InThe Lies of Sarah Palin, Geoffrey Dunn provides the first full-scale and in-depth political biography of the controversial Republican vice-presidential candidate and former governor of Alaska.
Based on more than two-hundred interviews---many of them with Republican colleagues and one-time political allies of Palin's---and more than forty-thousand pages of uncovered documents, Dunn chronicles Palin's troubling penchant for duplicity in grim detail, from her dysfunctional childhood in Wasilla through her contentious run for mayor and her failed governorship of Alaska. He also provides the shocking inside story of her betrayal of running mate John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign and her self-serving resignation as governor in July of the following year. Dunn deftly places Palin in the American tradition of right-wing demagogues---from Huey Long to Joe McCarthy---and details her troubling obsession with Barack Obama as it fuels her own political ambitions and a potential run for the presidency in 2012.
The Lies of Sarah Palin is a journalistic tour de force that vividly reveals the Queen of the Tea Party movement as a vengeful and manipulative empress without clothes. This is the definitive book on Sarah Palin.
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St. Martin's Press
May 01, 2011
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Excerpt from The Lies of Sarah Palin by Geoffrey Dunn
All I ever needed to know I learned on the basketball court.
--Sarah Palin, Anchorage Daily News
Palin seems to have assumed her election was instead a coronation. Welcome to Kingdom Palin, the land of no accountability.
--Editorial, Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman
With Sarah, do you get the feeling that in high school she was voted Least Likely to Write a Book and Most Likely to Burn One?
--Robin Williams, Late Show with David Letterman
THE MATANUSKA AND SUSITNA valleys spread across the interior of southwest Alaska like a partially open Japanese fan, at a nearly 90 degree angle from one another. Both are formed by imposing mountain ranges along with the majestic Alaska Range the Talkeetna and Chugach, which sweeps northeast across central Alaska into the Yukon. "Young, soaring, vivid in form, tremendous in reach," the novelist James Michener would write, "these peaks stab the frosty air to heights of twelve and thirteen, nineteen and twenty thousand feet. Denali, the glory of Alaska, soars to more than twenty thousand and is one of the most compelling mountains in the Americas."
Outsiders often refer to the region as the Mat-Su Valley, but longtime Alaskans, or Sourdoughs as they are called, more commonly refer to it as simply the Mat-Su or the Valley. It could be argued that in recent years the Mat-Su has become as much a cultural reference as it is a geographic index. Indeed, there's a certain weight attached to the term that transcends place. It was to the Matanuska Valley, in the early 1970s, that Chuck and Sally Heath would bring their brood of four young children--Chuck Jr., Heather, Sarah, and Molly--to the close-knit community of Wasilla, located roughly forty-five miles down the George Parks and Glenn highways from downtown Anchorage. In the 1970s, it was a full hour's drive, even in the best of conditions. Today it is little more than a forty-minute cruise along what is largely a three-lane highway in each direction, albeit with moose crossings and vistas that still take one's breath away.
It is apparently one of American history's great secrets--it certainly finds no mention in Sarah Palin's personal memoir or in any of the varied tracts about her life--that the Matanuska Valley served as one of the great social experiments of liberal economic policy during the dark days of the Great Depression. In 1935, as part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal response to the collapse of global capitalism, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Department of the Interior relocated more than two hundred families from the rural poverty of the Great Lakes region--primarily Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan--to start an agricultural collective in the fertile Matanuska Valley. There, the short but intensive summer growing season produced remarkable yields of vegetables that grew to massive size during the twenty hours a day of summer sunlight. The Matanuska Colony, as it was called, established the region around Wasilla and Palmer as an agricultural stronghold in Alaska and provided the economic foundation for southwest Alaska's growth spurt following the Second World War.
Many of the region's prominent families--including that of Oscar and Elvi Kerttula, whose son Jalmar "Jay" Kerttula would serve as an Alaska legislator for three decades and whose granddaughter Elizabeth "Beth" Kerttula currently serves as minority leader in the Alaska House of Representatives--were members of the original settlement. The families were selected because of their ability to endure long winters and to farm in challenging conditions. It was a hardy lot and a select group. The New Deal guidelines suggest that they were looking for resourceful families with a multitude of skills:
As far as possible, families should be selected first on their farming ability and secondly, those who may have secondary skills and who may adjust themselves to a diversified farming activity and can assist with carpentry on their homes and then those who may know something about machinery and blacksmithing and who have leadership qualities.
