'Outsiders’ guide to understanding Alaska's politics and peculiarities
With Gov. Sarah Palin’s sudden elevation to the GOP ticket, the world tries to fathom the 49th state – its sourdoughs and cheechakos, boomers and greenies. A moon at noon?
Call it the real-life version of “Northern Exposure,” the old television series premised on the idea that Alaska is not a state but a state of mind. With John McCain’s selection of Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, Alaska’s quirks, oddities, and institutions are under the world’s microscope. And the world is confused at what it sees on the glass slide.Skip to next paragraph
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The Alaskan Independence Party? Sourdoughs and cheechakos? Boomers and greenies facing off in the “Mad-Zoo?” A moon at noon? How is an Alaskan to explain all of this to citizens “Outside,” as we refer to all parts of the world that are not Alaska?
“Well, you can’t. It’s a lost cause,” says Mr. Whitekeys, an Anchorage entertainer who has made a career of lampooning the foibles of Alaskans and their politicians for in-state audiences who are in on the jokes. “You just can’t explain it.” Sample lyrics of one of his songs: “Wintertime, springtime, autumn, and summer, anytime anybody does something dumb an Alaskan does something dumber.”
Yet he takes a stab at clarifying things. “Alaska is a place where you can have no education, no experience, and no aptitude about anything, and you can still make more money doing it than anyplace else.” It’s the state with the second-highest consumption of Spam, and “the least amount of indoor plumbing,” he goes on to say. “We’re losers, and we’re perfectly happy about it.”
Or, as Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich put it, as he held a sidewalk press conference last week that was periodically interrupted by a blanket-wearing street musician alternately strumming a guitar, shouting, and belting out a hard-luck song: “Welcome to Alaska politics.”
Let’s start with the Alaskan Independence Party (AIP), the secession-minded group that has long livened up campaign seasons by calling for Alaska to be an independent nation. It was founded by an ornery gold miner named Joe Vogler, who hated the US government so much that he used only gold – not US currency – in his transactions.
He railed famously against environmental laws and “posy-sniffers” and wolves and oil companies, but mostly against the federal government, especially the National Park Service.
His pronouncements were recorded in John McPhee’s epic 1977 Alaska book, “Coming Into the Country.” “The United States has made a colony of Alaska,” Vogler told McPhee. “When they want something, they come and get it. We are their oyster.”
When Vogler disappeared in 1993 – a local man later confessed to killing him in a botched robbery – current party head Lynette Clark and her husband, Dexter, were convinced that the Park Service or some other federal agency was involved, and would be coming for other party leaders. But not to worry, Lynette Clark said at the time. They had a special home-defense system set up – buckets of guns distributed throughout their house.
Now the McCain campaign is fending off questions about Vogler’s party because Governor Palin participated in some AIP functions – she gave a welcoming speech via video at this year’s party convention – and her husband has been registered with the party on and off for years.
The idea that their group is a potential embarrassment infuriates Ms. Clark, a loquacious gold miner who lives near Fairbanks’s legendary Howling Dog Saloon. She points out that a governor, Wally Hickel, and lieutenant governor, Jack Coghill, were elected on the AIP ticket in 1990. “This fringe-party thing is a bunch of hooey,” she says. “The good old boys, the ‘Republicrats’ and the ‘Democans,’ are worried about being knocked off a block.”