Tuesday, June 30, 2009

PALIN: It Came from Wasilla

Todd S. Purdum
Despite her disastrous performance in the 2008 election, Sarah Palin is still the sexiest brand in Republican politics, with a lucrative book contract for her story. But what Alaska’s charismatic governor wants the public to know about herself doesn’t always jibe with reality. As John McCain’s top campaign officials talk more candidly than ever before about the meltdown of his vice-presidential pick, the author tracks the signs—political and personal—that Palin was big trouble, and checks the forecast for her future.

The pattern is inescapable: she takes disagreements personally, and swiftly deals vengeance on enemies, real or perceived.

The crowds begin streaming into the Evansville Auditorium and Convention Centre a couple of hours before the arrival of the “special guest speaker” at the Vanderburgh County Right to Life dinner on a soft Indiana spring evening—nearly 2,200 people in the banquet hall, 800 more in an adjacent auditorium watching the proceedings on a live video feed. The menu is thick slices of roast pork and red velvet cake, washed down with pitchers of iced tea, and when Sarah Palin finally enters, escorted by a phalanx of sheriff’s deputies and local police, she is mobbed. The organizers of the dinner, billed as “the largest pro-life banquet in the world,” have courted Palin for weeks with care packages of locally made chocolates, doughnuts, barbecue, and pastries, and she has requited by choosing Evansville, a conservative stronghold in southern Indiana, as the site of her first public speech outside Alaska in 2009. Like Richard M. Nixon, who chose the coalfield town of Hyden, Kentucky, for his first post-resignation public appearance, Palin has come to a place where she is guaranteed a hero’s reception. She is not only a staunch foe of abortion but also the mother of a boy, Trig, who was born with Down syndrome just a few months before John McCain chose Palin as his running mate. The souvenir program for this evening’s dinner is full of displays for local politicians and businesses, attesting to their pro-life bona fides. An ad for Hahn Realty Corporation reads, “If you need commercial real estate, call Joe Kiefer! Joe is pro-life and a proud supporter of the Vanderburgh County Right to Life.”

As Palin makes her way slowly across the crowded ballroom—dressed all in black; no red Naughty Monkey Double Dare pumps tonight—she is stopped every few inches by adoring fans. She passes the press pen, where at least eight television cameras and a passel of reporters and photographers are corralled, and spots a reporter for a local community newspaper getting ready to take a happy snap with his pocket camera. For a split second she stops, pauses, turns her head and shoulders just so, and smiles. She holds the pose until she’s sure the man has his shot and then moves on. A few minutes later, the evening’s nominal keynote speaker, the Republican Party’s national chairman, Michael Steele, who has been reduced to a footnote in the proceedings, introduces the special guest speaker as “the storm that is the honorable governor of the great state of Alaska, Sarah Palin!”

Poll: Who is the most powerful woman in the G.O.P.?
Just where that storm may be heading is one of the most intriguing issues in American politics today. Palin is at once the sexiest and the riskiest brand in the Republican Party. Her appeal to people in the party (and in the country) who share her convictions and resentments is profound. The fascination is viral, and global. Bill McAllister, until recently Palin’s statehouse spokesman, says that he has fielded (and declined) interview requests from France, England, Italy, Switzerland, Israel, Germany, Bulgaria, “and probably other countries I’ve forgotten about.” (Palin, keeping her distance from most domestic media as well, also declined to talk to V.F.). Whatever her political future, the emergence of Sarah Palin raises questions that will not soon go away. What does it say about the nature of modern American politics that a public official who often seems proud of what she does not know is not only accepted but applauded? What does her prominence say about the importance of having (or lacking) a record of achievement in public life? Why did so many skilled veterans of the Republican Party—long regarded as the more adroit team in presidential politics—keep loyally working for her election even after they privately realized she was casual about the truth and totally unfit for the vice-presidency? Perhaps most painful, how could John McCain, one of the cagiest survivors in contemporary politics—with a fine appreciation of life’s injustices and absurdities, a love for the sweep of history, and an overdeveloped sense of his own integrity and honor—ever have picked a person whose utter shortage of qualification for her proposed job all but disqualified him for his?