More than 90 percent of the families had young children, and the vast majority were of Scandinavian ancestry. They spent their first summer in tent homes and forged a living from the land. It was from this collective--this bastion of federal and liberal economic orthodoxy--that Sarah Palin would receive many of her peculiar speech patterns and "Midwest" accent, though she absorbed little of the political vernacular that created it in the first place.
As a result of its New Deal roots, the Matanuska and Susitna valleys were Democratic Party strongholds well into the 1970s. But with the coming of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, the construction of which began in 1974 and was completed three years later, there was a new wave of immigration to Alaska from the Southern Bible Belt (Texas and Louisiana, all the way to Florida), and in a matter of a few years Alaska underwent a social, political, and economic transformation of grand proportions. By the end of the decade, historian Stephen Haycox noted with no small alarm, "Alaskans inexorably became wedded to the oil industry." This second wave of migration, as author Nick Jans observed, transformed the region "from a free-thinking, independent bastion of genuine libertarianism and individuality into a reactionary fundamentalist enclave with dollar signs in its eyes and an all-for-me mentality."
It was in this cauldron of conservative transformation that Sarah Palin came of age and in which many of the myths surrounding her life and political career were first forged--many of them half-truths and others outright lies that continue to prosper to this day. From the distance of the Lower 48, they have taken on the quality of a fairy tale. In fact, it is a dark story, often painful, with cover-up after cover-up, lie upon lie, and with a highway full of victims--stretching from Wasilla to Juneau--who have been tossed under Palin's proverbial bus.
* * *
SPEND ANY TIME IN THE MAT-SU talking to those who grew up in the proximity of the Heath family, and you will hear one thing with no small amount of consistency: Sarah Heath may have received her religious convictions and apocalyptic worldview from her mother, but she is very much her father's daughter--a product of his ego, drive, hardheadedness, and darkness.
Charles R. "Chuck" Heath was born in March of 1938, at the time the Matanuska Colony was in its infancy, though he in a more welcoming valley, the San Fernando, north of Los Angeles, when it was still an agricultural haven of citrus trees and vegetable farms. The family lived on Farmdale Avenue, near the base of Laurel Canyon, close to where Studio City is located today. Heath's mother, the former Nellie "Marie" Brandt, a descendant of a Mayflower family, was a devout Christian Scientist, the Christian sect founded by Mary Baker Eddy in the 1860s. She was also a schoolteacher in North Hollywood and later in Sandpoint. His father, known as Charlie, was an itinerant sports photographer in the Los Angeles and Hollywood of Nathanael West and John Fante. During the 1920s, Charlie Heath served as the "official photographer" for James Jeffries, boxing's so-called Great White Hope, who lost a celebrated championship bout to the great African American heavyweight Jack Johnson in 1910 and then retired to an alfalfa farm in Burbank, not far from Heath's studio. There is no record of Charlie Heath having served in World War II, though he was clearly of that age, and after the war, in 1948, when young Chuck was ten, he whisked his family to the Idaho panhandle.
One of Chuck Heath's claims to fame is that he was a high school teammate of legendary Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Jerry Kramer, who played for the immortal coach Vince Lombardi (after whom the Super Bowl trophy is named). Heath was a four-sport star in high school, including track, and is a member of Sandpoint High's Athletic Hall of Fame. Sports clearly provided an outlet for the teenage Heath, one that would shape and define his life, but also an escape from the drama at home. It was during his teen years that Heath essentially ran away from his family and moved into the home of Dorothy and Gordon Mooney. An obituary for Dorothy Mooney that appeared in the Spokane Spokesman-Review on February 11, 1992, listed her survivors as including "an adopted son, Chuck Heath of Wasilla." Palin did her best in Going Rogue to explain away the informal "adoption," but she did acknowledge the scars, noting that her father rarely discussed his childhood and that "his parents' acceptance of pain must have translated beyond the physical." She added that her father's childhood appeared to her as "painful and lonely."
