Painting A Portrait With A Pipeline

WaPo’s strong take on Palin as executive

Here’s props to The Washington Post for an article today that substantively reports on Sarah Palin’s executive style.

Starting with Palin’s inappropriate culling of e-mail addresses from a Department of Commerce directory (in order to promote a favorite piece of legislation), the article examines Palin’s time in executive office to make the case that, while she is skilled at gauging and responding to the public will, she isn’t very interested or involved in policy details. The piece compares her official record alongside her day-to-day interactions with legislators to gain insight into her modus operandi as governor.

Palin has promised that she would shake up Washington (touting it as a two-reformers-for-the-price-of-one kind of thing), and the story both recognizes her achievements and questions the claim. The article quotes Stephen Haycox, a historian at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, in an oft-heard criticism of Palin: “She seems as if she is incurious about the mechanism of government.” It’s a sobering assessment of Palin’s talent as a politician, and one that the rest of the article seeks, successfully, to evaluate and contextualize.

Take Palin’s approach to the development of Alaska’s natural gas pipeline. The governor’s role in getting the pipeline built is a pretty familiar campaign story by now. The article explains Palin predecessor Frank Murkowski’s role in the pipeline plan, details Palin’s efforts to seek competitive bids on the project and thereby increase state leverage, and notes the public popularity of her efforts. But then it unfurls the example of pipeline legislation—a cornerstone of Palin’s argument that she is an independent-minded reformer—into a small character portrait:

Still, Palin struck some lawmakers as curiously detached from the process. In early March 2007, she invited the state Senate’s leaders to her office for a preview of the pipeline legislation. To the astonishment of the five senators and their aides, she barely said a word for the hour. As staff members explained her signature plan, the governor was preoccupied with her two BlackBerries.

“It was so bizarre. We all talked about it afterwards,” said a legislative source, one of three participants in the meeting who recounted the governor’s silence. “We all said, ‘What was that? Was she even paying attention?’ “

The anecdote—set up by the history and changing structure of the legislation—lends credibility to Haycox’s characterization of Palin, and to the article’s argument.

Specifying a politician’s strengths and weaknesses (absorbing policy minutiae from experts? speaking off the cuff? instinctively quelling public worry?) fairly and informatively can be a difficult task. But if show-don’t-tell is the way to avoid both cinematic grandiosity and easy caricature (and a difficult mantra to follow in campaign reporting), the WaPo story is an A-1 example of how to do it well.

In the article, Haycox says this of Palin: “She hears the mood of the electorate very, very well.” It’s a very relevant assessment of talent—especially in the middle of a campaign that has emphasized the Alaskan governor’s instinctive talents rather than her capabilities—and the article provokes a worthy follow-up question: “At what cost?”

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.