In the aftermath of the November election, the conventional wisdom among Palin’s supporters in the Republican establishment was that she should go home, keep her head down, show that she could govern effectively, and quietly educate herself about foreign and domestic policy with the help of a cadre of experienced advisers. She has done none of this. Rather, she has pursued an erratic course that, for her, may actually represent the closest thing there is to True North. Her first trip to Washington since the election was to attend the dinner of the Alfalfa Club, an elite group of politicians and businesspeople whose sole function is an annual evening in honor of a plant that would “do anything for a drink.” Some of her handlers first said she had accepted—though she then went on to decline—an invitation to speak at the annual June fund-raiser for the congressional Republicans. She created a political-action committee—Sarahpac—with the help of John Coale, a prominent Democratic trial lawyer. But just months into its existence the pac’s chief fund-raiser, Becki Donatelli, a veteran of Republican campaigns, suddenly quit. One person familiar with the situation told me that Donatelli could not stand dealing with Palin’s political spokeswoman in Alaska, Meghan Stapleton, who has drawn withering fire from Palin friends and critics alike for being an ineffective adviser. Also with Coale’s help, Palin formed the grandiosely named Alaska Fund Trust, to defray a reported half million dollars in legal expenses arising from a slew of formal ethics complaints against her in her home state—prompting yet another formal complaint, that the fund itself constitutes an ethical breach. Onetime supporters have become harsh critics. Walter Hickel, 89, a former two-term governor and interior secretary, and the grand old man of Alaska politics, who was co-chair of Palin’s winning gubernatorial campaign, in 2006, now washes his hands of her. He told me simply, “I don’t give a damn what she does.”

Palin is unlike any other national figure in modern American life—neither Anna Nicole Smith nor Margaret Chase Smith but a phenomenon all her own. The clouds of tabloid conflict and controversy that swirl around her and her extended clan—the surprise pregnancies, the two-bit blood feuds, the tawdry in-laws and common-law kin caught selling drugs or poaching game—give her family a singular status in the rogues’ gallery of political relatives. By comparison, Billy Carter, Donald Nixon, and Roger Clinton seem like avatars of circumspection. Palin’s life has sometimes played out like an unholy amalgam of Desperate Housewives and Northern Exposure.

Another aspect of the Palin phenomenon bears examination, even if the mere act of raising it invites intimations of sexism: she is by far the best-looking woman ever to rise to such heights in national politics, the first indisputably fertile female to dare to dance with the big dogs. This pheromonal reality has been a blessing and a curse. It has captivated people who would never have given someone with Palin’s record a second glance if Palin had looked like Susan Boyle. And it has made others reluctant to give her a second chance because she looks like a beauty queen.

Soon Palin will take a crack at her own story: she has signed a book contract for an undisclosed but presumably substantial sum, and has chosen Lynn Vincent, a senior writer at the Christian-conservative World magazine, as co-author of the memoir, which is to be published next year not only by HarperCollins but also in a special edition by Zondervan, the Bible-publishing house, that may include supplemental material on faith. During the presidential campaign, Palin’s deep ignorance about most aspects of foreign and domestic policy provided her with a powerful political reason not to submit to interviews. The forthcoming book adds a powerful commercial reason.

Palin is a cipher by choice. When she chooses to reveal herself, what she reveals is not always the same thing as the truth. Her singular refusal to have in-depth conversations with the national media—even Richard Nixon and Dick Cheney, among the most saturnine political figures in modern American history, each submitted to countless detailed interviews over the years—has compounded the challenge of understanding who she really is. There has been Hollywood talk that Palin could star in a reality-TV show about running Alaska, but nothing has come of it yet. Recently, Palin did star in a week-long seriocomic feud with David Letterman over some of his borderline jokes. Meanwhile, she has begun sharing insights several times a day on Twitter, with chipper reports on her own doings and those of her husband, Todd, and the rest of what she calls the “first family.” “Look forward to today’s staff discussion re: my 3rd justice appt to highest court in 3 yrs. Supreme Court truly effects AK’s future,” reads one. And another: “Picking up my handsome little man to rtrn to Juneau, Trig got 1st haircut so my little hippie baby’s ready for AK sunshine on his shoulders.”

