AD Header Dropdowns

AD Main Menu

McCandless and Palin, the woodsman and the politician

Craig Medred
Aaron Jansen illustration

Something is badly wrong with the psyche of a country in which Sarah Palin and Chris McCandless, one a product of Alaska and the other a victim of it, have become iconic figures for untold numbers of citizens.

This is not a rap on Palin or McCandless. The former, when not aflame with the venomous vindictiveness that seems the main by-product of her being snatched from the backwoods to perform as the "game-changer" for Sen. John McCain's failed bid at the Presidency, is a nice woman. And McCandless was merely a lost and troubled young man who never hurt or bothered anyone.

There really wasn't much to McCandless, which seems to be his attraction now. People want to paint all sorts of meaning into his searching for something if, in fact, he was doing even that. He might well have been nothing but lost. It happens to people all the time. The wires in the mind cross and finding the path ahead becomes impossible. They are left to wander aimlessly through life and never amount to anything.

In life, McCandless never amounted to anything, and the McCandless the world came to know in death wasn't so much an individual as a character created for John Krakauer's book "Into the Wild." From the time McCandless graduated Emory College in 1986, turned his back on his family, and wandered America until he turned up dead in 1992 a bus not far off the George Parks Highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, his life is a Krakauer construct of pieces chosen selectively here and there.

Is it an accurate construct? Obviously not. Krakauer has written about his own forays into the wilderness to search for the adventure that helps a lot of us define ourselves. Krakauer defines McCandless's behavior by assuming a parallel, and that's a stretch beyond the facts. Krakauer, like me and most young men who go adventuring, didn't divorce his family before setting off. McCandless's decision to sever his relationship with his well-to-do parents, not to mention his supposedly beloved sister, back in Fairfax, Va., is symptomatic not of world travelers, mountaineers or adventurers of any sort, but of someone with mental problems.

McCandless fits a pattern. About 1 in 100 people in this country suffer from schizophrenia, a disease that most commonly arrives in early adult life. It's an illness. You can read a lot more about it. Suffice to say, the so-called "paranoid type" among the schizophrenics can prove to be interesting people prone to delusions of persecution or grandeur, not to mention a language more about some sort of self-expression than communication, as in:

Two Years He Walks The Earth. No Phone, No Pool, No Pets, No Cigarettes. Ultimate Freedom. An Extremist. An Aesthetic Voyager Whose Home is The Road. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou Shall Not Return, Cause ‘The West is The Best’ And Now After Two Rambling Years Comes the Final and Greatest Adventure. The Climactic Battle To Kill The False Being Within And Victoriously Conclude the Spiritual Revolution! Ten Days & Nights of Freight Trains and Hitching Bring Him to the Great White North No Longer to Be Poisoned By Civilization He Flees, and Walks Alone Upon the Land To Become Lost in the Wild.

That would be a jotting from “Alexander Supertramp,” AKA McCandless. Supertramp was the name he claimed when he abandoned his own. It is interesting to note that the later-to-be-icon McCandless in this one note stole from singer Roger Miller's "King of the Road," "no phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes;" the rock group The Doors' "The End," "the west is the best"; and who knows who else to help build a word salad that can be read as suicide note -- "thou shall not return ... the final and greatest adventure ... to become lost in the wild" -- or attempt at self-help treatment, as in "the climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution."

Could McCandless's real quest have been this simple: He was going into the Alaska wilderness to either to get a grip on his life or not come back? As it turned out, he didn't come back. Palin did better, but then she wasn't and isn't crazy.

Rise to superstardom

Unable to find a job as a broadcaster, she became mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, a growing strip mall along the George Parks Highway north of Anchorage, Alaska's largest city. Wasilla, a sleepy community of a couple thousand people in the early 1980s, started to boom late that decade and was exploding out across the Susitna Valley when Palin took office in 1996.

Officially, the city itself would more than triple in population from 1,559 people in 1980 to 5,469 in 2000, but that was only part of the picture. As much as Wasilla was growing, the bedroom communities around it in the Mat-Su Borough were growing even more. It was a heady place to be a politician. Economic boom times make whoever is in charge look good, and Palin, a former beauty queen, started off good-looking.

Nobody ever accused her of being a genius, but then intelligence is overrated in American politics. Plenty of marginally intelligent politicians, say former U.S. Senator and later Vice-President Dan Quayle, have gone far, and plenty of extremely intelligent politicians have failed or imploded in office, say President Jimmy Carter. Palin was and is somewhere between those two in the realm of ideas, but she now outshines both in the media eye.

Palin became a political superstar. Sad to say, it was not because of her successes, but because of her failures. Her out-of-the-gate stumbles on the national stage McCain's made her a sympathetic figure to some on the right side of American politics who see a "liberal-media conspiracy" in everything, and she had the sense to play to that sympathy. Palin, who began her political career as a classic Alaska Republican of the left, scurried to the most conservative of camps because that was where her protectors waited. She found a home there. She figured out right quick that as long as she kept accusing black man and liberal Democrat Barack Obama of "pallin' around with terrorists," she would remain a media lightning rod and a protected member of a new clan.

