Parsing the NY Times on Palin

We've all heard about the army of reporters and flotilla of lawyers that Obama’s campaign and its supporters in the media have rounded up and sent to Alaska to dig up dirt on Sarah Palin and her family. So far the pickings have been pretty slim. Todd Palin, now Sarah’s husband, was cited for DUI in 1986. (As a friend wrote me: “What, only once? What a wimp.”)  Sarah herself made sure that her former brother-in-law, a state trooper who tasered her 10-year-old nephew and threatened to kill her father, was fired, and she performed the same courtesy for Alaska’s public safety commissioner when he refused to cashier the rogue trooper.  What,  pray tell, would you have done?

But now we have the spectacle of the mighty New York Times in full investigative mode. Maureen Dowd is tramping around in Alaska, animadverting in situ about “our new Napoleon in bunny boots” who, according to Ms. Dowd, “had the same flimsy but tenacious adeptness at saying nothing” as a New York Times columnist—no, wait, as George W. Bush: that’s what Maureen Dowd wrote. The last day or so has also seen hostile pieces about Palin, McCain, or both by Bob Herbert (“She’s Not Ready”), Frank Rich (“The Palin-Whatshisname Ticket”), Frank Rich [Oops: I meant Paul Krugman] (“Blizzard of Lies”), among others. This is a full-court press. An editorial that ran on September 12 (“Gov. Palin’s Worldview”) began by taking Sen. John McCain to task for having the temerity to pick Palin as his running mate in the first place:

If he seriously thought this first-term governor — with less than two years in office — was qualified to be president, if necessary, at such a dangerous time, it raises profound questions about his judgment. If the choice was, as we suspect, a tactical move, then it was shockingly irresponsible.

What sort of game is the Times playing at here? I mean, what makes a first term Senator with no executive experience better prepared for the office of the Presidency than a first term Governor with substantial executive experience for the Vice-Presidency? (Free advice to Team Obama: retire the response “Oh, but he’s running a presidential campaign: That’s executive exeprience!”) That Palin is a woman? That the state of which she is governor has only as many electoral votes as Deleware (represented in the Senate by another Vice-Presidental candidate)? That she didn’t go to Harvard? That she likes to shoot moose? That she is a Christian and proud of it? That she chose not to end the life of her last child when she discovered it had Down Syndrome? What is it? And why for heaven’s sake does McCain’s choice raise “profound questions about his judgment”? Presumably, McCain picked Palin for the same reason that Obama picked Joe Biden: because he thought she would help him win the election. And McCain seems to have been right about that. Sure, that is a “tactical” (or shall we say, “canny”?) move: so what? Isn’t that what getting elected is all about? McCain has plenty of ideas about  how to help the country: none of them will matter unless he gets elected. Would the Times have preferred it if McCain had picked some who wouldn’t help the ticket (as, I suspect, Obama has done)? (OK, they probably would have preferred  it, at least probably, but they wouldn’t say that.)

So I find that editorial tendentious but also incomprehensible.  Still, it is an editorial, and I expect the Times editorial page to be a swamp of left-liberal, redistributionist, politically correct boiler plate. That’s fine. I don’t agree with it, but that’s what editorial pages are for: the expression of opinion.

It’s when it turns to reporting the news that the Times really gets irritating. Consider “Once Elected, Palin Hired Friends and Lashed Foes,” the profile (aka, attempted character assassination) the paper ran yesterday, September 14, of Sarah Palin. Front-page, above-the-fold of the Politics section. Three authors. More than 3000 words. What did it amount to? As Jennifer Rubin put it, “minutiae thrown against the wall by the Times” (“Is this It? Really?”).  Quoth Rubin:

[D]espite the testimony that she was ”accessible,” others find her “secretive” and inclined to put a premium on “loyalty.” The evidence? The Governor’s office declined a request for emails that would have cost over $400,000. Proof positive. Oh, and the records sought (about Polar Bears and such) were in fact obtained.

Then there is the ” she blurs personal and public behavior” charge. The evidence? A phone call from Todd Palin to a state legislator about the latter’s chief of staff, which Palin denies was mentioned. Pretty thin gruel.