Little Shop of Horrors
The caricature of Sarah Palin that emerged in the presidential campaign, for good and ill, is now ineradicable. The swift journey from her knockout convention speech to Tina Fey’s dead-eyed incarnation of her as Dan Quayle with an updo played out in real time, no less for the bewildered McCain campaign than for the public at large. It is an ironclad axiom of politics that if a campaign looks troubled from the outside the inside reality is far worse, and the McCain-Palin fiasco was no exception. As in any sudden marriage of convenience in which neither partner really knows the other, there were bound to be bumps. Palin had been on the national Republican radar for barely a year, after a cruise ship of conservative columnists, including The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol, had stopped in Juneau in 2007 and had succumbed to her charms when she invited them to the governor’s house for a luncheon of halibut cheeks. McCain had spent only a couple of hours in Palin’s presence before choosing her, and she had pointedly failed to endorse him after he clinched the nomination in March. The difficulties began immediately, with the McCain team’s delivery of the bad news that the pregnancy of Palin’s daughter Bristol, which was already common knowledge in Alaska and had been revealed to the McCain team at the last minute, could not be kept secret until after the Republican convention.

By the time Election Day rolled around, the staff had been serially pummeled by unflattering press reports about the gaps in Palin’s knowledge, her stubborn resistance to direction, and the post-selection spending spree in which she ran up bills of $150,000 on clothes for herself and her family at high-end stores. The top McCain aides who had tried hard to work with Palin—Steve Schmidt, the chief strategist; Nicolle Wallace, the communications ace; and Tucker Eskew, her traveling counselor—were barely on speaking terms with her, and news organizations were reporting that anonymous McCain aides saw Palin as a “diva” and a “whack job.” Many of the details that led to such assessments have remained obscure. But in a recent series of conversations, a range of people from the McCain-Palin campaign, including members of the high command, agreed to elaborate on how a match they thought so right ended up going so wrong.

The consensus is that Palin’s rollout, and even her first television interview, with ABC’s Charles Gibson, conducted after an awkward two-week press blackout to allow for intensive cramming at her home in Wasilla, went more or less fine, though it had its embarrassing moments (“You can’t blink,” Palin said, when Gibson asked if she’d hesitated to accept McCain’s offer) and was much parodied. At least one savvy politician—Barack Obama—believed Palin would never have time to get up to speed. He told his aides that it had taken him four months to learn how to be a national candidate, and added, “I don’t care how talented she is, this is really a leap.” The paramount strategic goal in picking Palin was that the choice of a running mate had to ensure a successful convention and a competitive race right after; in that limited sense, the choice worked. But no serious vetting had been done before the selection (by either the McCain or the Obama team), and there was trouble in nailing down basic facts about Palin’s life. After she was picked, the campaign belatedly sent a dozen lawyers and researchers, led by a veteran Bush aide, Taylor Griffin, to Alaska, in a desperate race against the national reporters descending on the state. At one point, trying out a debating point that she believed showed she could empathize with uninsured Americans, Palin told McCain aides that she and Todd in the early years of their marriage had been unable to afford health insurance of any kind, and had gone without it until he got his union card and went to work for British Petroleum on the North Slope of Alaska. Checking with Todd Palin himself revealed that, no, they had had catastrophic coverage all along. She insisted that catastrophic insurance didn’t really count and need not be revealed. This sort of slipperiness—about both what the truth was and whether the truth even mattered—persisted on questions great and small. By late September, when the time came to coach Palin for her second major interview, this time with Katie Couric, there were severe tensions between Palin and the campaign.

By all accounts, Palin was either unwilling, or simply unable, to prepare. In the run-up to the Couric interview, Palin had become preoccupied with a far more parochial concern: answering a humdrum written questionnaire from her hometown newspaper, the Frontiersman. McCain aides saw it as easy stuff, the usual boilerplate, the work of 20 minutes or so, but Palin worried intently. At the same time, she grew concerned that her approval ratings back home in Alaska were sagging as she embraced the role of McCain’s bad cop. To keep her happy, the chief McCain strategist, Steve Schmidt, agreed to conduct a onetime poll of 300 Alaska voters. It would prove to Palin, Schmidt thought, that everything was all right.

