How Sarah Palin's road trip turned into a car crash

The release of thousands of emails from her time in office caps an uncomfortable week for the Tea Party star

The real Sarah Palin – unedited, unguarded, and not always on-message – was being slowly revealed to the public last night after the state of Alaska released tens of thousands of public and private emails she sent during her first two years as Governor of Alaska.

Click here to upload graphic: The Palin Road Trip (243.31kb)

The documents, more than 24,000 pages released under US Freedom of Information laws, cover the first two years Ms Palin served as Governor of Alaska, from 2006 until the summer of 2008, when she was plucked from obscurity by Senator John McCain and thrust into the spotlight of a vice-presidential campaign.

Like every development on Planet Palin, the publication of the emails was covered by a large and vibrant media circus. Dozens of news organisations, which have spent the past couple of weeks following her headline-prone family's tour of historic sites in America's north-eastern states, descended on the Alaskan city of Juneau (population 30,000) for the occasion.

For the princely sum of $725, they were presented at 9am (6pm GMT) with six cartons of documents containing print-outs of the emails Palin sent from both her official address and two private Yahoo! accounts which she illegally used to conduct state business.

The Palin Files, as they were swiftly nicknamed, were then slowly uploaded to a selection of internet sites, where a mixture of journalists and interested members of the public began the laborious process of trawling through them in search of revelation.

By the time of going to press, they were gaining some intriguing insights into how she does business; but no major scandal had been uncovered.

One tranche of messages documented Palin's rise from relative unknown to one of America's most recognisable politicians. They reveal that, the day after she was appointed, her press team worried that she might be asked awkward questions about shooting polar bears, the environment, and a sunbed she had secretly attempted to install in the Governor's mansion.

As the 2008 campaign heated up, she began receiving death threats. One Dominique Villacrouz emailed: "Sarah Palin MUST BE KILLED!" An unidentified woman from Juneau got in touch to say Palin needed to be "shot from one of the planes that shoot th [sic] the very wolves that you ordered."

Other first impressions include the fact that Palin is extremely fond of exclamation marks. She often begins emails to staff by saying that she's "checkin in!" When she's pleased with an employee, she calls them "awesome!" When she's upset, emails tend to be littered with the word "heck!" On one occasion, she uses the word "unflippinbelievable".

Certain passages were redacted, to protect private information, and roughly 2,400 emails were withheld because state lawyers believe that publication would violate attorney-client privilege. Another 140 were kept back because they were classified as personal.

A spokesman for Ms Palin, who is still very noisily flirting with a presidential run, said the emails showed a "hard-working governor doing her job". Palin is nonetheless convinced that opponents will use them to attack her. Some of the messages "obviously weren't meant for public consumption", she told Fox News viewers this week. "So, you know what, I'm sure people are going to capitalise on this opportunity to go through 25,000 emails and perhaps take things out of context."

Among the potentially damaging episodes which may be laid bare by the emails is the so-called "Troopergate" scandal, in which Ms Palin was accused of improperly using her position as Governor to have her sister's estranged husband, Mike Wooten, fired from his job as a state trooper.

The emails may also shed light on Ms Palin's connections to the oil and gas industries. She started her reign as Governor by clashing with them, raising taxes and seeking to block a pipeline project, but later experienced a Damascene conversion, and began advocating opening Alaska's vast Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration and popularising the phrase "drill, baby, drill".

Although she these days rarely passes up an opportunity to criticise Barack Obama, things were different before Palin rose to prominence. In August 2008, she emailed aides to praise a "great speech" the then-Democratic candidate had given on energy policy, in which he mentioned the state of Alaska.

News organisations hope that further analysis of the documents will shed light on Ms Palin's character, modus operandi and fitness for high office. They may also reveal whether she has a competent grasp of policy issues.

During her briefing for the vice- presidential debates in 2008, Palin was famously rumoured to have confused North and South Korea and suggested that she thought Africa was a country, as opposed to a continent. Days earlier, she had attempted to underline her foreign policy credentials by claiming, wrongly, to be able to see Russia from her house.

Despite the ridicule that generated, Ms Palin has always blamed her lightweight image on what she calls the "lamestream" media. Her distrust of the press seems deep-rooted. In the summer of 2008, she told aides she was "crazy" about the constant media criticism.

"I feel like I'm at the breaking point with the hurtful gossip about my family," she wrote to director of communications Rosanne Hughes. "Many days I feel like it's not worth it when they have to put up with the hate that spews from people."

Ms Hughes responded with an effort to cheer her up. "Governor, do you know how loved you are?" it read. "You are so, so loved. The enemy is trying to discourage you. Hang in there! You are doing such an awesome job. You are an amazing lady and the Lord is your defender."

The "lamestream" media has Andree McLeod, an Alaskan journalist and long-standing opponent of Ms Palin's, to thank for the fact that the emails were released yesterday. In 2008, Ms McLeod submitted a public information request asking for their publication.

In normal circumstances, such requests must be honoured in 10 days. However, attorneys for Ms Palin and the state of Alaska spun the process out for three years, claiming they needed extra time to sort through the paperwork.

Ms Palin is hoping the emails do not affect her standing among the wider electorate. Although she retains strong support from right-leaning Republicans, polls suggest she will struggle to win a presidential race. The Bloomberg news agency found this week that 60 per cent of the public have a negative opinion of her, 28 per cent have a positive one and 12 per cent are undecided.

The harsh figures have not been affected by Ms Palin's unusual "one nation" bus tour, which has recently seen her family cross the north-eastern US in a vast, customised motor home paid for by her Political Action Committee.

Ms Palin has repeatedly described the tour – which began at a motorbike rally, and continued through several historic landmarks – as a sort of family vacation. She therefore refused to inform the media in advance of her agenda, causing several cat-and-mouse chases involving a cavalcade of reporters.

The tour has nonetheless received front-page coverage, and sparked a string of minor controversies. The VIP treatment Ms Palin's family received at landmarks such as the National Archive and Liberty Bell this week led to allegations in Congress that the National Parks Service had devoted resources to assisting what was a party-political series of events.

On Thursday, Ms Palin decided to release a campaign video filmed on the tour bus, which has been adorned with her signature in vast font. "Some members of the media missed a lot of this due to their relentless and futile search for scuttlebutt. So, we assembled this video to capture the amazing American spirit of the places and people we visited," she said.

Regardless of what emerges over the coming days, there is yet more excitement on the horizon. A second tranche of documents, covering the period between late 2008 and Ms Palin's resignation as Governor of Alaska in 2009, is currently being prepared for release.

Her bus tour will continue this summer, passing through the electorally important states of Iowa and Ohio. Then, in mid-July, an eagerly awaited documentary of her career entitled The Undefeated will hit cinemas.

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