Next we have her tenure as mayor, where again all heck breaks loose because — are ya sitting down? — she brought in her own team. No! Unheard of. Jeeez. Next she’ll be firing the town museum director. Oh no– it’s true! Palin says (”Oh yeah, she says,” you can hear the Times reporters hrrumphing) she was cutting the budget.

This is pathetic, really. Is there something illegal here? Is there something nefarious? What is the point?

I can answer that one: the point is to discredit Sarah Palin, by evidence of actual wrongdoing, if possible, but if not then by diffusing a rhetorical atmosphere of shadiness, collusion, and self-dealing. Journalists have been poring over her per diem expenses and every other aspect of her performance with a comb fit for an anorectic gerbil with sensitive skin and the bottom line finding is that she spent hundreds of thousands of dollars less in expenses than her predecessor.

Let’s bury that one, lads, and lead with the story that she charged the state for expenses when she was at home and for ferrying her husband and children from their home in Wasllia to Juneau. Don’t sweat the details too much, though, because the closer you look the more obvious it is that 1) Palin’s expenses were entirely legit  under Alaskan rules and 2) The Washington Post’s reporting   was disingenuous, malevolent, or both.

But back to the Times’s profile. It is a curious document—“thin gruel,” as Rubin says, but lots of empty rhetorical calories. The piece opens with a picture of Sarah Palin standing with the The Wasilla City Council in 1998.

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“Throughout her career,” the caption informs readers, “Ms. Palin has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her and blurred the line between government and personal grievance.” Doesn’t sound too good does it? Then what? Let’s take it from the top,omitting some of the extraneous watercress:

WASILLA, Alaska — Gov. Sarah Palin lives by the maxim that all politics is local, not to mention personal. [REALLY? WHERE DOES SHE SAY THAT?]

So [“SO” AS IN “THEREFORE”?  HOW DO YOU FIGURE THAT?] when there was a vacancy at the top of the State Division of Agriculture, she appointed a high school classmate, Franci Havemeister, to the $95,000-a-year directorship. [SO WHAT? WHY SHOULDN’T SHE?]A former real estate agent, Ms. Havemeister cited her childhood love of cows as a qualification for running the roughly $2 million agency. [SNARK ALERT #1, LOVE OF ANIMALS DIVISION.]

Ms. Havemeister was one of at least five schoolmates Ms. Palin hired, often at salaries far exceeding their private sector wages. [GOOD FOR HER, WHAT? I MEAN, SHE KNEW THESE FOLKS AND HAD PRESUMABLY CONFIDENCE IN THEIR ABILITIES. AS FOR THE SALARIES, AGAIN, SO WHAT?]

When Ms. Palin had to cut her first state budget, she avoided the legion of frustrated legislators and mayors. Instead, she huddled with her budget director and her husband, Todd, an oil field worker who is not a state employee, and vetoed millions of dollars of legislative projects. [YES, AND THE POINT IS? SNARK ALERT #2, OFFICE OF BLUE COLLAR SNOBBERY.]

And four months ago, a Wasilla blogger, Sherry Whitstine, who chronicles the governor’s career with an astringent eye, answered her phone to hear an assistant to the governor on the line, she said.

“You should be ashamed!” Ivy Frye, the assistant, told her. “Stop blogging. Stop blogging right now!” [AGAIN, THE POINT IS?]

Ms. Palin walks the national stage as a small-town foe of “good old boy” politics and a champion of ethics reform. The charismatic 44-year-old governor draws enthusiastic audiences and high approval ratings. And as the Republican vice-presidential nominee, she points to her management experience while deriding her Democratic rivals, Senators Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr., as speechmakers who never have run anything. [YES, THAT IS ABOUT RIGHT . . . ]

But [“BUT”? WE EXPECT SOME NEWS THAT WOULD CONTRADICT OR QUALIFY WHAT CAME IN THE PARAGRAPH BEFORE . . . ] an examination of her swift rise and record as mayor of Wasilla and then governor finds that her visceral style and penchant for attacking critics — she sometimes calls local opponents “haters” — contrasts with her carefully crafted public image. [WHAT COULD THIS POSSIBLY MEAN? THAT SARAH PALIN IS AGGRESIVE AND DOESN’T SUFFER FOOLS GLADLY? AGAIN—IT’S MY CONSTANT REFRAIN—SO WHAT?]

