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.
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.”
Others agree outsiders shouldn’t be unduly alarmed by the AIP’s rhetoric. “It’s more Alaskan than it is secessionist,” says Tony Knowles, a Democrat who served as governor from 1994 to 2002. “It’s a product of long winters and nothing else to do. There’s probably a relationship between how cold it gets and how many people are in the Alaskan Independence Party.” (Officially it’s 13,711 members.)
Anyway, some would argue, Alaska’s mainstream politicians are plenty colorful themselves. There is Hickel, who used to speak of taking counsel from an invisible “little man” and who once famously proclaimed, when defending Alaska’s controversial wolf-culling program, “You can’t just let nature run wild.”
There is Don Young, the Republican who has represented Alaska in the US House since 1973, whose congressional office wall is bedecked with stuffed animal trophies and who once snapped a leg-hold trap on his hand to prove that the device was not painful to animals.
There is Ted Stevens, the veteran US senator – now under indictment for allegedly concealing gifts from a politically connected Alaska oil executive – who girds for battle on the Senate floor by donning an Incredible Hulk tie.
Alaska’s fiscal and economic affairs confound Outside conventional wisdom, too. Tax cuts? A bit irrelevant in Alaska, where individual citizens face very little in the way of state taxes and in fact get money sent to them every year from the Alaska Permanent Fund.
Tax hikes? A good thing, according to state public opinion, because that means the state is wresting more wealth from the oil produced on state lands by BP, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and a few other companies.
High oil prices? A blessing that heaps billions of dollars into Alaska’s overflowing treasury, so much so that every Alaskan qualifying for this year’s Permanent Fund dividend of $2,069 will get an additional $1,200 “resource rebate.”
Even the nation’s fascination with Governor Palin’s moose-shootin’ ways has an Alaska context. Hunting here isn’t just some macho hobby. For Alaskans in the bush, it’s a main source of food, according to Willie Hensley, a long-time native leader. He describes the current contents of his own refrigerator. “I have seal oil and mipkuq [dried seal meat] and frozen caribou. And I’m a modern person,” he says.
While Palin has been trumpeting her small-town upbringing on the campaign trail, her hometown of Wasilla, a 45-minute commute from Anchorage, is considered urban by Alaska standards. Here, rural means outside the reach of roads. To get to the many native villages sprinkled along the rivers and coastlines of bush Alaska, you generally need an airplane, boat, snowmobile, or sled-dog team.
In the bush, unlike rural America, residents generally vote Democratic and see the land, rivers, and sea as their grocery stores.
Hensley, for instance, grew up in a sod home outside the Arctic community of Kotzebue. He went to boarding school and college Outside, and returned to be one of the forces behind the Alaska native land-claims settlement and corporation movement. Later, he became a state senator and state commerce commissioner.
“We have our own kind of characters in the native world,” says Hensley, who just published an autobiography that attempts to capture his, and Alaska’s, blend of the ancient and modern. “One day they might be out whaling in skin boats and the next day eating dinner with a senator and wearing a suit.”
All this attention, even if it confuses voters Outside, may bring some benefit to Alaska. “Hopefully the rest of the people in the United States will look at a map of Alaska right now and put Alaska in the right place, and not in a box off the coast of California,” says Gail Phillips, a former state House speaker.