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Palin: All in the Family

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/11/palinfamiy.jpgGov. Sarah Palin and family members at the Republican National Convention. (wdcpix)

This tough campaign hasn’t changed Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in at least one big way. For Sen. John McCain’s running mate, the line between personal and professional life has always been blurry — and the last nine weeks have not changed this for her.

On Friday night, Palin sat for an interview with Greta Van Susteren of Fox News while traveling on her campaign bus in Pennsylvania. In Palin’s presence were her husband, Todd, and three of their children — Piper, Willow and Trig. Fox’s viewers saw clearly how Palin comfortably mixes family life with campaign issues.

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Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Since her first week on the hustings, and before as governor of Alaska, Palin’s easy mix of the personal and the professional has gotten her into trouble. Critics and allies alike say her inability to separate the two is one of her chief political flaws. Judging from the Fox interview, she still doesn’t see the problem.

Halloween decorations provided the backdrop as Palin sat flanked by her youngest daughter Piper, 7, and her husband, Todd. On the other side of Todd, daughter Willow, 14, bottle-fed the youngest Palin, Trig, age 6 months.

When Van Susteren asked her what the public should know about Todd, Palin gushed.

“Oh my gosh, he is just this all-around, hard-workin’ good dad,” Palin responded. “I don’t know if people really know what a good dad he is.”

Palin went on to say that Todd is her teammate — as she has described him before. She explained that he helps her run the household when he’s not working in the oil fields or fishing so she can focus on being governor.

She also views Todd as an unofficial team member in her administration, a role that drew criticism from a special investigator looking into the “troopergate” scandal. In her interview with Van Susteren, Palin seemed to suggest that her professional relationship with her husband would not change should she become vice president.

“And I anticipate and get to look forward to that, also, right?” Palin said, smiling and looking at her husband. “Workin’ there in the White House.”

Todd smiled back.

When Sen. John McCain announced that Palin would be his vice presidential nominee, the troopergate scandal, already simmering in Alaska, burst into the national consciousness. Palin reputedly fired her state’s top safety official after he would not fire her former brother-in-law. An official state investigation into the scandal concluded that personal factors played a role in his dismissal.

A second state investigation into the matter is now underway.

Two weeks after Palin’s national debut, the personal again seemed to influence the professional. News broke that she had fired one of her closest aides after he began dating the ex-wife of a family friend. Spokespersons for Palin have given conflicting explanations for the aide’s departure.

When the aide, John Bitney, first left the administration, a spokesman said it was an “amicable” departure for “personal” reasons. Once Palin started running for vice president, a spokesman cited Bitney’s poor performance — despite the fact that just weeks before his dismissal, Palin had publicly lauded him for his work.

As the campaign season has continued, more instances of how Palin blurs her personal and professional lives have come to light. She has come under investigation for charging taxpayers $21,000 to fly her children to state events. Alaska officials are also looking into why Palin collected $17,000 in per diem for 300 nights she spent at home in Wasilla, 600 miles from the state capital, Juneau, and 40 miles from her office in Anchorage.

A spokesman for Palin has said all her travel-related expenses were within the scope of the law in Alaska. Another spokeswoman noted that Palin has spent less money overall than her predecessor.

This series of revelations has proved damaging for a candidate who built her reputation as a reformer in a state government tainted by corruption.

But, for Palin, her family is indistinguishable from being governor. Her husband is her chief adviser, and she has repeatedly used her power to keep her children close to her and to settle family or personal scores.

Those who work with Palin, or who are her close advisers, have noted that business is personal for her. She does not clearly distinguish between her work and her family.

State Rep. Les Gara, a Democrat from Anchorage, wonders whether Palin’s tendency to take work personally will translate into problems if she doesn’t become vice president.

Gara pointed out that many state legislators have not supported her national run. Others did not defend her during the troopergate investigation. “I hope she doesn’t come back here and hold grudges,” Gara said during a recent interview in his Anchorage office.

The first gentleman, known in Alaska as “the first dude,” has also come under fire for the part he played in the firing of Palin’s top safety officer and his broad involvement in the her administration.

Todd held multiple meetings with state officials in the governor’s offices about ousting his ex-brother-in-law.

He was also frequently included on email messages for state officials about official business. The emails cover such topics as a bill on parental consent for abortion; a police union contract with the state; and Andrew Halcro, a local car-rental business owner who challenged Palin in the 2006 race for governor. Halcro is a vocal critic of the Palin administration.

“I have heard criticism that I am too involved with my wife’s administration,” Todd Palin said in a written statement he submitted as part of the troopergate investigation. “My wife and I are very close. We are each other’s best friend. I have helped her at every stage in her career the best I can, and she has helped me.”

Those close to Palin in Alaska note that Todd, who works for BP on the Prudhoe Bay oil field, has been her chief adviser and confidant in her political career.

Palin’s interview with Van Susteren also showed that Palin still includes her children in her work life.

In Alaska, event organizers were often surprised to find that the governor brought her children along to state events. The Associated Press reported that Palin billed the state $21,000 to fly them on official trips with her. The state has since launched a probe to determine whether Palin violated any rules or laws in billing the state for her children’s travel.

“[Palin] said any event she can take her kids to is an event she tries to attend,” Jennifer McCarthy told AP. McCarthy helped organize a picnic in Ketchikan that Palin attended in her role as governor — and brought her daughter Piper along.

The McCain-Palin campaign has said Palin followed state policy for the children’s travel.

Piper, in fact, fielded the first question of the interview with Van Susteren Friday. Wearing a tiara and a white dress, and periodically eating candy from a plastic pumpkin, Piper smiled as she said that her aunt had helped her pick out her snow princess costume from Target.

Van Susteren chatted with the governor, Todd, Willow and Piper for about six minutes before getting to the substance of the interview.

Even when the topic switched to a somber question about national security, Palin’s family stayed on camera.

“In the event something horrible would happen and you ended up being president — I mean, not through the usual procedure, but the unusual,” Van Susteren said. “If you got that three o’clock in the morning call, I mean, whatever it may be, whether it’s some country being actively hostile against Israel or something, what’s the process?”

Piper leaned her head on her mother’s shoulder. When Palin began to respond, Piper leaned across her lap to say something briefly to Todd.

“You assemble your national security team right then,” Palin responded to Van Susteren, ignoring Piper. “And, of course, everybody’s going to be standing by, ready to assist. But you do not blink when you have to make a decision to defend the homefront, to defend American lives.”

Palin remained focused on Van Susteren through the serious moments of the interview, even as Todd told Piper to be quiet.

Palin demonstrated that she is confident in doing two jobs at once — mom and leader.

This wasn’t the first moment in the campaign when Palin included her family in an interview.

In September, Katie Couric was surprised when she met Palin in her hotel room for the start of a series of interviews to find that Willow would be accompanying her mother that day.

Van Susteren wound down her interview with a final question for Piper.

“Piper,” Van Susteren asked, “if you could vote, who are you going to vote for?”

Piper sheepishly responded, with a smile, “My mom.”

Palin smiled and squeezed her daughter.

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