Palin has painted an idyllic portrait of her early childhood in Wasilla in Going Rogue and other biographical accounts of the Heath household, but those growing up with her in the Mat-Su say that the narrative serves as a cover for what was a very overbearing hand by her father. Chuck Heath served as a science teacher at the local junior high school but also as his children's track coach at Wasilla High. Palin hints at her own scars left by Chuck Heath. Having her father as a coach, she noted, resulted in "extra scrutiny and pressure." She acknowledges experiencing "a jealous twinge" and "even hurt" when he seemed to favor some of her teammates or show them affection rather than her to counteract any sense of preferential treatment. Instead, he issued her "the proverbial slug in the arm" and urged her to "work harder."
Those who ran under Coach Heath in high school present a spectrum of views on his temperament. All considered him "tough" and "demanding," but a classmate of Sarah's who knew the family since elementary school said that while Heath was "very competitive," she "never saw anything mean in his treatment of Sarah," though her mother felt that he "treated Chuck [Jr.] horribly," and that he "pushed" Sarah to play sports. But another childhood friend, Yvonne Bashelier, from a longtime Alaska family, who also was a teammate of Sarah's at Wasilla High, described Chuck Heath as an overbearing and dysfunctional coach who heaped far too much attention on her, often bringing her to the point of tears. "He drove me nuts," she says. Her own father, she acknowledges, treated her similarly. "I never had any control over my life between my dad and Chuck," she asserts. "I imagine Sarah got it even worse than me. Sarah's dad drilled into her head from a very young age--never give up and never lose."
Bashelier, who was a star sprinter and an all-regional volleyball player, says that Chuck Heath's obsession with winning led him to prevent her from transferring to a high school in Anchorage, from which she would have been far more likely to obtain a college scholarship. "Winning meant everything to him," Bashelier recalls, to the point of Heath making her work out, even when she "was running a high fever and sick as a dog." She says he pushed his daughter mercilessly. "Sarah can't lose," Bashelier contends. "That is her worst fear in life, and that is what her father not only did to her, but me also. Sarah's gone to a dark hole inside herself and I think every move she makes, she hears her father in the background, yelling at her, pushing her, and pushing her. I know it, I lived with it for several years, seen it, touched it, breathed it."
Bashelier, who suffered from epilepsy in childhood and adolescence, tells a startling story about how Chuck Heath visited her once at the hospital after she had nearly died from seizures and had been in a coma for close to two weeks. "When he came to me in the hospital, he noticed that I had lost a lot of weight," she recalls, "and I remember him telling me it would be great for my performance in track if I could 'keep the weight off.'" Bashelier was shaken by the remark. "What a bizarre thing to say to a sick person who almost died."
Bashelier says that Chuck Heath's overbearing ways not only had a significant impact on her adolescent psyche--she says that Heath and her father placed so much stress on her around sports that "she became severely depressed"--but it also had a profound impact on her family. According to Bashelier, her younger sister, also a fine athlete, became so distraught by pressures from both Chuck Heath and her father to participate in sports and perform well, that at age fourteen, she began skipping practices to avoid Heath and eventually ran away from home to get away from the demands that he and others were placing on her.
For Sarah, Bashelier says, there was no such escape from Chuck Heath's overbearing personality. "I actually feel like out of all his kids he destroyed her the most," she says. "I feel as if Sarah internalized what her father did to her, made her a machine who speaks with canned language." She recalls returning home to a funeral at which Sarah, then mayor, delivered a eulogy. "It really affected me," she recalls. "She showed no emotion, not one tear. I couldn't see any emotion in her at all ... Chuck Heath was there, too. He was also emotionless. Is that a sign of strength?"
In the early days of his daughter's brush with national celebrity, it was Chuck Heath who always provided the most critical and revealing portraits of his daughter. In an interview with Emily Smith of the British tabloid The Sun, Heath described his daughter as "very stubborn. I wasn't mean to her but I taught her discipline. But I could seldom bend her if she'd made her mind up on something." In several accounts, young Sarah Heath's "refusal to bend" is dated back to the time she was two years old. "Sarah was always very determined," Chuck said. "Whatever she lacked in skill she always made up in determination." There are many who say that Sarah Palin's refusal to acknowledge errors, even in the face of overriding evidence--her refusal and her inability to back down--stems from her childhood relationship with her father. As the third child, young Sarah sought her father's approval on her own terms. Heath's good friend, the late Curtis Menard, Sr., said, "When children are a way down in the pack, they often want to excel, show they can move forward and get into Dad's favor--especially girls. On reflection, I think there was some of that going on with Sarah."
