In 2008, Sarah Palin burst onto the global stage as the Republican nominee for the vice-presidency of the United States. As the world strived to unearth how this unknown Alaskan governor had arrived within a wisp of the White House, it would uncover the life of a small town beauty queen turned ‘hockey mom’ who would become the first female Republican nominee in US history.
Sarah Louise Heath was born in Sandpoint Idaho on 11th February 1964, the same year her family moved to Alaska. The third of four children of school secretary Sally Heath and science teacher Charles 'Chuck' Heath, the family initially lived in the Alaskan city of Skagway, before moving through a number of communities and finally settling in the mountainous town of Wasilla.
With Palin’s father a lifelong huntsman and both of her parents coaching amateur sports teams, the family were enthusiastic participants in outdoor pursuits. Hunting, fishing and running were regular activities for the Palin family, where the ethos was one of gender equality and guns were considered an essential right.
Palin’s parents were moderate Catholics until her mother became a born again Christian. As she entered her teen years and enrolled in Wasilla High School, Palin embraced religion, joining a controversial Pentecostal church called the Wasilla Assembly of God.
The teen immediately showed signs of leadership earning the nickname 'Sarah Barracuda' as the captain of her school’s girls’ basketball team, the Wasilla Warriors, due to her aggressive playing style.
Yet, as she started college, Palin appeared to lose direction. After enrolling in Hawaii Pacific College in 1982, she left after only one semester and meandered through higher educational institutions including North Idaho Community College, the University of Idaho and Matanuska-Sustina Community College, spending one or two semesters in each.
In the midst of this turmoil, Palin found herself running short of the funds she needed to finish her education. Determined to succeed, the girl described by her mother as a 'frontierswoman' found the time to enter, and finish second in, the 1984 Miss Alaska pageant. The move worked, earning her a college scholarship as well as the title of Miss Congeniality. Palin eventually graduated in 1987 with a Bachelor of Science in communications-journalism from the University of Idaho.
Having stated in her high school yearbook that her ambition was to broadcast basketball games, Palin set to work. In 1988 she appeared as a sports reporter in Anchorage, Alaska, as well as contributing in print for the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman.
Palin’s personal life also began to take shape during this period. On 29th August 1988, the 24-year-old eloped with her high school sweetheart, Todd Palin.
The newly wed helped her husband run his commercial fishing business and, in 1989, the couple welcomed their first son, Track Palin, followed in 1990 by a daughter called Bristol. With her career and her home life seemingly set, the wife and mother appeared to show no sign of any political ambition.
It was only when she began to fear that the revenue from a new sales tax in Wasilla would be spent unwisely that the PTA (Parent Teacher Association) member began to get involved with politics.
Palin earned her first taste of victory when she was elected to be a Wasilla City Councilor. She repeated this feat in 1995, by which time she had given birth to her second daughter, Willow.
As Palin’s confidence grew, the political novice began to crave further promotion. In 1996, she campaigned to become mayor of Wasilla. Her opponent, nine-year incumbent John Stein, was accustomed to competition, but not to Palin’s fervour.
Whilst Stein pondered on the construction of a city collector street grid, Palin’s platform was one of major issues such as supporting gun rights and being anti-abortion, whilst still speaking about provincial matters.
Dealing with controversial issues which split the US in half, let alone a small, rural town was highly unconventional, yet it seemed to work. Stunned by the change of pace, Stein had little choice but to watch as Palin stormed into office, winning the election and ousting him from his position.
Palin now recalls how she "grew tremendously" during her first term as mayor. Whilst widely praised for her delivery of campaign promises such as cutting property taxes and improving roads and sewers, Palin attracted controversy by committing the unusual act of firing numerous department heads, including the chief of police, Irl Stambaugh. Stambaugh later lost a suit for wrongful termination against Palin.
However, overall, Wasilla was enamoured with its mayor. So much so that Palin won another term in office in 1999, once again beating Stein with a count of 826 votes to 255.
Palin used this second chance to expand on her plans for Wasilla. In addition to building a $15 million sports complex, the mayor secured millions of dollars in federal funds for her town, allowing it to prosper and grow. Yet both of these actions would haunt Palin in her later career, with the stadium’s ownership rights coming into dispute and Palin’s future running mate, John McCain, campaigning against wasteful federal spending on local projects.
By 2002, when Palin had exhausted the term limit for a mayoral candidate, she was credited by many with transforming Wasilla into a commercial hub. Palin was just as busy at home, now having four children to care for including the latest addition, Piper, born in 2001.
Nevertheless, Palin continued on her mission to climb the political ladder. In 2002, she competed for the Republican nomination for the statewide office of lieutenant governor. However this fight would prove too much and Palin experienced her first taste of defeat, coming second to rival Loren Leman.
