The L.A. Times' James Rainey took out after CNN's Rick Sanchez this morning for his segment yesterday in which he interviewed me about the Salon piece I co-wrote with Max Blumenthal about Sarah Palin's past dalliances with Alaska's far-right fringe crowd.
But Sanchez and the CNN crew instead ran their report off into the underbrush, reaching a low when the anchor tried to draw a parallel between the Alaska party and the forces behind the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
"Not comparing them to actions [sic] but comparing them in terms of ideology, not actions but ideology, are [members of the Alaskan Independence Party] similar to the group that blew up the [Alfred P.] Murrah building?" Sanchez asked, seemingly apologetic for that stinker, even as he unleashed it.
Even Neiwert, whose reporting makes him no Palin fan, seemed a bit taken aback by that line. "Well, of course, that was an individual lone wolf who was associated with the patriots" movement, Neiwert said of the Oklahoma City attack. "But, yes, they basically come from the same, uh, sort of ideological background. That's correct."
I still had trouble seeing what that had to do with Sarah Palin.
Well, it's true that I was a bit taken aback by the question. For one, hardly anyone in the mainstream media seems to remember the Oklahoma City bombing and the Patriot movement's involvement in it. For the most part, the mainstream line has evolved that this was an "isolated incident" involving a lone kook, rather than the signature event of a broad stream of right-wing domestic terrorism that hit the United States in the 1990s. So I was a little surprised to hear someone make the connection.
But it is a connection that involves some thoughtful nuance, so I was careful in answering him. The reality is that the 1990s "Patriot" movement was essentially the latest step in the racist right's ongoing efforts to return to the mainstream of American discourse -- and in mainstreaming themselves in the guise of "citizen militias" and the like, this meant a couple of things: First, that its rhetoric and appeals were largely stripped of its overtly racist and anti-Semitic elements, yet its political agenda was nonetheless as radical as before.
And second, it meant that a lot of mainstream conservatives were going to be brushing shoulders with real far-right radicals and, in many cases, being gulled into joining arms with them. Part of covering and writing about the Patriot movement involved listening and watching carefully to distinguish them, because to some extent, you had to give the mainstream conservatives the benefit of the doubt when it came to their actual intent in getting involved with these groups.
At the same time, they still had some real culpability insofar as they helped swell the ranks of the militias and other Patriot organizing strategies, as well as helped lend them a veneer of fake legitimacy and normalcy. Moreover, in many cases -- particularly with Republican politicians (the late Rep. Helen Chenoweth springs to mind) -- those who gave the militias cover of legitimacy, pandered to them, and actually empowered them should face serious questions from the mainstream electorate for their conduct in public office and their lack of judgment.
And that, for those who need ask, is what Sarah Palin has to do with all this.
For those who haven't read the Salon story, our findings about Sarah Palin's relationship to the Patriot right in Wasilla, and Alaska generally, boiled down to this:
- Palin formed a political alliance with Wasilla's Patriot-movement faction while still a Wasilla city councilman, and they played a significant role in her successful campaign against the three-term incumbent mayor in 1996.
- Palin, in one of her first acts as mayor, attempted to fill the seat vacated by her ascension to the mayorship with one of the leaders of this faction -- a bellicose man described by the city councilman who blocked his appointment as having a "violent" disposition.
- Mayor Palin also fired the city's museum director at the behest of this faction.
- Palin also organized this faction to turn out at a city council meeting to shout down a proposed local gun-control ordinance. Palin also determinedly allowed the testimony of the pro-gun crowd before the bill had even been presented to the council or prepared for public hearings -- a clear violation of city-council policy.
- Palin had a continual association with Alaskan Independence Party chairman Mark Chryson (a Wasilla resident) throughout her tenure as mayor, and joined to support him in a series of anti-gun-control and anti-tax measures, both locally and statewide.