Chuck Heath told Palin biographer Lorenzo Benet that Sarah actually boxed with neighborhood kids when she was young. "She was a tough little girl," he said with no small amount of pride. But once again he returned to her stubbornness. "From an early age, she thought she was always right," he observed, before adding the caveat, "and she usually was." And then he added perhaps the most revealing comment about Palin's childhood: "If I needed something done, I could bend the other kids one way or another, but Sarah was strong-willed, and it was hard to change her mind. That's still her." In between teaching her to hunt, fish, and to field dress game, Heath taught Sarah what he could about the ways of the natural world. But of his four children, his third daughter was clearly his challenge.
When another British journalist, Christine Toomey from The Sunday Times Magazine, showed up in Wasilla at the Heaths' doorstep, the first thing Chuck Heath asked her repeatedly was: "What are you famous for?" It was a mantra that took on something of a challenge. "Sarah got a lot of stern discipline from me," he acknowledged, "and a lot of love, devotion, and faith from her mom. I wasn't mean to her [a phrase he used a second time], but I'd push her a lot in sports and outdoor activities. I taught her to believe she could do anything in the world she wanted to do if she put her mind to it."
* * *
THE CHILDHOOD PORTRAIT of Sarah Heath has become something of a fable, a political fiction in its own right, an unchallenged gloss of nuclear family values--Father Knows Best meets Lassie in the Last Frontier. Like many such narratives, it smooths over troubling bumps in the road and completely omits darker elements and passages that don't shine a uniform white light on its protagonist. It is in one of those narrative omissions from Sarah Palin's eighth grade year at Wasilla Junior High in which she revealed many of the tendencies and psychological patterns that would manifest themselves over and over again in her lifetime and throughout her political career.
Palin has been cast as Wasilla's favorite daughter, but in fact, when the Heaths first arrived in the Mat-Su in the early 1970s, when Sarah was in second grade, they were viewed as "outsiders" to those who had been born and raised in the valley and whose lives had been carved out in the close-knit pockets of southwest Alaska. Like all her siblings, Sarah Heath had to navigate her way through the challenging web of childhood networks and friendships. By eighth grade, Sarah had established herself as a determined, if not gifted, athlete, and a good, if not outstanding, student. Her religious beliefs were solidly formed, and even at an early age she was not afraid to proselytize. One close friend says that by then if you weren't part of her religious circle, then well, you weren't part of her social circle at all. "She was very prissy," says another classmate from Wasilla. "Very uptight. She had her way of seeing the world and it was the only way. There was no give and take with Sarah. None ever."
There was a close--and closed--circle of friends with whom Sarah Heath bonded, mostly girls, but she had a special friendship with her classmate and family friend, Curtis Menard, Jr. Tall, blond, bright, and handsome, Menard was widely liked by his classmates. By most accounts of those close to her in Wasilla, Sarah had a serious emotional attachment to Menard, an adolescent crush that bordered on an obsession. In her book, Palin says she viewed him as a "brother," while another friend agreed that it was platonic but "very possessive."
As she readied for her eighth grade year, Sarah Heath's world was about to grow bleak. A new girl had arrived in Wasilla, from Hawaii no less, very much Menard's feminine counterpart, in the form of Cheryl Welch--tall, tan, bright, a solid athlete with beach-girl good looks. She came from a broken home, her family had moved around a lot, and her eighth grade move actually reflected a return to Alaska, as she had attended sixth grade at Ptarmigan Elementary School in Anchorage. She loved the outdoors and spent a lot of time on the Big Island of Hawaii in the warm ocean water, swimming, body surfing, and snorkeling. She was in great shape from her time in the ocean and her skin was a dark bronze from the tropical sun.