Then came the near-total meltdown of the financial system and McCain’s much-derided decision to briefly “suspend” his campaign. Under the circumstances, and with severely limited resources, Schmidt and the McCain-campaign chairman, Rick Davis, scrapped the Alaska poll and urgently set out to survey voters’ views of the economy (and of McCain’s response to it) in competitive states. Palin was furious. She was convinced that Schmidt had lied to her, a belief she conveyed to anyone who would listen.

The next big milestone for Palin was the debate with Joe Biden, on October 2. An early rehearsal effort in Philadelphia found 20 people sitting in a stifling room with hundreds of sample questions on note cards. Palin just stared down, disengaged, non-participatory. A disaster loomed, so Schmidt made the difficult decision to leave campaign headquarters, in Virginia, and fly to McCain’s vacation retreat in Sedona, Arizona, where it was thought that Palin might be able to relax and recharge, and accept the assistance of a voice coach and a television coach. For three full days—at the height of the campaign—Schmidt dropped virtually all other business to help Palin prepare.

He also enlisted some extra help. By this point, Palin’s relations with Nicolle Wallace—a veteran of the Bush White House and a former CBS News analyst who had tried to help Palin get ready for the Couric interview, and whom Palin blamed for the result—were so strained that campaign aides cast about for someone who could serve as a calming presence: Palin’s horse whisperer. They settled on Mark McKinnon, a smart, funny, soft-spoken former Democrat from Texas. McKinnon had long admired McCain, and had begun the Republican primary season helping him out—though warning that he would never work against Obama in the general election. But now McKinnon, whose role in helping prepare Palin has not been previously reported, and who declined to elaborate on it to V.F., changed his mind and quietly signed on. Mark Salter, McCain’s longtime aide, says that McKinnon was picked because “he’s got a lovely manner You sort of want a guy who’s very easygoing, gives good advice, and doesn’t add to the natural nervousness.”

Palin worked hard, and the results were adequate. Palin’s winking “Can I call you Joe?” performance against Biden was nothing like a disaster. In fact, it seems to have emboldened her enough that the next day she openly voiced disagreement with the McCain team’s decision to pull out of active competition in Michigan. When orders or advice from McCain headquarters began to conflict with her own impulses, aides told me, she simply did what she wanted to do. “The problem was she came down from Alaska with basically Todd as a sort of trusted bellwether adviser,” one McCain friend says. “She was given this staff of 20. It was probably too big a staff. To be real honest with you, I don’t think she could figure out who to trust.” All the while, Palin was coping not only with the crazed life of any national candidate on the road but also with the young children traveling with her. Some top aides worried about her mental state: was it possible that she was experiencing postpartum depression? (Palin’s youngest son was less than six months old.) Palin maintained only the barest level of civil discourse with Tucker Eskew, the veteran G.O.P. operative who had been made her chief minder. A third party had to shuttle between them to convey even the most rudimentary messages. “She started to hedge her bets,” the same McCain friend says. “Frequently, she would be concerned about how something would play in Alaska. What? You’re worried about your backside in Alaska when there are hundreds of millions of dollars being spent?” One longtime McCain friend and frequent companion on the trail was heard to refer to Palin as “Little Shop of Horrors.”

Election Night brought what McCain aides saw as the final indignity. Palin decided she would make her own speech at the ticket’s farewell to the faithful, at the Arizona Biltmore, in Phoenix. When aides went to load McCain’s concession speech into the teleprompter, they found a concession speech for Palin—written by Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully, who had also been the principal drafter of her convention speech—already on the system. Schmidt and Salter told Palin that there was no tradition of Election Night speeches by running mates, and that she wouldn’t be giving one. Palin was insistent. “Are those John’s wishes?” she asked. They were, she was told. But Palin took the issue to McCain himself, raising it on the walk from his suite to the outdoor rally. Again the answer was no.

Polar Disorder
There is virtually nothing about Palin’s performance in the fall campaign that should have come as a surprise to John McCain. Had he really attempted to learn something about her before the fateful day of August 29, 2008, when he announced that she was his choice for running mate, he would easily have discerned all the traits that he belatedly came to know.

