NEAL CONAN, host:
As South Carolina debated whether Governor Mark Sanford would hold on, the meteoric and mercurial governor of Alaska stunned her advisors, her state, her party and the country on Friday when she announced plans to resign two and a half years into her first term, a decision, she added, that should not be taken to mean that she's a quitter.
Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): And though it may be tempting and more comfortable to just kind of keep your head down and plod along and appease those who are demanding, hey, just sit down and shut up -but that's a worthless, easy path out. That's a quitter's way out. And I think a problem in our country today is apathy. It would be apathetic to just kind of hunker down and go with the flow. We're fishermen. We know that only dead fish go with the flow.
CONAN: As Todd Purdum, national editor of Vanity Fair concluded in his piece on Palin in this month's issue of the magazine, Sarah Palin is certainly no dead fish. And he joins us in a minute.
But first, we want to hear from our listeners in Alaska today. Tell us how you view Governor Palin and her announced resignation. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. You can find a link to Todd Purdum's widely quoted piece on Sarah Palin in this month's Vanity Fair on our Web site. It's titled "It Came from Wasilla." And he joins us now from his home here in Washington.
Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. TODD PURDUM (National Editor, Vanity Fair): Nice to be here, Neal. Thank you.
CONAN: And your piece came out before, if not much before, Governor Palin's announced plans to resign. And you described her 2008 campaign for vice president as disastrous, but still named her as a top brand for Republicans. What do you conclude she is trying to do now?
Mr. PURDUM: I'm not sure even she is sure what she's trying to do now, except escape her present circumstances. It was quite clear that she was not happy in her present role as governor. The legislature was at total loggerheads with her over matters large and small. She had this raft of ethics complaints which had had racked up about $500,000 or so in personal legal bills to her and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cost to the state.
It was just not what she signed up for. And she walked away. Where she intends to go next, I don't think anybody really knows. And I doubt that she is positive herself.
CONAN: I've seen descriptions of her making that announcement on Friday as looking exhausted. Would you agree?
Mr. PURDUM: I think she did look exhausted. And when I've seen her in recent speeches, there was one speech she made in Anchorage not long ago introducing Michael Reagan. And she seemed very tired and resentful. And she said in that speech, if here at home in Alaska, politically speaking, if I die, I die.
And I thought that was a very odd and fatalistic note to be sounding when so many people around the country clearly admire her and clearly think and hope she'll have a political future.
CONAN: Indeed, the donations to her political action committee funds increased as soon as she announced her resignation.
Mr. PURDUM: Yes. I mean, she - that - just shortly before her resignation and the period around it was the first time she herself had made an active solicitation. That fund got started a few months ago, and really, all on its own, in the first month, raised about $400,000 without her even asking for money.
CONAN: In your piece in Vanity Fair, you quote some people in the McCain campaign as questioning last fall whether indeed Sarah Palin might be suffering from postpartum depression. And then you will go on to quote some people in Alaska suggesting that they had independently looked up narcissistic personality disorder when they're - in their views of Governor Palin, when they're thinking about her. Your piece has been described by some as a hit piece.
Mr. PURDUM: Well, I want to be very careful to say that if it's a hit piece, I failed, because that was not my intention. My intention was to provide a rounded and thorough portrait of Governor Palin and her past as what it might suggest about the future.
In terms of - I'm clearly not a doctor, and I'm certainly not a psychiatrist. But I think it's interesting that so many people, when confronted with behavior that's otherwise hard to explain, go searching for the language of psychiatry, the language of medicine, to try to explain it because it's not explainable in any conventional political way. And she is not a politician in any sense that we've come to understand that, a sort of go-along, get-along, live-to-fight-another-day politician. That's just not her. Everything is personal for her.
CONAN: And everything you point out in the piece about her career has been high risk. And if that's the case, this is another high-risk gamble.
Mr. PURDUM: Absolutely. And some of her supporters think it is a brilliant gamble, and that one - that may well pay off. She has certainly shown herself in other context to have good, raw instincts about what to do. She's defied the experts at almost every turn.
So, I think, you know, people would be unwise to bet against her. I also think it's fair to say that the conventional wisdom here in Washington among leaders of both parties is that it's a very funny way to run for higher office by leaving the only office you've held at a statewide level before you finish the job the voters hired you to do. It's very rare that that happens.
CONAN: And it should also be pointed out that if you've read Todd Purdum's piece in Vanity Fair, it as much a criticism of John McCain and the John McCain campaign as it is of Sarah Palin.
Mr. PURDUM: Yes, I think in historical terms, the question that will puzzle historians most in years to come and that puzzles professional politicians in Washington most is how John McCain could ever have picked her and squared his choice of her with everything he'd always said he stood for.
CONAN: The choice seems - his campaign staff, you quote them - some anonymously - as being puzzled and confused by her and finding her very difficult to work with. And since your piece has come out, there's been considerable sniping.