Throughout her political career, she has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her and sometimes blurred the line between government and personal grievance, according to a review of public records and interviews with 60 Republican and Democratic legislators and local officials. [REALLY? AND THE EVIDENCE OF THE MALFEASANCE IS?]

Still, Ms. Palin has many supporters. [DIGRESSION TIME: THE TIMES BRIEFLY ENTERS THE ON-THE-ONE-HAND, ON-THE-OTHER-HAND PSEUDO-OBJECTIVITY MODE.] As a two-term mayor she paved roads and built an ice rink [SNARK ALERT #3, DEPARTMENT OF SMALL-BEER REJOINDERS: SO SHE PAVED ROADS AND BUILT AN ICE RINK: BIG DEAL, RIGHT?]], and as governor she has pushed through higher taxes on the oil companies that dominate one-third of the state’s economy. She stirs deep emotions. In Wasilla, many residents display unflagging affection, cheering “our Sarah” and hissing at her critics.

“She is bright and has unfailing political instincts,” said Steve Haycox, a history professor at the University of Alaska. “She taps very directly into anxieties about the economic future.”

“But,” he added, “her governing style raises a lot of hard questions.” [AND THOSE QUESTIONS ARE?]

Ms. Palin declined to grant an interview for this article. [WE ALREADY KNEW SHE WAS SMART. I AM GLAD TO SHE SHE IS AVAILING HERSELF OF THE KIMBALL CONSENSUS FOR CONSERVATIVES DEALING WITH THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA.] The McCain-Palin campaign responded to some questions on her behalf and that of her husband, while referring others to the governor’s spokespeople, who did not respond. [SEE ABOVE.]

Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell said Ms. Palin had conducted an accessible and effective administration in the public’s interest. “Everything she does is for the ordinary working people of Alaska,” he said.

In Wasilla, a builder said he complained to Mayor Palin when the city attorney put a stop-work order on his housing project. She responded, he said, by engineering the attorney’s firing. [SO, HO-HUM. WHAT?]

Interviews show that Ms. Palin runs an administration that puts a premium on loyalty and secrecy. [OOO—“LOYALTY”—THAT’S A GEORGE W. BUSH WORD, ISN’T IT? AND “SECRECY”: I GUESS THAT MEANS THE NEW YORK TIMES HAD TROUBLE FINDING MUCH WORTH REPORTING: IMAGINE THAT!] The governor and her top officials sometimes use personal e-mail accounts for state business; [AND THE POINT IS?]  dozens of e-mail messages obtained by The New York Times show that her staff members studied whether that could allow them to circumvent subpoenas seeking public records. [WHERE IS THIS ONE GOING?]

Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska professor, sought the e-mail messages of state scientists who had examined the effect of global warming on polar bears.[NO, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.] (Ms. Palin said the scientists had found no ill effects, and she has sued the federal government to block the listing of the bears as endangered.) [GOOD THINKING, SARAH.]An administration official told Mr. Steiner that his request would cost $468,784 to process. [I DON’T  DOUBT IT, DO YOU?]

When Mr. Steiner finally obtained the e-mail messages — through a federal records request — he discovered that state scientists had in fact agreed that the bears were in danger, records show. [WELL, I’D LIKE TO SEE THE DATA.]

“Their secrecy is off the charts,” Mr. Steiner said. [GOSH, WHAT A PUT DOWN]

State legislators are investigating accusations that Ms. Palin and her husband pressured officials to fire a state trooper who had gone through a messy divorce with her sister, charges that she denies. [OH, THE ALASKS TROPPERGATE STORY! NO JOY THERE FOR THE TIMES: TURNS OUT THAT CHAP WAS A BAD HAT WHO WAS FOND OF TASERING 10-YEAR-OLDS. SEE ABOVE FOR SOME DETAILS.] But interviews make clear that the Palins draw few distinctions between the personal and the political. [GEE WHIZ!]