The narrative that the McCain campaign employed to explain Palin’s selection and to promote her qualifications—that she was a fresh-faced reformer who had taken on Alaska’s big oil companies and the corrupt Republican establishment, governing with bipartisan support—was never more than superficially true. In dozens of conversations during a recent visit to Alaska, it was easy to learn that there has always been a counter-narrative about Palin, and indeed it has become the dominant one. It is the story of a political novice with an intuitive feel for the temper of her times, a woman who saw her opportunities and coolly seized them. In every job, she surrounded herself with an insular coterie of trusted friends, took disagreements personally, discarded people who were no longer useful, and swiftly dealt vengeance on enemies, real or perceived. “Remember,” says Lyda Green, a former Republican state senator who once represented Palin’s home district, and who over the years went from being a supporter of Palin’s to a bitter foe, “her nickname in high school was ‘Barracuda.’ I was never called Barracuda. Were you? There’s a certain instinct there that you go for the jugular.”

The first thing McCain could have learned about Palin is what it means that she is from Alaska. More than 30 years ago, John McPhee wrote, “Alaska is a foreign country significantly populated with Americans. Its languages extend to English. Its nature is its own. Nothing seems so unexpected as the boxes marked ‘U.S. Mail.’” That description still fits. The state capital, Juneau, is 600 miles from the principal city, Anchorage, and is reachable only by air or sea. Alaskan politicians list the length of their residency in the state (if they were not born there) at the top of their biographies, and are careful to specify whether they like hunting, fishing, or both. There is little sense of government as an enduring institution: when the annual 90-day legislative session is over, the legislators pack up their offices, files, and computers, and take everything home. Alaska’s largest newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News, maintains no full-time bureau in Juneau to cover the statehouse. As in any resource-rich developing country with weak institutions and woeful oversight, corruption and official misconduct go easily unchecked. Scrutiny is not welcome, and Alaskans of every age and station, of every race and political stripe, unself-consciously refer to every other place on earth with a single word: Outside.

So, of all the puzzling things that Sarah Palin told the American public last fall, perhaps the most puzzling was this: “Believe me, Alaska is like a microcosm of America.”

Believe me, it is not.

But Sarah Palin herself is a microcosm of Alaska, or at least of the fastest-growing and politically crucial part of it, which stretches up the broad Matanuska-Susitna Valley, north of Anchorage, where she came of age and cut her political teeth in her now famous hometown, Wasilla. In the same way that Lyndon Johnson could only have come from Texas, or Bill Clinton from Arkansas, Palin and all that she is could only have come from Wasilla. It is a place of breathtaking scenery and virtually no zoning. The view along Wasilla’s main drag is of Chili’s, ihop, Home Depot, Target, and Arby’s, and yet the view from the Palins’ front yard, on Lake Lucille, recalls the Alpine splendor visible from Captain Von Trapp’s terrace in The Sound of Music. It is culturally conservative: the local newspaper recently published an article that asked, “Will the Antichrist be a Homosexual?” It is in this Alaska—where it is possible to be both a conservative Republican and a pothead, or a foursquare Democrat and a gun nut—that Sarah Palin learned everything she knows about politics, and about life. It was in this environment that her ambition first found an outlet in public office, and where she first tasted the 151-proof Everclear that is power.

The second thing McCain could have discovered about Palin is that no political principle or personal relationship is more sacred than her own ambition. To be sure, Palin is “conservative,” whatever that means, but she can be all over the lot in the articulation of her platform. In a June interview with Sean Hannity, she sounded like a New Dealer when she proudly proclaimed that “a share of our oil-resource revenue goes back to the people who own the resources—imagine that.” In the next breath, sounding like a “starve the beast” conservative, she said she hoped the price of oil, the principal variable of state revenue, would not rise too much. “The fewer dollars that the state of Alaska government has, the fewer dollars we spend, and that’s good for our families and the private sector.” Palin has always been a party of one. She gained the mayoralty of Wasilla in 1996 by turning against the incumbent, John Stein, who had been one of her mentors when she was on the city council, and injecting sharply partisan issues such as gun rights and abortion into what had previously been a low-key local contest. She fired the police chief, eased out the museum director and the city planner, and fired and then rehired the librarian (who had opposed book censorship). Palin was entitled to make the dismissals, and she variously justified them on the grounds of budget difficulties or the need for a team that she could be sure would support her efforts. But the Frontiersman accused Palin of confusing her election with a “coronation.”