The Republican Party’s rising star waited for her next opportunity to shine. This came in 2003 when Alaska’s governor, Frank Murkowski, appointed her to chair the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
As the Commission’s ethics supervisor, Palin uncovered a misuse of power by fellow member and Republican state party Chairman Randy Ruedrich and what she perceived to be a conflict of interest by State Attorney General Gregg Renkes.
Angered by what she saw as a "lack of ethics" Palin demanded an investigation against her powerful colleagues. Yet, barred by state law from discussing the matter until the inquiry was complete, the action led to numerous attacks questioning her motives.
The frustrated whistleblower resigned her position on 16th January 2004. Ruedrich was eventually forced to admit his wrongdoings and, whilst initially a major setback, the incident eventually earned Palin a reputation as a champion of clean politics.
Emboldened by this tag, the ‘hockey mom’ decided to continue in her mission to shape the political process. This time, she aimed for a far more visible role which would see her involved in the highest echelons of the state machine.
In 2006, the mother of four campaigned for the role of governor. Positioning herself as a fresh voice amongst jaded politicians, she turned claims of her inexperience into her main strength.
Palin won the Republican state primary with little difficulty, ousting the incumbent and her former employer, Frank Murkowski, by casting herself as a wholesome outsider unafraid to tackle the old boys’ network.
The Feminists for Life member went on to prevail against democrat and former governor Tony Knowles with her anti-abortionist stance. With the then-leadership’s relationship with the oil industry under investigation by the FBI, she also promised to bring transparency into the gubernatorial role.
Once again, Palin had emerged victorious. On 4th December 2006, Alaska inaugurated its first female governor and the youngest chief executive in the state’s history. Palin immediately flexed her new political muscle, concentrating mainly on energy commodities.
In particular, she delivered on her promise to help Alaska achieve 'energy independence', passing the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act in May 2007 in order to encourage bids for the construction of a pipeline. This decision resulted in what the media called a 'pipeline victory' for Palin as the US Senate approved a deal with oil company, TansCanada Corp.
Palin’s popularity soared and, in May 2007, the Anchorage Daily News reported that her approval ratings had reached an unprecedented peak of 93%. Yet, in September 2007, Palin appeared to renege on one of her main electoral promises.
Her campaign for office had supported a $398 million project to build two bridges, one of which was known in federal circles as 'the bridge to nowhere'. However, as governor, she committed what the media termed a 'flip flop' on the issue, withdrawing her support for construction. Links would later be made to the fact that Senator John McCain publicly derided the project a month before Palin’s view reversal.
The devout Christian also faced questions as to her ability to separate church and state, with some reports claiming that the ethics campaigner had spent state funds to attend religious events.
Despite these controversies, Palin remained popular, both in Alaska and within the Republican Party. At home, the pro-lifer gave birth to her fifth child, Trig Palin in April 2008, refusing to abort upon discovering he had Down’s syndrome.
Palin appeared to be achieving her goals, yet, as the chief of one of the more isolated states, she remained a minor figure. Nevertheless, events would soon unfold to change her relative anonymity forever.
On 29th August 2008, Senator John McCain announced that Sarah Palin would be his running mate in his bid to become President of the United States and take over from the Bush administration. Overnight, Palin became a household name.
Palin’s nomination formed a captivating twist in an already extraordinary election. Despite the fact that she had been nominated for the role of vice-president, the media compared the female candidate directly to the African American democratic nominee for the presidency, Barack Obama. With Obama being the first African American nominee and Palin the first female one, the US and the world were bracing themselves for a revolutionary shift in the political arena, regardless of which party was victorious.
Giving her first national speech, the vice-presidential nominee employed her trusted campaign methods, once again painting a picture of a team player who was on a mission to cut spending and who “stood up to the old ‘politics as usual’”.
The public were intrigued, yet, questions were raised about Palin’s ability to perform in the White House, particularly as the 72-year-old McCain posed a concern when it came to his longevity as President.
The governor’s inexperience was a particular point of contention, especially following what the New York Times labelled a “series of fumbled interviews” where the ‘soccer mom’ was reported as struggling with geographic as well as foreign policy issues. Palin was also blighted by numerous controversies.
In September 2008, the Alaskan legislature found the governor guilty of abusing her power in an incident dubbed 'troopergate'. The charge related to an instance where Palin had pressurised a safety commissioner to fire state trooper Mike Wooten, who was in the process of divorcing her sister.
Palin’s religious convictions also came to the forefront, including her opposition to gay marriage and abortion, particularly as she announced that her daughter, Bristol was pregnant at the age of 17.
Yet, whilst much of America were alienated by what they perceived as extreme views, Palin’s nomination galvanised the Christian right, drawing over $7m in donations for McCain’s campaign. It seemed that Palin was appealing to the conservative audience who could identify her as one of their own.
Sarah Palin has spent her life amassing numerous labels. Yet, whilst this mother and wife has proved that she can balance “the BlackBerries and the breast pump”, she has always struggled to dismiss questions about her personal views. Regardless of one’s opinion of this contentious figure, Palin has proved time and again that she is not one to be underestimated.