Sally Jenkins on Sarah Palin's Alaska Roots

Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008 2:00 PM

The Post's Sally Jenkins was online Thursday, Oct. 2 at 2 p.m. ET to take your questions about her visit to Wasilla, Alaska and her story about vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin's formative years.

A transcript follows.

Sally Jenkins is a Washington Post sports columnist, and the author of several books, most recently "The Real All Americans: The Team That Changed a Game, a People, a Nation."

Sally Jenkins's Recent Columns


Washington, D.C.: Hello Sally. I have always been a fan of your sports writing and I enjoyed your piece today on Sarah Palin. I learned many aspects of her background that I didn't know.

But I wonder how difficult it is switching from sports to political figures. Are you worried that you are only hearing/telling the positive spin from her understandably proud hometown?

Sally Jenkins: Hi all. It's feels kind of like the day of a big football game, doesn't it? Everyone's putting on their team jerseys.

Let's begin with this question: No, it's not difficult switching topics from sports, because sports is just an exercise in human behavior, like politics. The goal is the same whether you are writing a profile about an senator, particle physicist, or ceramicist, which is to tell people something about the subject that they may not know, or hadn't heard before. If you learned "many aspects of her background" that you didn't know, then that's gratifying and we did our job. Which I hope answers the second part of your question, about spin. The piece aspired to be spin-free. How Sarah Palin grew up, what the household was like, and her role on that 1982 championship team are agenda-free topics, mercifully. She was a good, not a great, high school ball player who worked hard and achieved an upset victory. She grew up in a beautiful and remote state where hunting is still a method of subsistence, and where physical competence matters, regardless of gender. And her parents are interesting, thoughtful, and rather odd people.


Conyers, Ga.: Terrific story. What was the most surprising thing you learned about Gov. Palin?

Sally Jenkins: The most surprising thing I learned is that her father is a public school science teacher and a remarkable collector, and also a bit of an artist. Her father is a real character, and I don't think anyone had gotten to know him before.


NYC: I am so over Gov. Palin and I mean media overload etc. And yet the stories keep coming and the dissection of her and her dress, shoes, hair, language etc go on to infinitum. Sure there is plenty of low hanging fruit served up by her, her life, her family, her handlers, her boss, the EEM (eastern elitist media), etc. etc. But yesterday on the news from Florida some supporter compared her to Abraham Lincoln because he was born in a log cabin and was a simple man. She is from the wilderness and is a simple woman. Has anyone read the Gettysburg Address and the nuanced language and use of English?

How can anyone who walks upright with a brain do that? Please help me understand that over-the-top statement.

Sally Jenkins: There are many takes on Gov. Palin, obviously. She seems to fascinate people. While you may well be over her, and have good reason, lots of others can't seem to read enough about her. As for the Lincoln comparison, I won't justify that one. But I will say that Palin's belief that ordinary citizens are capable of governing, and that government needs to be pried away from the bureaucratic elite, seems to have hit struck a chord with people.


Bethesda, Md.: I read your story of Sarah Palin and while her life was interesting, it was incredibly unremarkable. What do we know about her college years? Did you learn anything about her when doing your story that would make her qualified to be vice president? She seems very incurious.

Sally Jenkins: She hopscotched through her college years. Most Alaskan kids yearn to be warm, so she went off to Hawaii-Hilo with a bunch of hometown friends who all applied to the university there. But she discovered it was one of the rainiest spots in the islands, so she transferred to Hawaii-Pacific on Oahu and spent a semester there. But it was a metro commuter school with no dorms, and she got homesick apparently, and came home and then went to a community college in Idaho, before finishing up at the University of Idaho. In between semesters she did her famous stint as a beauty queen. Which she mainly did for the money. The interesting thing about that is, at roughly the same time, she worked in a fish cannery to make extra money. Glamor and fish slime. Quite a contrast. And somehow very her.


Washington, D.C.: Stories about winning the state championship and hunting trips are fun, but they don't reveal whether Sarah Palin has the capacity to actually be vice-president.

I would like to know whether she showed the same tenacity and hunger when she went to college.