Even in broad outline the story of how a small-town mayor became the youngest governor in Alaska history seems improbable. There was her long-shot campaign for lieutenant governor, in 2002, in which she came in second against a veteran state senator in a five-way race; her appointment as chair (and ethics supervisor) of the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which oversees drilling and production; and her resignation from that post, charging that a fellow commissioner, Randy Ruedrich, the chair of the Alaska Republican Party, was conducting political business on state time. In a climate where the sitting Republican governor, Frank Murkowski, had become the most unpopular figure in the state, and where the F.B.I. was swarming over Alaska, pursuing the corruption probe that later ensnared the state’s senior U.S. senator, Ted Stevens, Palin seemed like a breath of fresh air.

Yet Palin herself cut corners. Ruedrich, Palin’s target on the Conservation Commission, was forced to resign, but in 2006, as Palin was beginning her campaign for governor, a conservative columnist dug up e-mail messages showing that she too had conducted campaign business from her mayoral office. Confronted by the columnist, Palin acknowledged that she had erred. Then she turned around and issued a press release, demanding to know why the columnist was publishing smears.

Palin won the crucial support of Walter Hickel in her campaign for governor in part by supporting one of his longtime hobbyhorses, an “all-Alaska” natural-gas pipeline that would pump gas to the port of Valdez for export worldwide. As the campaign wore on, Palin backed away from that idea. “I helped her out, she got elected,” Hickel says now. “She never called me once in her life after that.”

Palin’s 2006 campaign for governor relied at first almost wholly on a ragtag band of true believers. “She had this little grassroots group that was going around the state on a wing and a prayer, talking up her platitudes,” says John Bitney, an old friend of Palin’s from junior-high band in Wasilla, where he played the trombone and she played the flute. Bitney at the time was a lobbyist and veteran legislative aide in Juneau, and he began passing political intelligence and advice to Palin. When Palin routed Murkowski in the Republican primary, she still had no real professional campaign staff. Bitney signed on, forming a triumvirate with Curtis Smith, a veteran Anchorage media consultant, and Kris Perry, another old friend of Palin’s from Wasilla, who functioned as her personal assistant and also held the title of campaign manager. Palin began preparing for a general-election campaign against Tony Knowles, the former two-term Democratic governor, and Andrew Halcro, a former Republican legislator who was running as an independent.

She apparently didn’t like preparing for debates back then either. “In the campaign for governor, they’re prepping her for debate,” Curtis Smith’s former business partner, Jim Lottsfeldt, told me recently in Anchorage, “and Curtis says, ‘The debate prep’s going horribly. Every time we try to help her with an answer, she just gets mad.’” (Smith himself says, “Unfortunately, I don’t recall having that exact conversation with Mr. Lottsfeldt, nor do I recall my experience, including debate prep, with Governor Palin in the light he portrayed.”) But Palin’s lack of knowledge turned out not to hurt her. Andrew Halcro later remembered that he and Palin once compared notes about their many encounters, and she said, “Andrew, I watch you at these debates with no notes, no papers, and yet when asked questions, you spout off facts, figures, and policies, and I’m amazed. But then I look out into the audience and I ask myself, Does any of this really matter?”