Mr. PURDUM: There's been back and forth. There's been a kind of - she's a polarizing and galvanizing figure in her own party, and her supporters feel that she was ill-served by the McCain aides, who after all were the ones who helped pick her and recommended her.
And they felt that McCain people made a big mistake in surrounding her with 20 aides not of her choosing, trying to make her work from a script when she'd never really been a scripted politician before, sending her out on the attack when that's really not in the tradition of Alaska politics in which she'd come of age.
So I think there's plenty of blame to go around, and I confess that I was really taken aback by the degree to which these feelings are all still so raw and close to the surface, and, you know, the mere publication of a piece like mine was enough to set them off again.
CONAN: Our guest Todd Purdum. His piece is called "It Came from Wasilla" in the current issue of Vanity Fair. 800-989-8255. We want to hear from Alaskans today. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And we'll start with Caroline, Caroline with us from Anchorage.
CAROLINE (Caller): Yes. Thank you so much. First of all, Alaskans like to put up their bona fides on the line. Got to Fairbanks in '67, was there one year, came back in '70, and was there until '79 when I left broadcast news in order to come down and work in the oil patch, as we call it, in corporate contributions. But anyway, over 40 years here, visited over 30 villages and communities, this woman is a puff piece. She is - can be vicious.
And the word that I didn't hear you use, which I think applies to her, is delusional. Now, she's always had a very strong support system and cheerleading squad behind her. And I think she - first of all, she's - my mother was a teacher. She would be appalled if I had turned out to be as ignorant as this woman is. But in the fashion of today, it's almost like they're proud of it. People are proud of it, you know? I don't want to be some elite.
That to me is code for an intelligent person. So she has the mayor job in Wasilla. I hope you looked at that closely, came in with a surplus, left with a huge debt into the millions of dollars in debt while she was mayor of Wasilla, tried to get one woman fired for not banning the book she wanted off the shelves. I mean, all the stuff is there. And if - and she may dislike the press, but I'll tell you what, your job and everybody's job in the press is to go after the truth.
And the truth of her - she's almost like a Dorian Gray kind of person. The picture that would be in the attic would not be beautiful at all, and she is very good. You know, her brief time in broadcasting, she is very good. She can - and not being scripted? No, she can be scripted. Her life has almost been a script. It's been her script. And I think when she bumped up against - and a lot of Alaskans don't like the outside because of the competition. I mean, we get kids who go - 4.0 kids that have to struggle to get through school in college.
So, again, she met the national standard, and she's failing it. And I think she's really made a mistake. I was not surprised with the book deal sitting there, with the talk show circuits available and maybe her own show. She's going to do very well. And I also think she's picking up chips for her run in 2014 - or 2012, rather. Excuse me.
CONAN: All right…
CAROLINE: She's picking up chips from the people she's going to be helping raise money for. So I was not at all surprised.
I didn't think she'd run again. The abandoning the job, that's going to cost her. It costs Wally Hickel when he left the job and went to work in Nixon's Cabinet years ago. So…
CONAN: Caroline, let's get a response from Todd Purdum. And he does go into some of the stories…
CAROLINE: Thank you.
CONAN: …from Wasilla and indeed from Juneau, as well. But nevertheless…
CAROLINE: And one more thing about Mr. Kristol that I heard on NBC this morning: He was one of a group of two sets of conservative writers that came up on cruise ships that she met with in the first summer after she was elected governor in Juneau. She hosted them at the governor's mansion. So for her to say she was surprised by being chosen, she's been grooming herself for the national stage since she became governor.
CONAN: And she, of course, talking about Bill Kristol - been in a bit of sparring match with Todd Purdum, as well. Thanks very much for the call, Caroline.
CAROLINE: You're quite welcome.
Mr. PURDUM: Well, the caller, Neal, makes a number of good points and one of the ones that you can tell from her passionate concern about these issues is there's a wonderful and vigorous public radio community in Alaska, and that's one of the things I was really pleased to learn when I was up there this spring on my reporting trip.
But, yeah, I think in some ways, Governor Palin sets up a straw man when she attacks the elites. I think that it's a very strange phenomenon in American life in which from the beginning of our country with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin down to the present day with people like Colin Powell or Barack Obama, whoever you want to name, we've really celebrated people of high achievement and extraordinary capacity.
And I don't think anyone who's thought about the question really thinks the president should be just like you and me. I don't want to be president. I don't think I'm qualified. And, you know, even people that - people cite, like, Harry Truman. Yes, he was from a small town and, yes, he had comparatively limited experience and so forth - although he had a long career in the Senate - but he was far from an ordinary person. What's quite clear is that he was an extraordinary person who'd been living a kind of ordinary life. And I just think we ought to be very careful about elevating ordinariness to a positive virtue.
CONAN: We're talking with Todd Purdum. And his piece in Vanity Fair is titled "It Came from Wasilla." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go next to Wasilla, Alaska, and Leslie's on the line.
