Election 2008

Biographer: Don't Underestimate Gov. Palin

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Born in a small Idaho town, Sarah Palin grew up in an active and outdoorsy family, Kaylene Johnson, author of Palin's biography, "Sarah: How A Hockey Mom Turned Alaska's Political Establishment Upside Down," tells Liane Hansen. Palin is an evangelical who is also known as "fiercely competitive."


(Reading) Sarah Palin's childhood home faces Alaska's Talkeetna Mountains. In the spring, purple violets, Indian paintbrush and wild geraniums carpet the mountain's alpine tundra in a bloom of color. In winter, the snow-covered mountains take on a rose blush in the soft alpine glow. Sarah could see these mountains from the front porch of the family's little house near downtown Wasilla. These mountains would become like other wild places in Alaska, a place of sustenance and renewal for her boisterous and busy family.

That's an excerpt from "Sarah: How A Hockey Mom Turned Alaska's Political Establishment Upside Down," a biography of Sarah Palin published this spring. The author, Kaylene Johnson, joins me now. She's a long-time Alaskan herself and lives in Wasilla, Alaska. Welcome to the program.

Ms. KAYLENE JOHNSON (Author, "Sarah: How A Hockey Mom Turned Alaska's Political Establishment Upside Down"): Hi, Liane. Thank you.

HANSEN: Was Sarah Palin born in Alaska?

Ms. JOHNSON: She was born in Sandpoint, Idaho but she moved to Alaska with her family when she was just two months old. So she is a lifelong Alaskan.

HANSEN: Tell us about her life growing up in Wasilla, and it's a town that you write back in 1974 had only 400 residents?

Ms. JOHNSON: That's right. She grew up in Wasilla. It started out as a small community of 400 but by the time she became the mayor, it was closer to 4,000. And it's doubled that since then. So this is very much a growing community.

HANSEN: And what kind of town was it? I mean, how did Sarah, you know, occupy her time?

Ms. JOHNSON: Her father was a schoolteacher, and in the summertime he would take the television, unplug it and put it away. And instead, he put out a basketball hoop out in the yard and the kids were to be out, active, and be out playing and using their imaginations. So they did a lot of hiking, they did a lot of berry picking, they did a lot of basketball, and so that's how they spent their time, with outdoors.

HANSEN: But you write that Sarah was an avid reader.

Ms. JOHNSON: That's right. She would read the paper from cover to cover from a very young age, which her sisters both thought that was rather odd, but she's always been interested in current events and I think that's probably what led her to her degree in journalism and with a minor in political science.

HANSEN: Sarah Palin is an Evangelical Christian, and in one passage you write, "Sarah took the commitment she made to God as a youngster seriously even through high school. She signed yearbooks with Bible verses, held fast to the New Testament admonition from One Thessalonians 5:17 which says, be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances." Can you tell us more about her faith and how this informed her?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, I think it really shapes who she is. Her mother grew up Catholic, and she grew up Catholic for a part of that time. And then her mother, Sally, really found a more meaningful path through the Wasilla Assembly of God Church and started taking her family there. And I think over the course of time and through Bible School and their involvement in church there, I think that Sarah eventually embraced those ideals and beliefs as her own.

HANSEN: She was called Sarah Barracuda...

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah.

HANSEN: On the basketball - why? Why was she called that?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, she's seriously competitive and she's also a very hard worker. He father was actually a coach for track and cross-country, the teams she was on. And what he said was what she lacked in raw talent, she more than made up for in hard work, and I think that work ethic was something that she took with her wherever she - in whatever endeavor she undertook.

HANSEN: Her involvement in politics, she began on the Wasilla City Council. She later became mayor. Tell us a little bit about that involvement, why she did it and how she made it happen.

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, she was invited by a fellow Council member to run for the Council. And I think this person who invited her assumed that she would be a team player and get on board and just sort of go along with the flow, and she would tell you that they didn't realize that she wasn't quite wired that way. She did run for the City Council, she won, and she really saw that, you know, it was a bit of a club and a bit of a boys' network, and she really didn't like how business was being done on the City Council. So she fought City Hall, as you will, and it made some impressions and it made some people mad, and in the end she decided that, you know, if there was really going to be change in the government of this community, it had to come from the top. So she ran for mayor and won.

HANSEN: You paint a picture of Governor Sarah Palin and vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin as being a very strong woman. You've talked a lot about her strengths. What would you say her weaknesses are?