The accusation is sort of funny now, given that Obama has become the meanest, most terrorist-killing SOB on the planet. The U.S. drones flying above the Third World have under his command blown up more terrorists than any president in American history. But the accusation that a candidate for president liked to pal around with terrorists wasn't funny during the 2008 campaign. It was something on which the media was sure to call Palin. Given that it was tantamount to calling Obama a traitor to the nation, the media, in fact, had a responsibility to investigate the accusation.

None other than the staid Associated Press chased around the charge Obama was a "pal" of once-violent Vietnam War activist William Ayers and concluded the claim was "unsubstantiated," which led CBS News to call Palin on the topic, which led Palin to call out the Associated Press as "wrong," which led down the road to what Palin is today -- the lamesteram-media-fighting, anti-establishment icon.

The voice shouting out against all those people who try to explain to us how the world works.

The consummate anti-intellectual.

The woman who knows that just because Jane is smarter than you doesn't mean she is smarter than you because you've got that "common sense."

Game-changer, neck-squeezer

Palin, it should be noted right here, has more than just common sense. How much more is the subject of considerable debate in her home state, but she is a college graduate. That is not a high bar in America these days, but it is a bar. Judging from her high school transcripts, she was never a great student, but she was a student -- not only in the academic sense but in the political sense after university. She paid attention to what was happening in her home state. She studied at the knee of late and former Gov. Wally Hickel -- he of the "owner state" philosophy.

She learned enough there to take the "owner state" proposition way behind anything envisioned by Hickel, a former U.S. Secretary of the Interior. Some, possibly many, Alaskans might today disagree with her far-left, share-the-wealth economic policy for the 49th state, but there is no doubt she was a game-changer on her home turf. Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share (ACES), the South American-sized tax now imposed on Big Oil in Alaska, wouldn't have come to pass without Palin. Everyone can argue now whether it was a good thing or a bad thing.

Some in the state think ACES squeezed the neck of the golden goose so tight it has slowed its production of golden eggs. There is a solid argument to be made for that position. But there is, no doubt, that for a time after Palin got hold of that goose by throat, Alaska was getting more golden eggs than ever. And that the former governor tried to do with the gas pipeline what she did with oil taxes -- bend major global companies to her will -- is commendable even if it was wrongheaded. The Alaska Gasline Inducement Act (AGIA) was never going to work.

It was an economic bridge too far, a probe so deep into the last terrain held by the survivors of the free-market oil industry that that they had to battle it to the last man or risk going down themselves. Americans like to pick on Big Oil as a symbol of capitalist greed and excess, but the truth is that it is a capitalist straggler fighting for its life. The real oil producers are governments: Saudi Aramco, an arm of the government of Saudi Arabia; the National Iranian Oil Company; Petróleos  Mexicanos or Pemex, for short, the state-owned oil company of Mexico; the Iraq National Oil Company, and on down the list nation by nation just about anywhere there is oil. All told, government-owned companies control about 80 percent of the world's known oil reserves.

These are rich and powerful companies, and to compete against them the last of the free-market oil barons need to be tough, resourceful and maybe even a little devious. All of which makes them tough folks with him to do business, and even tougher folks against whom to war. Palin went to war. That she did so either showed great courage or great ignorance. In retrospect, this, too, is much debated. Palin's final place in Alaska history is yet to be determined.

Alexandra Supertramp?

But what is already clear is that on an intellectual level, there wasn't much more to Palin than to McCandless. What you see of her mumblings on network TV these days is what she is -- The Great Refudiator.

Let that one word be a lesson, too. If you're ever given a choice between luck and brains, take luck. Palin, despite later claims she willfully and instantaneously coined a new word in the style of Shakespeare, clearly stumbled blindly into refudiate only to have it become the word of the year. She might well have stumbled into ACES, too.

Some believe she went after Big Oil only because husband Todd and his union buddies were mad at BP, one of the majors, and wanted vengeance. Given what has been revealed of Sarah's character since the failed V.P. bid, that accusation doesn't sound so far-fetched. But it doesn't make her a bad governor or a bad Alaska politician. Intellectual limitations can actually be an asset for a politician. Palin, as governor, clearly didn't get bogged down in the details of the oil debate. She was able to stand back and see the forest instead of getting lost in the trees.

For someone who grew up steeped in the idea that oil beneath the ground of Alaska is oil that belongs to Alaskans -- not to the damn oil companies that spend fortunes to find and produce it -- the view of the forest was simple: The more money Alaska gets out of this deal the better.

It is pretty much the same view held by the people of Norway, which everyone seems to agree is a socialist country. Thus, as an Alaskan, it seems far beyond odd to see Palin now held up as some sort of 21st Century reincarnation of Ayn Rand by Americans who basically hate government, which is not a bad thing. Hating government, or at least distrusting it at all times, was a founding theme of this country. It's a good thing.

The worship of false idols, whether they be politician Palin or woodsman McCandless, well, that's a different matter. That's never a good thing.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.