“We’re going to need some more, Frank,” the dapper state Senate aide said to the beefy, lumbering security guard, who was putting out another row of stackable chairs at the back of Room 200 in the Alaska Legislative building.
“Frank we ain’t got any more.” said the guard. It was eight forty-five am, and the room was already full to bursting, with a dozen camera news crews at the back setting up, stealing each other’s pitch. In one corner, The Wall Street Journal had commandeered the only power outlet, and set himself up a little mini-office, tapping furiously into the laptop, mumbling into an iphone cradled between shoulder and neck folds.
“Where are you from?” I asked the guy next to me. “The Times“[NY]. “And you?” I said to the two women beside him. “We’re all from the Times“.
Out the window, in fourth avenue, you could hear whooping. It was PDF day in Alaska, when every Alaskan adult gets a couple of grand from the royalties on the oil from the North Slope – and an extra grand, courtesy of governor Sarah Palin, who designated it an ‘energy rebate’ payment. More on that later. Here, something else was going on.
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As a dozen Alaska pols milled about making nervous small talk — men in suits last fashionable in the late 1980s, women dressed like maths teachers, and a Fred Thompson lookalike in full hunting camouflage — Senator Hollis French sailed in, and into the chair’s chair, banged the gavel on the scrimshaw pad, and announced that “the joint judiciary committee would come to order”. Troopergate was about to start a new chapter.
Troopergate is the rather unsatisfactory name for the Sarah Palin scandal that has engulfed Alaska for the last month or so, and is now spreading to the nation at large – the accusation that governor Sarah Palin sacked public safety commissioner Walter Moneghen because he failed to sack a trooper (ie rural cop) Mike Wooten, Sarah’s sister’s ex-husband, after a messy divorce.
Accusations about the incident swirled for months, and Palin eventually agreed to a proposal from the (Republican-controlled) legislature that a special investigator be appointed to clear the whole mess up.
The investigator, former Anchorage DA, Steve Blanchflower, began collecting witness statements and all was going swimmingly — until the day that Walnuts McCain got up to announce that he’d selected Sarah Palin as his running mate. That afternoon, as Blanchflower tells it, the hammer came down. The Palins clammed up, their friends clammed up, the state clammed up. Blanchflower and committee chairman announced their intention to seek subpoenas compelling witnesses to testify. And that was why the world’s media was assembled in downtown Anchorage for the business of a committee that usually attracted a bored AP reporter, and local loons. Juicy stuff.
But Troopergate. Booooooring. “We should call it Glaciergate, it’s been going so long,” I whispered to the Reuters correspondent, who acknowledged by wisdom with her total silence. Then Steve Blanchflower took the witness stand and the whole thing went spack.
Glaciergate has been dismissed as piffling by the right-wing media. On the national scale of things it is – though not to Moneghen whose sacking the Governor attributed to his alleged incompetence – but, as always, and as people never seem to realise, it is never the crime, but the coverup that has the judge reaching for the black cap.
For Steve Blanchflower’s quiet testimony — a list of people he wanted to subpoena and why — told a tale of small-town heavy tactics, and everyday gangsterism that laid the story bare. Though by agreement governor Sarah Palin had been excluded from the subpoena list, it extended to everyone around her, all her staff and her husband Todd.
Most of this was expected by the local press who have been on the thing for months, and it was only at the end that there was an intake of breath when Blanchflower told the committee that he had been contacted by a whistleblower — an insurance agent — who had been heavied to deny Wooton’s insurance compensation claim (you still following — there will be an exam), and had refused. The call, she claimed, came from the governor’s office.
That revelation sent the whole thing spinning, because no-one had known about it, not even the Democrats pushing hard for the inquiry to be concluded before the elections date. If true, it’s evidence of a more forthright process of intimidation that had previously been suspected. If true – and Blanchflower’s report will hit the public prints on October 10th, three weeks before the election — it may well paint Palin and those around her as vindictive, petty powerjunkies, Northern Exposure nixonians.
That this may be the result is looking more likely, as further reports emerge of what exactly the Palin reign involved in both Wasilla and the state as a whole. The NY Times, in particular, has managed to get half the town on record, giving a picture of Palin as someone who has filled state offices with un- or barely-qualified cronies, most of them former high-school classmates.
Todd Palin appears to be heavily involved with the actual exercise of power, calling legislators to heavy them about hiring ‘enemies’ of Palin, there’s accusations of use of the governors’ office for party business, the use of personal email addresses because ‘they couldn’t be subpoened’, the attempted intimidation of critical bloggers and on it goes.