When Welch returned to Alaska early in the summer of 1977, she was shocked by "how white everyone seemed" in the Mat-Su, how "unnaturally pale." Although with sun-bleached blond hair no one mistook her for an Alaska Native, she was actually darker than many of the Native kids her age. Her stepfather, Bob Sowash, a successful contractor in Anchorage and also a renowned innovator in shotgun munitions, had purchased a homestead outside Wasilla on the Little Susitna River. The property had a rustic cabin on it into which the family moved for the summer--it only had an outhouse with no indoor toilet--and Sowash immediately went to work, with the help of some cousins, building a custom A-frame home. Welch took baths in the Little Su running by her house, a pristine if freezing stream fed by the Mint Glacier and snowmelt in the Talkeetna Mountains.
Eighth grade can be a tough time for girls, and Welch knew it wasn't going to be easy fitting in, but she also knew her way around being the new kid in school. "I didn't make friends real quickly," she says. "I remember that. I was used to walking into a situation where everybody knew everybody and I knew from my past that it took a while. If you were needy and wanted to break in or needed to break in, then you were really going to suffer. You were never going to make friends."
Welch says she "just did my own thing" for a few weeks, pretty much keeping to herself. Then one day in PE class, early into the school year, one of her classmates approached her while they were running laps. She had noticed him in the first two weeks of school, nothing more, but he was tall, friendly, good-looking, and confident for his age. In that awkward time of adolescence, he seemed different. He asked her "to go with him," and Welch immediately said no. "I just thought it was a little too forward, and 'how do you even know me?' kind of thing. And so I said no."
The incident had shaken Welch out of her new-kid-on-the-block nonchalance.
And as often happens in young-teen circles, the encounter did not go unnoticed by her peers. When she returned to the locker room, several girls from a particular clique confronted her about what Menard had said to her. Her locker was directly opposite that of a short intense girl with cropped brown hair and thick glasses who hadn't been the slightest bit friendly to her since she arrived. "What did Curtis Menard ask you?" they queried.
"I said, 'Oh, is that his name?'" Welch responded, trying to be dismissive. "I really didn't know who he was." But the air was riddled with drama, bordering on confrontation. Welch remained casual. "I said he wanted me to go with him." There was a gasp and then dead silence. And then the short girl with the glasses burst out sobbing. It was Sarah Heath. As a way to diffuse the situation, Welch said she made it clear: "I said no, and I kept repeating, 'I said no! I told him no!'" But her response made little difference. "I remember the whole energy of the place changing, and everybody kind of holding still.... And just the sob that burst out of Sarah. And she was totally distraught, slamming her locker, she was forever slamming stuff and carrying on. Everybody was, 'Oh, Sarah, Sarah'--her clique kind of huddled around her, and they just whisked her out, and I was just standing there--and everyone's looking at me, like, 'Oh, way to go. You know, she's been in love with him since second grade. She wants to marry him. Their parents want them to...'"
Welch suddenly felt like the outsider again. Sarah Heath stared straight at her. She was crushed. Welch threw up her hands. "I said no!" she reiterated. "I told him no. I don't even know who he is." Nothing mattered. It was almost as if Welch had shattered something that was sacred.
That incident--and the social ostracism that ensued--would mark Cheryl Welch for the rest of her days in Wasilla and carry with it painful memories. She wrote about it in her diary and kept written tabs of what Sarah Heath did to her throughout the school year. From that point on, she was ostracized by Palin and her crowd. Eventually, Welch decided that if she was going to be marginalized by the "in crowd," particularly the girls in Sarah Heath's "coterie," as she called it, she might as well take the plunge with Curtis Menard. "So I think part of my rethinking Curtis was at least I'd have one friend." She used an intermediary to approach Menard--J. C. "Bones" McCavit, Menard's best friend (and who, ironically, would become a close friend and basketball teammate of Todd Palin's at Wasilla High three years later)--and told him that she was ready to go out with Curtis. For most of the rest of the school year, with one short break, they were an eighth-grade couple, hanging out when they could, holding hands, and making out when the opportunity presented itself.
A gifted student, Welch was also a star athlete, and so in addition to pairing up with Menard, Welch was a threat to Sarah Heath in the classroom and on the playing field. It was far from pleasant. There was always tension. "She didn't want to talk to me," Welch says. "She didn't want to be friends--you know, I got that right off and she made it pretty clear. And when I went out for the basketball team it was the same sort of animosity there."