Sally Jenkins: The piece is about a younger, less alloyed Sarah Palin. Who was she then, and what were the forces that worked on her? That's all it set out to reveal. We have some brilliant reporters with much deeper experience in politics who have written wonderful stories about whether she is capable of governing -- my pals Dan Balz, Anne Kornblut, Karl Vick, to name a few. A few weeks ago the marvelous David Maraniss did a piece on Obama as a boy in Honolulu. It too probably didn't tell you whether he is prepared to govern. But it did shed some light on how he was formed. So that's the sort of story what I was aiming for. But I am no Maraniss, who has a genius for finding pure psychological material.


Arlington, Va.: Reporters discussing Alaska take for granted that people there hunt for their meals. I have been to Alaska and in the cities - where the large majority of the population lives - they get their meat at the grocery, just like we do here. They may get some food from hunting but no more than my family members in Michigan and Ohio.

Sally Jenkins: It's true now that there are plenty of markets, particularly in Anchorage and the area of Wasilla, which has become a very large business hub. It wasn't true in 1969 when the Heaths moved to Wasilla, or for a good deal of Palin's childhood. It was a very big deal when the Carrs supermarket opened in Wasilla. Also, as a reporter who just returned from Alaska, there are huge swaths of the state where people still rely on hunting and fishing to supplement if not fill their larders. It's not Michigan and Ohio.


Princeton, NJ: There has been a lot of talk about Obama's pastor. What can you say about Palin's? How old do she and her pastor believe the Earth is?

Sally Jenkins: I tried to reach Paul Riley, the pastor who baptized her, and had no luck. So I don't know the answer to your question. I did ask her father point blank, "What did you tell your daughter about religion and science?" He replied, "Nothing." He and Sally Heath wanted their kids to figure it out for themselves. They simply exposed them to both sides of the discussion. Having met Chuck Heath, and seen his amazing collection of fossils and bones, etc., I can tell you that their household is a very intelligent and thoughtful and interesting one. And more worldly than you might expect. The Heaths volunteer as trappers for the Dept of Agriculture Wildlife service. They go around the world working on wildlife projects, saving imperiled bird populations, etc. They came to New York after 9-11 to trap rats and seagulls that were plaguing the salvage operations. And they have been to China not once but three times. So this is a sophisticated household, with some interesting ideas flying around inside.


Penn Quarter: Sally,

Always enjoy your work.

Anyway, I'm curious to know if, in addition to her former coach, you tried to speak with any of her old teachers. What kind of student was she? What kind of grades did she make? How did she score on her SATs? Her athletic accomplishment and prowess as a huntress are on display here, but I would hope that there was something else that set her apart from her peers back then. Perhaps not. Perhaps she was just an ordinary, hard working kid.

Sally Jenkins: Good questions. I don't know her SAT scores, but she was an honor student in high school. The Heaths didn't tolerate poor grades. Her brother Chuck Jr. brought home one D, and it was like, the worst grade anyone ever got. His father read him the riot act. They were good high school students, very disciplined. Beyond that, I don't know. I did talk with one of her college roommates, Kim Tillyy Ketchum, who was surprised to discover how sort of keen Palin was when they took a Political Science class, and another revelation was how unintimidated Palin was in a public speaking course. Hope that helps answer your question.


I like David Maraniss but...: Hey Sally, don't sell yourself (or your work) short. As I read the Palin story I thought, "This woman was completely informed by her very independent minded parents and the way she was raised." You painted an exceptionally clear picture of what life was like for Sarah Heath, as David did for Barack Obama. However, I found your narrative more interesting, maybe because of the sporting/outdoors angle. Whatever, you and David did a good job summing up these two people. Though Obama Had to Leave to Find Himself, It Is Hawaii That Made His Rise Possible (Post, Sept. 22)

Sally Jenkins: Well, I'm posting this one out of sheer gratified narcissism. David Maraniss is the author of the Pulitzer winning First In His Class, the definitive biography of President Bill Clinton, and by the way it includes the best take I've read on Hillary Clinton too. And his new book on the Rome Olympics is a must-read. Again, David has a way of revealing people, as opposed to exposing them. To me, both kinds of journalism are important.