Palin’s victory that November was one of the flukiest successes in modern American politics. Rebecca Braun, the publisher of the Alaska Budget Report, a respected nonpartisan newsletter, describes the result as something “far beyond anything you could explain in terms of intellect or training.” But Palin had promised three big things, and with the help of Bitney, who became her liaison with the legislature, and Mike Tibbles, her chief of staff, she achieved them. She increased oil taxes; she won the legislative framework for a gas pipeline, though not the one Hickel wanted; and she signed significant ethics reforms. In all three efforts she won strong cooperation from Democrats. “She had an easy go of it,” says Larry Persily, a former editorial-page editor of the Anchorage Daily News, who went to work in Palin’s Washington office but is now a critic of the governor’s. “The Democrats were in love with her. She slew the oil-company Gorgon, and came in on the magic carpet of oil-tax reform and ethics. The Democrats were intoxicated because she wasn’t Frank Murkowski.” Rising oil prices provided an added lift. Palin was able to increase the annual distribution from the state’s Permanent Fund to about $3,000 per resident, almost double the amount received the previous year. She could be a fiscal conservative and a big spender all at the same time.

But there were ominous signs—indications of an erratic nature. This is the third thing McCain could have discovered about Palin—a woman, after all, who kept a pregnancy secret for seven months, flew all the way home from Texas to Alaska with a near-full-term baby while leaking amniotic fluid, and then finally drove the 45 minutes from Anchorage to a hospital in Wasilla, all so that the child could be born in the 49th state. Palin was for the infamous Gravina Island “bridge to nowhere” before she was against it, and reversed herself only when such pork-barrel projects prompted a nationwide backlash. As governor, she hired several old high-school, hometown, or political friends with minimal qualifications for important state jobs. One friend, a former mid-level manager for Alaska Airlines, headed the department that reviewed candidates for state boards and commissions; another became director of the state Division of Agriculture, citing a childhood love of cows as one qualification. Palin communicated with legislators and her staff mainly by BlackBerry, sometimes using a personal e-mail account to avoid having to disclose documents under the state public-records laws. (The one time Meg Stapleton, who handles Palin’s personal and political public relations, ever answered multiple e-mails was when I wrote her and Palin’s gubernatorial office at the same time, and she replied: “Thank you for emailing. I will email you separately so as to remove us from the state account.”) Palin’s anti-politician stance had worked so well in her campaign that she carried it over into her dealings with actual politicians in Juneau, who didn’t take kindly to the practice. After one meeting between the governor and legislators in 2007, Lyda Green, then the president of the state senate, returned to her office to catch up on some paperwork. She caught Palin on the news. “And she comes on TV and says, ‘I want to once again confirm that neither I nor my staff ever holds closed-door meetings.’ Well, we had just been in a closed-door meeting for an hour and a half!” Representative Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat who often worked with Palin, told me that he had at first thought that some of Green’s sharp criticism of Palin amounted to Republican infighting, or maybe just sour grapes that Wasilla had produced a new political figure whose star far outshone Green’s. But he came to realize, he said, that Green had a better handle on Palin than he did. “She didn’t work very hard. You would speak to her on particular issues, and it was like she didn’t know anything about them and she never seemed very engaged.” That said, “if your priorities happened to be her priorities, you could build a coalition.”

On the other hand, if your priorities happened to differ from hers, you could pay a terrible price. Only weeks after Palin praised John Bitney for doing so much to make her first legislative session a success, she summarily fired him—because, he says, he had had the bad luck to fall in love with the wife of one of the Palins’ best friends (a woman he has since married). At the time, Palin’s office cited what it called “personal” reasons for an “amicable” departure. But when The Wall Street Journal called Palin’s office during last fall’s presidential campaign to ask about the case, a spokeswoman for Palin said that Bitney had been “dismissed because of his poor job performance,” and refused to elaborate.

Not quite a year after Bitney’s departure, Mike Tibbles abruptly resigned as chief of staff, for reasons that neither he nor Palin has ever explained. Jim Lottsfeldt, a friend of Tibbles’s, says that the chief of staff was worn down “by the steady drumbeat of her not consulting with him.” She replaced Tibbles with Mike Nizich, a part-time taxidermist, who over 30 years had served seven governors of both parties, most of that time as director of the state Division of Administration—a man who made the trains run on time in the governor’s office but had nothing to do with policy issues. Palin’s effectiveness was never again the same. The brutal reality is that many people who have worked closely with Palin have found themselves disillusioned.