Quite possibly some of it is tittle-tattle of disgruntled rivals, and the usual small-town crap, but there’s a lot of it, and a lot of actual evidence, including emails gained from FOI requests. If Glaciergate finds direct evidence of criminal abuse of power, then it will all be thrown in together, and Palin’s image will change from that of local heroine to village dictator.
Indeed, the gloss is already starting to come off just a little. The moment currently being replayed around the traps is her stumble on the question of whether or not she agreed with ‘the Bush doctrine’. Given that everyone, not least Bush, has been trying to work that out for five years, it wasn’t a huge thing of itself, but the manner in which Palin stumbled — suggesting the whole interview was a crammed exam — would have focussed many who saw it on the real proposition of a President Palin.
News that she not only had eagerly sought congressional ‘earmark’ funding, but that John McCain, in his anti-earmark campaign, had singled some of them out for ridicule in 2001, sent the Republicans into an “up is down” process of barefaced with lying, with McCain himself attempting to stonewall all such accusations during his appearance on The View — an all female morning programme featuring Whoopi Goldberg and Barbara Walters among other, forty minutes which must have had McCain longing for a concrete cell in Hanoi.
In response, the right has ramped up the culture war thing about any inquiry into Palin being some sort of elitist assault on blah blah blah.* The Fox News report on the Glaciergate subpoena hearings were a classic of this malarkey, constructing it as a Democrat shakedown, and failing to mention — when all the dust settled — that the subpoenas had been ordered on the vote of a Republican senator, one Charlie Huggins, the camoflage dude, who stilled the room by observing that he had been called in from moose hunting for all of this (yeah, they really talk like that – Northern Exposure, by my estimation, was a studied understatement of this place) and that he wanted this resolved because he thought of “Walt Moneghen’s ninety-year-old mother Betty, and you know I have looked Betty in the eye….”) and on we go. The House committee voted separately, and all four Republicans voted for the subpoenas.
After that, everyone adjourned to the “Fletcher Christian” bar of the Captain Cook Hotel — yes, he discovered this joint too — a huge old poo brown behemoth with toffee wood-panelled interiors which felt like 1976, and watched the Chivas flow as the Anchorites (?) went hell for leather to burn through their PFD cash. “Rumours that some energy rebate may be spent on energy bills” the paper had noted drily that morning. Ha ha, not in the Fletcher Christian bar.
Everything comes from the oil royalties and federal grants. In thirty years, Alaska has amassed thirty five billion in dividend funds — Norway in the same period has raised four hundred billion, and earned a bunch more from reinvesting it. Meanwhile, the state has become an advertisment for public squalor, with just about the worst state stats on every social indicator from health to literacy, the result of chronic social underinvestment. Palin came late to that process, but she ramped it up to a higher degree — and has made what she’s done a symbol of good Republican governance.
What? Oh yeah, of course John McCain is the presidential candidate. But look, not even Republicans give a rat’s. The moment Palin left his side his audience numbers went through the floor, and the demographic shifted back to the God’s waiting room end of things. By the time she rejoins him this week in Carson City — looks like they may be on the road together permanently — her image will have begun to shift.
“Man are you a reporter?” said a pale guy in a tracksuit and Russian hitman shave job, to the network field producer next to me. “I’ve got a Palin story”. The producer sighed and flipped his notebook, and drew angry crosses as the white Russian described an unsatisfactorily-ruled-upon petty claims court fandango, and governor Palin’s unaccountable refusal to overrule the Alaska Supreme Court.
Out the window, before a roiling grey sky, Alaskan ravens — black turquoise and white, pure shots of colour and grace — were alighting on the totem outside City Hall, which depicts a raven God bringing the moon and stars to earth. “This is nothing” said an anchor in disgust, enviously eyeing the hurricane Ike coverage on the TV, which was successive reporters in ponchos screaming about getting rained on, pointless weather squirt p-rn, “Palin didn’t even need a reason to fire Wooton — there’s no unfair dismissal law for state employees in Alaska.”
“So why’s she stonewalling the investigation now?”
“It’s always the coveru-”
“don’t say it Steve”
“Steve swear to God, I’ll-”
“Hey four more of these please.”
Who knows? Glaciergate may yet be a mere stoush in the Fletcher Christian bar, or the heavens may fall. Come the snows of October we will find out.
*Mind you, some of the commentary has been pretty snobbish. The Anchorage Daily News rounded up some of the descriptions of Wasilla, and was particularly irritated by the portrayal of the town as “a small unkempt-looking place, defined by a series of out-of-town stores, a huge lumber yard, a ramshackle bar named the Mug Shot saloon with Harley Davidsons parked outside…”, by a paper named The Australian. Anyone know anything about this smarmy inner-city feuilleton?