Tracing Palin’s ‘trailblazing’ path

Love her or hate her, there is no doubt that Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin is one of the most fascinating people in politics right now. While she is routinely dismissed by the left, she is still viewed favorably by the conservative wing of the Republican Party — so much so that she will keynote the party’s biggest fundraising dinner in June. And not a single conversation about potential 2012 presidential candidates goes by without several minutes devoted to Palin.

 Lorenzo Benet, an assistant editor at People magazine, tries to capitalize on Palin’s star power in his latest book, Trailblazer: An Intimate Biography of Sarah Palin.

 Being the “only national journalist” who “spent a significant time” (his words) with Palin before Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tapped her as his running mate, Benet seeks to chronicle the broader tale of Palin’s life. He traces her footsteps from her humble beginnings in remote Skagway to Wasilla and then on to the governor’s mansion, interviewing some — not many — people who knew her along the way.

 Unfortunately, though, that “significant time” doesn’t translate into much. Benet does not quote Palin often and relies heavily on other reporting. As a result, very little is revealed that a political junkie wouldn’t have learned during the presidential race.

 The strongest parts of the book come early on, when Benet discusses Palin’s childhood and draws upon interviews with her parents, Chuck and Sally Heath, as well as some of her siblings. In one of the more remote areas of Alaska, Palin developed close ties to her family; it’s also where she developed her values. The reader learns that Palin got her competitiveness — and some say hyper-competitiveness — from her father, who was her drill sergeant-esque track coach in high school.   

“The future governor of Alaska and Republican vice presidential candidate would develop the patience and skill to be a hunter, the faith to accept Jesus as her savior, and the competitiveness and work ethic to lead her basketball team to a state title and also win local beauty pageants,” Benet writes of that early stage of her life.

Benet also provides a nuanced view of Palin’s childhood up through her college experience. The now-attractive governor was an awkward tomboy growing up, more interested in basketball and hunting than makeup and dolls. And that personality rubbed some the wrong way. Cheryl Welch, who was something of an eighth-grade rival of Palin’s, told Benet: “She struck me as too competitive and didn’t strike any balance in her life. What she wanted, she really wanted, and no one was going to tell her no. She acted like she was everyone’s favorite.”

 The competitiveness made her a star in high school, though. Palin led her high school basketball team to a state championship — no small feat for the small town. Her coach recalled Palin’s leadership on the team and her willingness to play through a bum ankle.  It was during that time that Palin met her husband, Todd, who transferred to her high school and is portrayed in the book as the school’s heartthrob.

After high school, Palin would embark on an itinerant college career, attending five colleges in five years. She would eventually land back in Alaska and back with Todd.

 But even with all of his focus on Palin’s values, Benet practically glosses over what was apparently a shotgun wedding. The Palins eloped on Aug. 29, 1988, to the surprise of their parents and friends. Their firstborn, Track, was delivered almost exactly eight months later, on April 20, 1989.

When contacted by The Hill, Bill McAllister, a spokesman for Palin, said only: “I think it’s part of the public record that the governor and her husband eloped.” He declined to comment on the timing of Track’s birth or anything else in the book.

Benet tries to provide a broad look at Palin’s political career, from her first campaign for city council to the presidential campaign trail. But most of the coverage comes from other news reports and some former staffers who compliment Palin’s political skills.

 In the end, the reader comes away with two distinct impressions of the governor. In one sense, Palin is portrayed as genuinely dedicated to her family. Her relationship with her husband appears strong, and both work and sacrifice to make the other’s career work. In that respect, her story is new, revealing and refreshing. Palin shows that a different type of female, one who does not choose to sacrifice her family life and feminine side to adopt a sharklike persona, can be successful in politics.

 But the other side of Palin is summed up by her relationship with Laura Chase. Chase was a former Wasilla Councilwoman who ran Palin’s successful campaign for mayor in 1996. Chase tells Benet that she spent nearly every night with Palin during the race and expected to join her administration. But instead of rewarding her work on the campaign, Palin passed her over.

When asked about the time they spent together, Chase told Benet that she and Palin were talking about her future during that campaign. Chase suggested that Palin could run for governor one day. Palin responded: “I want to be president.”

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