On the basketball court, Sarah Heath took her aggressions out on Welch. "She was just physically so difficult to deal with, because she would just come at the ball no matter what, flying elbows and throwing herself at me," Welch says. "And they're not calling fouls in practice, so I just had to assert myself and say 'Back off!' It was clear she had it out for me." The intensity never eased up and lasted throughout the year. "Oh, God! She was just terrible. I don't know what--she was just a baby, is what I always used to think. You know, if we lost, she cried.... I just remember her always being just mad, just that hot, angry-tears-mad. And she would pout. She would stomp off. She was, like, smoldering."
Welch's memory of Palin on the basketball court prefigured Palin's high school career where she was known for her aggression:
She was just scrappy as hell. You know, she'd just get in there and mix it up. And in games she would foul out. She didn't have a governor on herself. It was just, go-go-go-go--it was not too balanced, always in high gear. It was like she wanted what she wanted so badly, she didn't stop to strategize. It was just go for it and keep going for it, and then she'd foul out, you know? I'd think, "That did us a lot of good."
Welch remembered one particular incident that always stuck with her. The Wasilla Braves' opponents had to forfeit a game because they couldn't field enough players, which meant a victory for Wasilla. Welch was disappointed that they didn't play the game, but Sarah Heath, Welch remembers, was "thrilled because we won. And I just remember thinking, I would rather play. But to her it seemed like the victory was enough. And I just remember thinking, that's weird. We're here to play basketball--it's more fun to play than to just be handed a victory. But she seemed plenty happy with that."
Welch never cracked any of the other cliques at the junior high either. She made a few close friends--some of whom she's still in touch with--and learned to make her own way. "I had no interest in those people [that were close to Sarah]," she says. What Welch found odd was how loyal this small group of friends was to her, that Sarah Heath played the role of the queen bee even in adolescence. "If she was mad, then they all ran off after her. That's how they were. They just watched her for signs that she was upset or mad--and it seemed like she was always upset and she would run away. It's like, well, there goes Sarah crying again. Constant drama."
Yvonne Bashelier, who was friends with Welch but who also remained on the periphery of Palin's inner circle, recalls the tension between Welch and Palin during their eighth grade year. Sarah, said Bashelier, usually manipulated people "in a quiet way" and rarely confronted anyone directly. "She had a way of getting people to do things for her," Bashelier said. "If she didn't like you, she would never say that to your face; you would find out by the way she ignored you and her friends ignored you, by not letting you into the group." But with Welch it was another matter. Bashelier confirms that Palin went "crazy with jealousy" and made nasty remarks about Welch to her friends. In particular, she remembers a long basketball road trip during which Welch and Curtis Menard were getting affectionate on the team bus. "I thought Sarah was going to explode," Bashelier recalled. "She was pissed off and making nasty remarks about how Cheryl was a slut."
It added no small amount of insult to Sarah Heath's injury that Welch was chosen to give the commencement speech at her eighth grade graduation ceremony, a selection based on her leadership skills and academic performance. Welch has a large collection of photos she took at the graduation party held at Pizza Napoletana in Wasilla--one with Menard, McCavit, and their friend Dan Fleckenstein, hamming it up with big smiles--while another with a bespeckled Sarah Heath, off to the side, looking not so much at Welch taking the photo, as beyond her, without acknowledgment, expressionless.
Welch remembers one further incident in which Sarah Heath figured directly that year. Somehow, one of the notes between Menard and Welch was intercepted and it got back to Sarah. Menard and Welch referred to each other as "3.95," in reference to their grade point average. "Sarah was furious about that," Welch recalls. "Jealousy and anger, all right at the surface--stomping, storming, stewing, pouting. She was never, ever bold enough to do anything directly confrontational. She ran to her friends, and hid out. In the end, I felt sorry for her."
* * *
WELCH'S FAMILY LEFT WASILLA FOR CALIFORNIA THE following year, where Welch became a star athlete at Saratoga High School in Silicon Valley. Palin took her elbows-and-hustle game with her into Wasilla High, where her ambition and determination on the basketball court defined her high school persona and identity. Palin would later market herself as a "hockey mom," but her high school basketball career would become a central component of her carefully constructed political brand and narrative. "All I ever needed to know, I learned on the basketball court," she has said repeatedly, including in her memoir. "I know this sounds hokey, but basketball was a life-changing experience for me," she told Alaska writer Tom Kizzia during her 2006 gubernatorial campaign. "It's all about setting a goal, about discipline, teamwork, and then success." When he first began promoting her as a GOP vice presidential nominee early in the summer of 2008, Palin's neoconservative inamorata Bill Kristol, who had visited her in Alaska the previous year, would glowingly champion Palin's abilities on the hardwoods. "You know, she was the point guard on the Alaska state championship high school basketball team in 1982," he declared with no small amount of hyperbole. "She could take Obama one-on-one on the court."
