Palin's Strengths Rooted in Alaska

By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008

WASILLA, Alaska -- The valley where Sarah Palin was raised is vast and tree-packed, and so quiet that once, when Palin's parents left a door open in their antler-festooned house, a moose poked its nose into their den.

You can't blame the moose for being curious. The wood-plank loft home of Chuck and Sally Heath is known for its odd, bristling lawn art. A towering sculpture of bleached antlers sits by the driveway. Bright buoys and fishing lures dangle from silver birch trees. But this riot of objects is merely a warm-up for the interior: Fox pelts. Orca teeth. Bear fangs. Owl wings. A brown, bony thing with a huge span occupies the living room wall. "That's a walrus scapula," Chuck Heath says brightly.

The unusual collection has been amassed over a lifetime by the inspiring Heath, a hard-chested, cinch-waisted 70-year-old retired public school science teacher and an inveterate naturalist. Children skitter in and out of doors: Palin's daughter Piper is newly arrived from New York. Piper's cousin, a small boy named Heath, hums to himself beneath the snarling pelt of a grizzly bear.

"Can I have a soda?" the child asks. "I want a soda."

"Did you earn it?" Chuck asks sternly.

That's how it goes in the Heath home, and how it has always gone. It's a household that explains much about Palin, 44, and how she acquired her set-jawed, swaggering demeanor, one that her mother first noticed "about the time she started to walk." Above all, the house suggests how she came by her dissident, out-of-category feminism, a code by which she tackles old-boy networks relentlessly, while remaining blank if not unsympathetic on traditional women's issues with a capital W, such as sexism in the workplace.

"I'm a little absent from that discussion, because I've never thought of gender as an issue," she told Alaska Business Monthly after being elected governor in 2006.

It's a code rooted in childhood experiences of backwoodsing and athletic striving "until she was literally red in the face," according to her sister Heather Bruce, 45. They included leading her tiny high school to a state basketball championship, an event Palin once described as "life changing." Composure was a genderless quality, earned under pressure -- as in the time a grizzly bear climbed on the family car. "It didn't matter if you were a man or a woman if you were going out to hunt," says her brother Chuck Jr., 46.

They are experiences Palin will draw on to deal with crushing pressure of a different sort: her vice presidential candidacy and her debate Thursday night with her Democratic counterpart, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr (Del.). Friends and family insist that she will reassert her famous self-will when she takes the stage in St. Louis. "We all know what's riding on it," Chuck Jr. says. "But she has a history of coming through in big events."

The Heaths have tried to ignore the contrail of their daughter's political comet, the soaring upsweep from unknown governor to national celebrity, fashion heroine and triumphant stump speaker, followed by a swoon in popularity resulting from uncertain answers under hard questioning. On the evening Chuck Sr. quizzed his grandson about whether he had earned a soft drink, Palin was faltering badly in an interview with CBS News's Katie Couric, in which she was less the huntress than easy prey.

"I can take anything but the blogs," her father says uneasily.

But Chuck has seen his daughter handle herself in other perilous situations and come out all right. A few years ago, he watched her pilot husband Todd Palin's commercial fishing boat in a storm. Todd was working at his oil-field job on the North Slope, and Palin and her father had been fishing on Bristol Bay. "It was the toughest work I've ever done, and it wasn't only hard, it was dangerous," Chuck says. At the end of the run, they had to get the boat on a trailer amid crashing surf. As cold, metallic-sheened waves tossed the trawler around, Chuck quailed.

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