," Hitchcock once said. Even with the attentive redaction of Palin's emails, there are hundreds of pages of dull bits.

It may be shocking, but as governor of Alaska, Palin spent a lot of time trying to do the job she had been elected to do, surrounded by people who sometimes agreed with her, sometimes not. This is not the banality of evil; it's the reality of governing.

Michael Carey is a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News and the host of "Alaska Edition," a weekly public affairs show broadcast by Alaska Public Television.

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