The view from the grassy hill at the Henderson Pavilion that late October day was enough to make a diehard Republican swoon with affection and genuine excitement.
Several thousand people waited in long lines for a chance to cheer for the woman they all hoped would provide enough energy to jump-start Sen. John McCain’s pancake-flat campaign for president. That woman was Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Perhaps it was out of desperation. Maybe they were just looking for something to cheer about when many credible campaign polls showed Sen. Barack Obama leading McCain by widening margins.
But it seemed to me the conservatives on the hillside that day loved their Sarah and all she appeared to stand for.
Election Day was three weeks out and closing, and Palin had emerged from caribou country to become McCain’s running mate. Although her governing resume had plenty of holes and she was shy on experience — but no less experienced, her defenders jabbed, than the Democrat’s presidential nominee — Palin appeared to possess the kind of feistiness and fire it takes to do battle on the national stage.
And the conservatives who gathered that day adored her. Hundreds waited in line for more than an hour for a chance to see her from the nosebleed section.
It was her compelling life story.
Local John Erickson was there because he liked Palin’s "conservative values."
"She’s pro-capitalism, anti-socialism," he said. "I’m not necessarily that big on pro-life, but I understand lots of people are."
"She got there on her own," David Saffren said. "She did everything herself. No question about it. It’s what she represents."
Michael Willey understood Palin’s importance at a time Republican candidates throughout the country appeared to be sinking under the weight of the George W. Bush presidency.
"There was not a big energizing factor before," he said. "People like my sister and my mom, who have never been energized by politics, are suddenly extremely motivated to have someone who makes them feel as excited as liberals feel about having Obama talk to them."
No matter how slender Palin’s political portfolio, the affection for her seemed very real.
Less than nine months after that day at the Henderson Pavilion, in a sad, rambling speech, Palin announced Friday that she was resigning as governor.
Days earlier, a poll showed her leading slightly among likely Republican presidential candidates. Instead of spending time at Independence Day barbecues and parades with her constituents, or fishing with her family, she was announcing her resignation.
Palin sort of said she was tired of being kicked around by her political critics and the media. She seemed to say she was moving on to pursue other worthy service.
But mostly she looked like a slightly addled person who was quitting the public life she’d courted for many years. Although she’s been portrayed as a victim by a few conservative defenders, she was only the victim of her own ambition. All politicians seeking high office know — or at least should know — the bruising rules of engagement.
Although some members of the media have speculated there’s a larger strategy behind Palin’s departure, the fact she quit as a sitting governor is devastating and ruins whatever future she might have had in national politics. Although her delivery was troubling, her resignation announcement was professionally timed: a Friday before a major holiday, a day when reporters from Anchorage to Arlington were starting a long weekend. It was the perfect moment to pull up stakes if Palin was seeking to minimize media damage and scrutiny.
It was the kind of announcement that will fuel speculation. Like prizefighters, few politicians voluntarily step away from the spotlight. Most have to be dragged out feet first.
This was no comeback strategy. Her announcement sent a devastating message. If she can’t take the heat of ethics inquiries that all modern-day officeholders endure, how might we expect her to react when the going got tough at the White House?
Resigning a governorship is no resume-builder.
As easy as she was to mock as "Caribou Barbie" on "Saturday Night Live," Palin temporarily energized the GOP’s conservative base at a time of great malaise.
They loved their feisty, energetic Sarah that afternoon in Henderson.
Now they are left to wonder: What in the world really happened to her.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith/.