Ms. JOHNSON: You know, I'm just - I'm really at a loss. You know, I went into writing the book a bit of a skeptic, I have to say. You know, I've just been jaded with politics in Alaska, in particular, and I went into it a bit of a skeptic. But I came out feeling pretty - pretty hopeful, you know, that this is one of those people that, you know, really is different.

HANSEN: In your introduction, you write: "The biggest mistake her adversaries make is underestimating her."

Ms. JOHNSON: I think that's absolutely the case. She comes across as an average American and she is, and as an average Mom, and she is. But she's also extraordinary. She's very strong-willed. She stands, I think, on principle more than she stands on party and that has gotten her into a lot of hot water in the Republican Party in Alaska in the past. So I think that in some ways she's very ordinary, in another way she's very extraordinary.

HANSEN: Kaylene Johnson is the author of "Sarah: How A Hockey Mom Turned Alaska's Political Establishment Upside Down," a biography of Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee. Kaylene Johnson joined us from Wasilla, Alaska. Thank you so much.

Ms. JOHNSON: Thank you, Liane.

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Sarah Palin, A Fresh Face For The GOP

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An Outsider In Alaska

"Well, I really want people to say, 'Yeah, the risk was worth it in giving an outsider a shot.'"


— Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, in an NPR profile (December 2006)

From The NPR.org Archives

"The recently elected governor of Alaska is 44, the mother of five, and a former state champ in high school basketball. She is truly mediagenic, strongly pro-life and full of spunk. But can McCain say Obama lacks experience but that Sarah Palin is ready to be a heartbeat away? Can he turn over Dick Cheney's office to someone whose only previous office was mayor of Wasilla?"


—NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving, 'Watching Washington' (June 12, 2008)

Sarah Palin is no stranger to the "maverick" label often assigned to Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate who has selected her to join him on the GOP ticket. Alaska's youngest and first female governor has pushed for ethics investigations of fellow Republicans in her state and bucked the powerful oil industry on a major natural gas pipeline project.

When she ran for governor in 2006, she ran as an outsider and an agent for change. But she's also an anti-abortion, pro-gun fiscal conservative — something sure to please the Republican base.

Rooted In Local Politics

The 44-year-old Palin is a fresh face on the national political scene. But she has participated in local and state politics for much of her adult life. She was elected to the Wasilla City Council in 1992, running against tax increases in the Anchorage suburb. Four years later, she was elected mayor of the city, which has grown rapidly although its population is still under 10,000. Palin held the mayor's job until 2002 and in 2003 was named chairwoman of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Palin was elected governor three years later despite her outcast status in the Republican Party. Her campaign theme was a defiant one — "Take a Stand." She won a three-way primary race against incumbent Gov. Frank Murkowski and former state Sen. John Binkley, then went on to defeat former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles.

As governor, Palin says she's tried to instill public confidence in the government of a state that's been shaken by political scandals. She won't invite lobbyists to her office and has introduced ethics reform legislation. One of her first acts as governor was to kill the now infamous "bridge to nowhere" pork-barrel spending project. And she put the former governor's personal jet up for sale on eBay.

An Outsider's 'Fresh' Start

In an interview with NPR soon after taking office as governor, Palin said her outsider status had pros and cons. "The kind of a disadvantage of being an outsider is you don't know all the players. The advantages are you get to start fresh. You get to start with ideals, and it's worth it."

Palin continues to defy her party. She refused to endorse longtime Republican Congressman Don Young in this year's primary, backing one of his challengers instead. But critics say that Palin is politically naive and more show than substance. In recent weeks she's been dogged by questions over her firing of a state official who refused to dismiss a state trooper involved in a bitter divorce and child custody battle with her sister.

Palin graduated from the University of Idaho in 1987 and worked for two years as a television sports reporter before becoming a co-owner of a commercial fishing operation. She's also owned an outdoor recreational equipment company. Palin was crowned Miss Wasilla in 1984 and also competed in the Miss Alaska pageant. She likes to hunt, ice fish, ride snowmobiles and eat moose burgers.

'Barracuda' On The Basketball Court

Palin also played basketball in school. She was on the Wasilla state championship girls basketball team in 1982. Her nickname on the court was "Sarah Barracuda," for her style of play.

Palin is the mother of five children, including one born earlier this year with Down syndrome. Her oldest son enlisted in the Army last year and is scheduled to be deployed to Iraq next month.

David Welna and Cathy Shaw contributed to this report.



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