That Palin was a direct beneficiary of Title IX, the federal legislation that outlawed gender discrimination in all institutions that received federal funding, goes without saying. She herself acknowledged as much in Going Rogue, declaring that she was "a product" of Title IX and that she was "proud" of the role Alaska Senator Ted Stevens played in facilitating the legislation. While Palin doesn't acknowledge that she would later betray Stevens on several occasions in her political career, she trumpets Stevens's role as a way of distancing herself from the "radical mantras" of feminism and the women's movement that played a definitive role in seeing the legislation through Congress. She quotes admiringly from fellow Alaskan athlete Jessica Gavora's book, Tilting the Playing Field, who declared that "Instead of reflecting, and, indeed, reveling in our expanded horizons, the feminism of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other so-called 'women's groups'... depicts women as passive victims rather than makers of their own destinies, and overlooks our individuality in favor of our collective political identity that many of us find restrictive."
Title IX, now known officially as the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act (named after the Democratic Party congresswoman from Hawaii who was the principal author of the legislation), was, in fact, a direct product of both legal and political efforts advanced by not only NOW but other feminist organizations, including the Women Equity Action League--and the gender-based equal opportunity clause of the legislation has been consistently attacked by conservative Republicans in Congress over the four decades since its implementation.
If Palin would later distort the role of the progressive women's movement in establishing Title IX, she would also distort her high school basketball career as well. In Going Rogue, she declared in an awkwardly worded passage that she had played basketball during high school, "my name next to number 22 on the varsity roster all four years." My name next to number 22 on the varsity roster?Technically it was true. All Wasilla athletes who were ever listed on the varsity roster (if only once in a season) according to one of Palin's classmates, were awarded their varsity letters. In fact, the top point guard at Wasilla High during Palin's era in high school and who played ahead of Palin was her sister Heather, who is considered by those who played with both to be the far superior ball handler and playmaker of the two. "Heather was a team player," says one, "very talented and very focused. Sarah was not."
Palin claims she "rode the bench" on varsity her first three seasons, but according to several of her schoolmates, she was actually forced down to the JV squad for most of her first three years in high school, including her junior year, much to her dismay. Her former teammates claim she put considerable pressure on the assistant coach, Cordell Randall, into persuading head coach Don Teeguarden to bring her up to the varsity. "She was bitter and even angry about it," says one of her former teammates. "And she let everyone know it, including Teeguarden. She played angry all season." Her younger sister, Molly, then a freshman, also played on the JV team. "She was so upset with me," Randall told Palin biographer Kaylene Johnson. "I'm sure it was humiliating to play down."
When Heather Heath graduated in the spring of 1981, Palin finally moved up to the varsity her entire senior year. She was named one of three senior co-captains of the team, although there were many who still considered her play uneven. "I'd see her out on the court sometimes," says longtime Wasilla resident Nick Carney, whose niece, Michelle, was a talented teammate of Palin's and who himself would figure prominently in Palin's political career in the years ahead, "and I couldn't help but wonder why she was getting so much playing time." Carney, from a well-known Catholic family in Wasilla, was a lifelong basketball aficionado. He had played on a small-school state championship team for Wasilla High in 1959 and had refereed basketball games throughout southwest Alaska for nearly two decades. "I thought there were other girls on the team who were clearly better ballplayers," says Carney. "I just didn't understand why she was in there."
One parent of a prominent Wasilla High School athlete says point-blank, "There was an Assembly of God clique on all the sports teams, but especially in basketball. If you weren't part of the church you did not get the playing time that others did, especially if you were a marginal or average player. It wasn't a balanced playing field. There was clearly a lot of favoritism, and once Heather graduated, Sarah was the recipient of that favoritism." Several parents of non-Assembly of God athletes in Wasilla spoke openly of this preferential treatment. "It was blatant," said one, "but there was little we could do about it. Our kids were afraid for us to rock the boat."