Alexandria, Va.: Hi Sally. I spent five months in Denali in 2005 during the summer months working at a tourist trap. I can tell you that Alaskans are a special breed. Anyone who can thrive and be successful there, what with the climate and remote location, obviously has some kind of inner strength that pampered eastern types would label "crazy." I would say a person who does not know if they can rely on themselves through adverse situations is crazy, much like half the East Coast.

Sally Jenkins: Alaska is a revelation. I actually think you can't fully understand who Palin is until you go there and see it for yourself. The issues there are simply different. It's spatially different - truly vast. For instance a New Yorker might be horrified at the wolf-hunting issue. But predator control really matters in Alaska, because people do still rely on hunting to fill their freezers. Predators to New Yorkers are mice.


Reston, VA: For someone from Alaska, she sure doesn't sound like it. She sounds like she's from Minnesota. Any idea why?

Sally Jenkins: Her father is from Sand Point Idaho. It's an Idaho accent. She sounds just like her Dad. Her mother is from the tri-cities area in Washington and speaks with a beautiful voice but it's accentless.


Philadelphia, PA: Thanks for the article. I can relate to Palin's championship experience as being a confidence builder to last a lifetime.

Don't know how tonight or the rest of the election will turn out, but it makes me almost sad (as an Obama supporter) that she's been pulled into this. She seems like she may have some real talent, which could have been nurtured, proven and honed off the national stage, and been interesting to watch 4 or 8 years from now.

Too bad...

Sally Jenkins: You know, this is potentially a really important point. Forgive the sports comparison, but Palin reminds me of a really great but still raw athlete.


Philadelphia: Love your sports writing.

Did you ask to do this piece, or did the Post ask you?

I know it's not your first non-sports related article but I couldn't help but wonder how Sally Jenkins ended up with this assignment.

Sally Jenkins: Good question. The Post asked me to take it on, and I jumped at it. I would neveer have presumed to ask for it, but when it was offered, I was intrigued. I've written on other topics before, such as a profile of Senator Hillary Clinton during the primary season, and a profile of Howard Dean, the DNC chairman, for the Sunday magazine a couple of years ago. And I helped on out our Katrina coverage in Mississippi, and our 9-11 coverage in New York. It's interesting to stretch, it keeps you from getting complacent as a writer. But also nerve wracking. Why did they ask me? Not sure except that sometimes it's an interesting experiment to put a pair of fresh eyes on a topic. Like, I wish Dan Balz would come write a sports piece.


Alexandria, Va.: In her acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, Palin's comment about Obama's work as a community organizer struck me as one of the most contemptuous things I've heard come out of a politician's mouth in a while. Your article didn't give much of a sense of Palin's sympathies. Is she contemptuous toward liberals? Does she look down on people who could use help? Does she think poor people have brought their problems on themselves? Does she think the Peace Corps is a waste of money? Or was this a throw-away line to get a laugh and score points, not really reflecting any philosophy per se?

Do you get a sense of this in Alaska?

Sally Jenkins: No great insight to offer on this point. Palin's "sympathies"? Not sure what you mean. Are you asking, does she care about poor people? The question itself seems sort of contemptuous ...towards her. The piece is not really about her current philosophy of government, or policies. It's just about a young woman growing up in Alaska.


Washington: I know someone who, before moving out of Alaska, voted for every measure that would have taxed Alaskans that were on the ballot. She said she was sick of hearing everyone complain about high taxes when there's no state income tax and everyone receives thousands back from the government instead. Every time there's a discussion of opening ANWR for drilling there are ads and comments that Alaskans support the measures, so we should, too. Well, of course they support the measures...

Sally Jenkins: Interesting.


Ohio: She has a very disarming way about her and one wants to believe she would/will be a good VP. Her manner is similar to GWB's good old boy persona he presented when he first got into office. I recall seeing a foreign dignitary riding in a white pick-up truck,looking over at GWB like he was thinking "what kind of hick are you?" I have this vision now of Sarah, should they get into office cooking up a pot of stew for the likes of the King of some enemy country and getting all folksy. I like her, but am unsure of how she would function in the No. 2 office and, worse case scenario, No. 1 office of the USA.

Sally Jenkins: And another interesting comment.


Shepherd Park, DC: Since the governor's father is a science teacher who seems to belong to the "church of nature," I assume he firmly believes in evolution, while she is believes in, at the least, intelligent design. Did you ask about whether this causes a conflict between the two of them?

