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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The Lies of Sarah Palin
The Untold Story Behind Her Relentless Quest for Power
By Geoffrey Dunn
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2011 Geoffrey Dunn
All rights reserved.
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.
Excerpted from The Lies of Sarah Palin by Geoffrey Dunn. Copyright © 2011 Geoffrey Dunn. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: Political Fictions: The Lies of Sarah Palin 1
Part I Alaska
1 Wasilla 35
2 Juneau 76
Part II America
3 Hail Mary 151
4 Uncivil Discourse 192
5 Rogue 240
Part III Alaska
6 Cold Comfort 281
7 Unraveling 312
Part IV America
8 The Absence of Fact 347
Epilogue: Crosshairs 382
Selected Bibliography 429