Even a top-notch athlete like Yvonne Bashelier says she was victimized by the religious ostracism in high school sports. She says she was kept on the periphery of the in group, of which Sarah was the "darling." "Before every basketball game we had to pray," Bashelier recalls. "Everyone would gather in the locker room, hold hands, and usually Sarah would lead the prayer. It was like a cult to me, but I knew if I didn't go along, I would be ousted from my community."
Bashelier says that her Assembly of God teammates encouraged her to attend a healing at the church, to which she went, in the hopes that her epileptic seizures would go away. "So they started talking in tongues and laying hands," Bashelier recalls. "I've never been so scared. People were passing out on the floor. It was a huge church, and every seat was full of everybody I knew. I felt embarrassed." When Bashelier's seizures continued, she says, "I asked the in group why, and they told me I didn't have enough faith. I felt like it was all my fault because I didn't have enough faith. After that, I felt guilty every time I had a seizure at school."
Bashelier, a member of the graduating class of 1982 like Sarah Heath, said that Sarah was at the center of the Assembly of God athletes at Wasilla High. "She had a silent but known princess attitude about herself," Bashelier asserts. "She could be very condescending and quick with the tongue, snide--behind your back, or to her friends, but rarely to your face." These qualities, according to Bashelier, manifested themselves most strongly on the basketball team. "Sarah never really had to compete for anything," Bashelier contends. "If you have your coaches who are also in the tight religious community of which she belonged, you will be favored."
As Bashelier describes it, the favoritism and ostracism were so blatant that the coaches (who were also members of the Assembly of God) would invite players over to their houses for pizza get-togethers and exclude those players who were not members of the church. "A few of my teammates and I were not invited," she relates, continuing,
It would always hurt me when the "chosen ones" would come back to school the next day bragging about their pizza party. How was I supposed to feel? How were the few other basketball players supposed to feel to know they were not invited on purpose? It was like this all through high school--secret pizza parties with the coaches. They didn't even care how this might affect the other players to not be invited. But it raised Sarah's status even more that she was special.... It really was a sick dysfunctional system of who's in and who's not, perpetrated by the coaches and the staff who ran the high school.
Bashelier was injured during basketball season her senior year when Sarah Heath finally played a full season on varsity, but she says that "Sarah was hardly the star." In fact, with two big post players, Wanda Strutko (5'8") and Heyde Kohring (6'2"), starring on the team, the backcourt's job was to get the ball inside--a strategy, according to Lorenzo Benet, that Heath and the other guards "were not thrilled about." Much has been made of Heath hitting a last-minute free throw in the state championship game against Robert Service High of Anchorage, but even the significance of that particular shot has been greatly embellished. Palin biographer Joe Hilley claimed that Heath actually sank two free throws--the first a "swish"--just before the buzzer to win the game. In fact, she was playing on an injured ankle (later identified as a stress fracture) and was forced out of the game for most of the second half because she was getting beat on defense. With Heath on the bench, Strutko and Kohring took control of the contest. Never able to put the team's destiny above her own, Heath was angry again about being pulled from the game. Her coach Teeguarden kept her out until less than a minute to play, with Wasilla holding a relatively secure four-point lead, 57-53. Heath hit the front end of a one-and-one situation with a four-point lead and ten seconds to play (her shot caught the front rim, then hit the backboard and banked in), but then missed the second shot. Heath had all of one point for the game, and only nine in the entire three-game championship series. Newspaper coverage for the game in the Anchorage Times placed the laurels deservedly on Strutko and Kohring, who combined for forty-two points. But Sarah Heath had a state championship and her first taste of statewide acclaim.
Wasilla High alumni estimate that a little more than half of the 1982 championship team belonged to the Assembly of God. And in a small school of roughly three hundred, they contend, as many as sixty Wasilla High students participated in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes program. Sarah Heath co-captained that team as well, which met regularly on school grounds. "None of us ever questioned it at the time, the fact that this was happening at a public school," said one of her teammates. "We just accepted it." Nearly three decades after she graduated from high school, the very idea that such a practice might be problematic irked Palin to no end. In Going Rogue, she sarcastically mocked "ACLU activists" who believed in the separation of church and state as it related to prayer at public schools.