Last summer State Representative John Harris, the Republican speaker of the House, picked up his phone and heard Mr. Palin’s voice. The governor’s husband sounded edgy. He said he was unhappy that Mr. Harris had hired John Bitney as his chief of staff, the speaker recalled. Mr. Bitney was a high school classmate of the Palins and had worked for Ms. Palin. But she fired Mr. Bitney after learning that he had fallen in love with another longtime friend. [THAT METALIC  NOISE YOU HEAR IS THE SOUND OF THE REPORTER’S PEN SCRAPING THE BOTTOM OF THE BARREL.]

There follows a bit of more or less neutral biographical material, and then the Times gets back to attack mode. When Palin was mayor of Wasilla, the Times reports,

[C]areers were turned upside down. [THAT HAPPENS. SO WHAT?] The mayor quickly fired the town’s museum director, John Cooper. Later, she sent an aide to the museum to talk to the three remaining employees. “He told us they only wanted two,” recalled Esther West, one of the three, “and we had to pick who was going to be laid off.” The three quit as one. [SO LONG, FAREWELL, SAYONARA . . . ]

Ms. Palin cited budget difficulties for the museum cuts. Mr. Cooper thought differently, saying the museum had become a microcosm of class and cultural conflicts in town. “It represented that the town was becoming more progressive, and they didn’t want that,” he said. [AND WHO CAN BLAME THEM?]

Let me save you the tedium: when she was mayor, Palin fired some people. The Times endeavored mightily to make something of that, but new brooms do have a way of sweeping things clean . . .

Ms. Palin ordered city employees not to talk to the press. [SMART THINKING, IF THE PRESS IS REPRESENTED BY ORGANS LIKE THE NEW YORK TIMES.] And she used city money to buy a white Suburban for the mayor’s use — employees sarcastically called it the mayor-mobile. [GUTSY MOVE ON THE PART OF THE TIMES: PALIN’S TRAVEL EXPENSES AS GOVERNOR LAST YEAR WERE $93,000; HER PREDECESOR’S EXPENSES FOR 2006 WERE $463,000.]

The new mayor also tended carefully to her evangelical base. [AGAIN, GOOD FOR HER. GLAD TO SEE SHE HAS THE EYE ON THE BALL.] She appointed a pastor to the town planning board. [YES, AND SO???] And she began to eye the library. For years, social conservatives had pressed the library director to remove books they considered immoral. [AH, THE BOOK-BANNING-BURNING-CENSORSHIP RUMOR. NICE TRY, FOLKS, BUT IT’S BEEN SHOWN TO BE A RED-HERRING.]

“People would bring books back censored,” recalled former Mayor John Stein, Ms. Palin’s predecessor. “Pages would get marked up or torn out.” [I’D BE WILLING TO BET THAT SARAH PALIN OBJECTS TO PEOPLE DEFACING LIBRARY BOOKS AS MUCH AS I OR ANY REPORTER FROM THE TIMES:  IS THE TIMES SAYING, OR IMPLYING, OR HINTING, OR JUST SORT OF GETTING IT ON TO THE TABLE THAT PALIN WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DEFACEMENT?]

Etc., etc. Other high crimes and misdemeanors: “ Ms. Palin and aides use their private e-mail addresses for state business.” Call in the cavalry! What a scandal.  “Many lawmakers”—no names or numbers provided—“contend that Ms. Palin is overly reliant on a small inner circle that leaves her isolated.” Guess what, Palin as some political enemies. So what?

In the course of this seemingly interminable  article, the Times frequently mentions the high regard Palin enjoys among here constituents. Indeed, most polls show her with a general approval rating of about 85 percent and an approval rating among Democrats of 75 percent. As Glenn Reynolds observes, “Gosh, if you read the New York Times reporting on Palin, that's hard to believe.” Of course, what’s really “hard to believe” is The New York Times. I suppose there is some satisfaction in having one’s prejudices so flagrantly corroborated.