I HAD THE PRIVILEGE of living most of my life in a small town,” Sarah Palin told the Republican National Convention. “I was just your average hockey mom.” To John McCain’s supporters, his selection of Alaska’s young, reform-minded governor as his running mate felt like a feminine remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But the media were determined to depict her as something out of Deliverance.
On August 31, two days after Palin joined the ticket, a hometown critic, Anne Kilkenny, sent out what became a widely circulated e-mail that claimed, among other things, that “while Sarah was Mayor of Wasilla she tried to fire our highly respected City Librarian because the Librarian refused to consider removing from the library some books that Sarah wanted removed.”
Two days later, Time magazine repeated the tale, attributing it to John Stein, the incumbent mayor Palin had defeated in 1996:
Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. “She asked the library how she could go about banning books,” he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. “The librarian was aghast.” That woman, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn’t be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving “full support” to the mayor.
The same day, Jessamyn West, a Vermont librarian, posted the Time story to her website, Librarian.net, and added that “Mary Ellen Baker resigned from her library director job in 1999.” A reader of West’s site named Andrew Aucoin then posted “the list of books Palin tried to have banned”—90 of them in all. But another Librarian. net reader traced the list to a website where it appeared under the title “Books Banned at One Time or Another in the United States.”
Not only was the list a fake, but when the Anchorage Daily News investigated the story, it found no evidence that Palin had ever sought to remove books from the library. Back in 1996, Baker (then Mary Ellen Emmons) did tell the Wasilla paper, the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, that Palin asked her, in the Daily News’s words, “about possibly removing objectionable books from the library if the need arose.” Emmons “flatly refused to consider any kind of censorship.”
Kilkenny made an appearance in the Daily News story, quoting Palin as asking Baker at a city council meeting, “What would be your response if I asked you to remove some books from the collection?” Emmons’s response was firm and negative, according to Kilkenny, who acknowledged that Palin did not cite any specific books for removal.
The chairman of the Alaska Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee told the Daily News that there was no evidence in her files of any censorship at the Wasilla library. As for the librarian’s resignation, it appeared to be unrelated to the putative censorship:
Four days before the exchange at the City Council, Emmons got a letter from Palin asking for her resignation. Similar letters went to police chief Irl Stambaugh, public works director Jack Felton and finance director Duane Dvorak.… Palin told the Daily News back then the letters were just a test of loyalty as she took on the mayor’s job, which she’d won from three-term mayor John Stein in a hard-fought election. Stein had hired many of the department heads. Both Emmons and Stambaugh had publicly supported him against Palin. Emmons survived the loyalty test and a second one a few months later. She resigned in August 1999, two months before Palin was voted in for a second mayoral term.
The story had been so thoroughly debunked by September 11–12, when Palin sat for a series of interviews with ABC News’s Charlie Gibson, that Gibson lobbed a softball:
Gibson: There’s a lot on the Internet about a conversation you did or did not have with a librarian about banning books. Want to clear up what’s on the Internet?
Palin: I never banned a book, never desired to ban a book.…It kind of cracked me up seeing the list of books that I supposedly banned—one of them was Harry Potter! It wasn’t even written or published then.
But Gibson repeated another falsehood, as the ABC transcript shows:
Gibson: You said recently, in your old church, “Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God.” Are we fighting a holy war?
Palin: You know, I don’t know if that was my exact quote.
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