LESLIE (Caller): Hey, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.
LESLIE: This is so fascinating to me. You know, we've all been paying attention to the governor since she was chosen. And the thing that I would say - I mean, first of all, I agree with everything my fellow Alaskan just said. This thing that I find interesting and has been most frustrating, I think, for a lot of us is that she may have just resigned, but she stopped being our governor as soon as she was chosen for that vice presidential run.
She has barely been back in the state since the election. She's been out stumping her pro-life position and being a celebrity and showing up in People magazine and all of those things. And, you know, she wasn't even in the state for the last, I believe it was 10 or 12 days of the legislative session. And the legislators couldn't get her to talk to them about the stimulus money, which she then tried to stonewall. And…
CONAN: Todd Purdum, is that a fair characterization, do you think?
Mr. PURDUM: I think there are few exaggerations of the number of days here and there. I'm sure she's probably spent more days in Alaska than any other place since the end of the election. But the sentiments are very representative of what I heard in Alaska. People felt abandoned by her, and people felt that her performance in the campaign last fall was not in keeping with the traditions of civility in Alaska politics. You know, it's a state of 600,000 square miles and roughly 600,000 square people - 600,000 people. Everybody knows everybody else. And you can't be in politics there and have a scorched earth philosophy. It doesn't work. And I think that she really - a lot of people felt, as the caller suggests, abandoned by her in a very profound way.
CONAN: And her popularity ratings had gone - I think plummeted is pretty (unintelligible).
Mr. PURDUM: I think it's fair to say that they've gone from, you know, 80-ish to down in the low 50's. That's 30 points, you know?
CONAN: Well, Leslie, thank you.
LESLIE: Well, I think a lot of that came from how we got to know her during the election itself. And, frankly, I'm overjoyed that she is going away as governor, but I'm a little nervous about what her next move might be.
CONAN: Well, says she's going away. I'm learning to take everything very carefully in terms of what she says. Thanks very much for the call.
CONAN: Here's an email from Ken in Anchorage. Resigning as governor allows Palin to do the things that a grassroots presidential candidate would want to do: raise money, make speeches without the inconvenient distraction or pretending to run a state government. I suppose she can complete that multimillion dollar book deal.
And, well, a lot of people have mentioned that.
Plus, if she's going to be traveling to support candidates in elections in 2010, that's difficult to do while you're sitting as governor of Alaska, where it takes about a day to get anywhere.
Mr. PURDUM: That's the thing that people forget. That capital of Alaska, Juneau, is 600 miles from the biggest city, Anchorage, and you can only reach it by air or sea. You cannot drive overland from Anchorage to Juneau. It just simply cannot be done. And it would be as if Sarah Palin was the governor of a state that had its biggest city roughly where Chicago is and its capital, you know, pretty close to where Washington is. That's a big, big challenge. And then, let's assume that state is, you know, a day's trip from any place else in the rest of the country, and you have a whole problem of your own.
CONAN: But other people have pointed out the, well, the president might be Ronald Reagan who, after finishing his time as governor of California - of course, he did finish two terms - but he was out of office and was able to go around and raise money for other candidates and present himself and spend some time learning the issues. And, well, it turned out very well for him.
Mr. PURDUM: Absolutely. It turned out well for Richard Nixon after he lost the gubernatorial campaign in California in 1962. And six years later, he was the president.
I think the big difference is Governor Palin had all the opportunity in the world to sort of put her head down and do a lot of homework since she went home. The strong feeling in Alaska is she hasn't done that. And there's a big difference between not running for reelection and taking your time to run a campaign for the presidency and leaving in the middle of the job. I think it's the leaving in the middle of the job that has really stunned people and made them ponder about how that could possibly be a clever thing to do.
CONAN: Finally, this email from Amy in Anchorage: I did not vote for Sarah Palin when she ran for governor. Despite that, I thought she did fine in her role as governor until she jumped off the Alaska boat into the deeper waters of national politics, looking for bigger fish, I guess. I hoped she would get it together to finish some of the things she started in this state after the presidential election. I am sorry to see her abandon everyone because she can't brush off criticism like most high-level politicians. That thin skin - it appeared in her statement on Friday, and then again on Saturday. Todd Purdum?
Mr. PURDUM: I think that's quite true. I mean, there is a way in which she doesn't respond to the normal provocations in the way that a normal politician would. Politics is a tough business. I mean, pick the cliche. It ain't bean bag, it ain't for sissies, whatever you want. And there is a quality to her response to all this that seems really at odds with leadership in any realm. You don't lead by quitting. You don't stay by going. It's almost, you know, some real contradiction in terms.
CONAN: Todd Purdum, national editor for Vanity Fair. He joined us from his home in Washington, D.C. Thanks very much for your time.
Mr. PURDUM: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: Again, the link on to his article is at our Web site at npr.org.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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