- Palin attended the AIP's state conventions in 1994 and 2006, the latter when she was campaigning for the governorship. The 1994 appearance is more questionable, since it came at time when the AIP was more openly radical (its members had backed militia figure Col. James "Bo" Gritz in the 1992 election), and its platform then contained what Chryson calls "racist language".
- She sent a videotaped address to the AIP at its 2008 convention (see above), ostensibly because "I've always thought competition is so good, and that applies to political parties as well" -- though notably, she sent no such similar videotaped welcome to the state's Democratic Party.
In fact, it should be clear to anyone who understands how politics work, especially in rural places like Alaska, that Palin's videotaped message to the AIP was a clear acknowledgment that they constitute a significant part of her base.
And that's really the problem. By itself, it might be benign. But given the history of associations with this faction we dug up in Wasilla, it takes on a much more troubling cast.
The McCain/Palin campaign, as we noted, wants to dismiss this as a "smear" with taking the trouble to demonstrate that it is one. And it's true that the on-air response to this was somewhat lacking. Writes Rainey:
"CNN is furthering a smear with this report, no different than if your network ran a piece questioning Sen. Obama's religion," said Michael Goldfarb, a McCain-Palin spokesman. "No serious news organization has tried to make this connection, and it is unfortunate that CNN would be the first."
Responding to the reference to Obama's religion toward the end of the segment, Sanchez either ignored or was too dull to understand that the McCain camp was complaining about unfairness. Instead, he turned to the Salon reporter and asked: "Is this in any way a religious organization, the AIP?"
I should have made clear at this point that the issue isn't one of Sarah Palin's faith, it's about her conduct in public office, and how it is affected by her ideological associations. Because that is the issue here.
And it's troubling that a mainstream political reporter like Rainey can't see that. This is underscored by his conclusion:
The regrettable episode ended with Neiwert suggesting that the secessionists have talked about "infiltrating" mainstream political parties to spread their influence.
"Infiltrating," repeated the malleable Sanchez. "Interesting choice of words."
Well, what Rainey might find interesting is the video at left. It is footage of Dexter Clark, the AIP's vice-chairman, leading discussion of political tactics at the 2007 North American Secessionist Convention. In it, he discussed Sarah Palin thus:
She was an AIP member before she got the job as a mayor of a small town -- that was a non-partisan job. But you get along to go along -- she eventually joined the Republican Party, where she had all kinds of problems with their ethics, and well, I won't go into that. She also had about an 80% approval rating, and is pretty well sympathetic to her former membership.
Now, it's true that Clark later disavowed this as "mistaken" after examining the AIP's actual rolls in 2008. But it's clear that Clark and many others within the AIP viewed Palin as "one of ours." And as we have demonstrated, they did so with good cause.
Clark then goes on to bring up Ron Paul as a good example of how to "infiltrate" other parties:
I think Ron Paul has kind of proven that. He's a dyed-in-the wool libertarian -- I know because he came to Alaska and spoke as a libertarian -- and he's put the Republican label on to get elected. That's all there is to it. And any one of your organizations -- should be using that same tactic. You should infiltrate -- I know that Christian Exodus is in favor of it. The Free State Movement is in favor of it. I don't even care which party it is. Whichever party you think in that area you can get something done, get into that party. Even though that party has its problems, right now that is the only avenue. And if you get some people on city council or a county board you can have some effect.
Not only did Palin conduct her office in just such a fashion -- trying to appoint Patriot-movement followers to vacant city-council seats -- it's clear that Clark, Chryson, and many others within the AIP continue to view Palin as "one of theirs." This is no doubt why they urged their members to support her in 2006. However, their belief that she is "infiltrating" the Republican Party is more likely than not simply part of their long-running delusional belief system.
What's not delusional, however, is the cold reality that Palin has a real history of empowering these extremists, and pandering to their conspiratorial beliefs, from her position of public office. And the question is whether that would continue from a position of real power in the White House.
(You can send your thoughts -- respectfully, please -- to Rainey at email@example.com)