When I walked into the Mug-Shot Saloon in Wasilla, the jukebox was playing "Sweet Home Alabama," and I felt right at home. It was a late night in early September, two days after Sen. Lisa Murkowski conceded the Alaska Republican primary to Tea Party-backed challenger Joe Miller. Two dozen patrons were shooting pool and drinking beer in the roadside saloon and didn't seem much interested in politics, although I didn't bother to ask, nor did I explain what brought me to town when I ordered a Corona with lime.
A few hours earlier, I'd been hanging out with Todd Palin at his family's home on the shore of Lake Lucille. His wife was out of town on a hunting trip for her Sarah Palin's Alaska documentary series on the TLC Network, but with the intercession of friends, I'd managed to score an audience with the "First Dude," as Sarah dubbed him when she was governor. He almost never gives interviews and so our conversation was mainly off-the-record. However, it is safe to say that Sarah Palin's most trusted adviser can discuss Alaska politics with impressive authority and is a tenacious defender of his wife's record as governor.
No purely political motive brought me to Wasilla. Others may obsess over the "will-she-or-won't-she" speculation about Palin's potential plans for a 2012 presidential run. With the midterm elections looming, there were more immediate and urgent concerns, and the success of Palin's endorsements-including her early support of Miller's candidacy in Alaska-had demonstrated her continuing influence within the GOP. My trip to Wasilla was prompted mainly by curiosity about the origins of the mental disorder known as Palin Derangement Syndrome.
Long before she became the subject of international media scrutiny, Palin had become the idée fixe of a clique of home-state enemies, including former Republican state legislator Andrew Halcro; Anchorage "progressive" talk-radio host Shannyn Moore; University of Alaska music professor Phil Munger; and a gadfly Democrat named Jeanne Devon whose "Mudflats" blog became a go-to source for gossip after Palin was picked as John McCain's 2008 running mate. The disgruntlement of certain erstwhile allies also fed into the anti-Palin narratives that developed in the media during the fall 2008 campaign and thereafter.
When I arrived in Wasilla, the big "scoop" was an article in Vanity Fair that pushed anti-Palin journalism so far beyond the limits of fairness and good taste that even liberals felt compelled to denounce it. One pro-Palin source explained to me that such stories have become predictable: "A journalist on assignment to write a hit piece will ring up Shannyn Moore, and she'll put this person in touch with a slate of people who have an obvious axe to grind...or just a tenuous connection to Sarah Palin. We can always tell who the ‘anonymous' sources are."
One reason the Palins have been treated as political oddities is that so many journalists portray Wasilla as a remote wilderness settlement in an exotic territory, filing stories in the manner of anthropologists reporting on the customs of savage tribesmen. Although the population of Wasilla is officially 5,468, the town 40 miles north of Anchorage is a major commercial center in the thriving Matanuska-Susitna ("Mat-Su") Valley, with a population of more than 80,000. Shopping centers and fast-food restaurants line the highway through town and visiting latte aficionados may be surprised to discover that the local coffee shop serves organic fair-trade brew from Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, and Bolivia.
Except for the harsh winters, Sarah Palin's hometown is no more exotic than any other rapidly growing suburb in America. But elite journalists have an instinctive horror of the American heartland-all those Republicans live there!-and so the legend of Wasilla as a primitive frontier outpost has been woven into the major media narrative of anti-Palin mythology.
Getting to hang out with Todd Palin was the kind of career highlight that requires celebration, and so I headed to the Mug-Shot Saloon to enjoy a cold one. It was not until after I'd finished my beer that the realization hit. Indeed, I had scored an exclusive-news that would shock the journalistic elite: Wasilla is America.
The Pulitzer Committee has been notified.