Sally Jenkins: Great question, yes of course I asked. Again, within the Heath family there is an interesting range of views. And they all seem to respect each other's beliefs. Unlike a good many people these days.


Outside the beltway, VA: Ms. Jenkins, thank you for taking our questions on Gov. Palin. Here's mine: She seems to want to(and possibly succeeding at)come across as a "regular person." I'm not quite sure what that means, since we're all "regular," but to me she comes off as smug and superior.

I don't like feeling like someone is judging me for living near DC, like my problems are somehow less than others. And she comes across feeling entitled - like the pretty, popular girl in high school that always got what she wanted.

Since you've looked at her growing up, can you please give some insight, or even an opinion, as to if this is really what she is like? I would like to believe that she's a nice person who I just don't agree with on many issues, but somehow I've gotten the impression that she's just really good at doing whatever it takes to get what she wants.

Sally Jenkins: What is a "regular person"? She comes from a family that you would call regular in the sense that they are teachers and secretaries, and held two and three jobs to get by. But they are also very peculiar in some ways.

The best moment of the whole reporting experience in Alaska was when I sat at the Heaths' kitchen counter. Her mother put a grilled cheese sandwich in front me of -- and a Caribou hotdog. And then she offered me a glass of milk. Meanwhile, a stuff wolverine was hanging overhead, and Chuck Heath was showing me his gold dust, which he had been panning for. And a mammoth tooth was hanging on the wall. So that's what Sarah Palin comes from. In high school she wasn't preoccupied by her looks, apparently. If anything she was known as a bit of a prude. A binge for her was all-night bowling.

You can call that smug and superior if you like. But there is nothing smug or superior about her parents, for what that's worth. Superiority is not a quality I would ascribe to them. It seems important to remember that behind the public personas of the people running for office are human beings, with interesting facets, and families, and plenty of vulnerabilities. It's easy to treat them as punching bags or to over-generalize them.


Manhattan: Sally, I thought your story was very informative, especially decriptions of her parents, including their trips to NY and China three times.

Do you have an opinion why, when asked by Katie Couric, did she not get a passport until recently, Gov. Palin answered, and I'm paraphrasing, that she was not brought up like other kids who go back-packing in Europe after college?

Sally Jenkins: I believe the answer is that she was working her way through college, which took her six years -- the Heaths could not afford to pay their four kids' tuitions, everyone had to work their way through, and did -- and then she got married and had a baby just after she finished school. The Heaths have been able to travel in their retirement as volunteers for the Dept of Agriculture.


Anonymous: Wait a minute -- her dad taught biology, but she thinks creationism should also be taught in school?

Sally Jenkins: She went on record in 2006 as saying she would not insist creationism be taught as part of the curriculum. She has said she personally believes in a creator, and doesn't think discussion on the subject should be prohibited.


Chapel Hill, NC: Great article about the roots of Palin's toughness, drive and never-say-die spirit. Those qualities are important in forming leaders. But we have suffered through eight years of a president who evinces very little intellectual curiosity, and little range in areas of expertise related to the many facets of our nation's welfare. What are we to make of Palin's spotty, fragmented college experience? No one has answered why she transferred to so many colleges. Does she bore easily? Was she unable to succeed academically? Did she actually get kicked out of any of those six schools? Big question mark there...

Sally Jenkins: I didn't delve very deeply into her college years in my reporting, but I did talk with a woman who was her roommate in college in Hawaii and who then transferred with her to school in Idaho. The hopscotching appears to be mostly circumstantial, a product of an Alaskan kid who wanted to see Hawaii, and then realized she didn't want to spend four years there. She took periodic pauses to work and figure out what she wanted to do. Academically, I don't have a feel for how she performed, wish I did. But she was apparently a good student in high school, for whatever that's worth.


South Riding, Va.: What is the chance we will see the real Palin in today's VP Debate? My guess is that she has been working with people on the McCain staff who have taught her all of the party line answers to the questions. Is she a clone of McCain who will agree with all of his decisions or will she challenge him when here values differ? Which side will we see today?

Sally Jenkins: I will end with that very tantalizing question!


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