More than once in my travels in Alaska, people brought up, without prompting, the question of Palin’s extravagant self-regard. Several told me, independently of one another, that they had consulted the definition of “narcissistic personality disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—“a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy”—and thought it fit her perfectly. When Trig was born, Palin wrote an e-mail letter to friends and relatives, describing the belated news of her pregnancy and detailing Trig’s condition; she wrote the e-mail not in her own name but in God’s, and signed it “Trig’s Creator, Your Heavenly Father.”

Perhaps no episode of Palin’s governorship has drawn more attention than the one that came to be known as Troopergate. For more than a year of her tenure as governor, Palin and her husband and aides repeatedly and aggressively complained to Walt Monegan, the former Anchorage police chief whom Palin had named to head the state’s Department of Public Safety, about Mike Wooten, a state trooper who had been involved in a messy divorce from Palin’s sister Molly. Wooten was no angel. Before Palin ever took office, he had been disciplined after drinking beer in his patrol car, Tasering his stepson, illegally shooting a moose, and making threatening remarks about Palin’s father. But Wooten had already been disciplined, and Monegan believed that further action was unjustified if not impossible. The final straw may have been Monegan’s June 30, 2008, e-mail warning to Palin that an unnamed state legislator had complained that she’d been seen driving with her newborn son, and that the infant had not been strapped into an approved car seat. “I have never driven Trig anywhere without a new, approved car seat,” Palin fired back. “I want to know who said otherwise—pls. provide me that info now.” Twelve days later, Nizich fired Monegan on Palin’s orders. Forty-nine days after that, John McCain announced that Palin would join him on the ticket.

Arrows in the Back
In Alaska, there has never been a gubernatorial tradition of pardoning a turkey at Thanksgiving, but Palin decided to stage such a ceremony last November all the same, at the Triple D Farm & Hatchery, outside Wasilla. After granting the lucky bird its reprieve, she stopped to talk to a local television reporter about what she had learned in the campaign just concluded. “I don’t think it’s changed me at all,” she insisted, clutching a cup of coffee as her breath steamed into the frosty air. “You know, it’s pretty brutal, the time consumption there, and the energy that has to be spent in order to get out and about with the message on a national level, a great appreciation for other candidates who have gone through this, but also just a great appreciation for this great country. There are so many good Americans who are just desiring of their government to kind of get out of the way and allow them to grow and progress, and allow our businesses to grow and progress. So, great appreciation for those who share that value.”

As Palin spoke, a grisly scene unfolded behind her. A worker hefted one squirming white turkey after another into a metal funnel, slit its throat, and bled it out in full view of the camera. The clip was replayed tens of thousands of times on YouTube and seemed an all too apt metaphor for how Palin’s political fortunes had changed in the wake of her great national adventure, even if her personality had not. A career that thrived for years on extraordinarily good luck seems to have known nothing but trouble since November 4. In December, Bristol Palin gave birth to Tripp Easton Mitchell Johnston, her son with her boyfriend, Levi Johnston, and for a time there was talk of a wedding. But by early spring the couple had split up, and their families fell to trading charges on talk shows and in the tabloids. After Levi told Tyra Banks that he had often spent the night in the Palin home, in the same room as Bristol, and assumed that the governor knew they were having sex, Palin, through her spokeswoman, released a blistering statement expressing disappointment “that Levi and his family, in a quest for fame, attention, and fortune, are engaging in flat-out lies, gross exaggeration, and even distortion of their relationship.” On the CBS Early Show, days later, Johnston seemed resigned. “They said I didn’t live there. I ‘stayed there,”’ he said. “I was like, O.K., well, whatever you want to call it. I had my stuff there.” Although Bristol initially told Greta Van Susteren that teen abstinence is “not realistic at all,” by springtime she had signed up as an ambassador for the Candie’s Foundation to promote abstinence as the way to avoid teen pregnancy.

Meantime, Levi’s mother, Sherry, agreed to plead guilty to a felony count of possessing OxyContin with intent to sell it, in exchange for the state’s agreement to drop five other drug-related charges against her. Her lawyer has conceded that she will draw an automatic jail sentence, but hopes to minimize the time she spends behind bars, because she suffers from chronic pain. In April, Todd Palin’s half-sister Diana was arrested on charges of twice breaking into a house in Wasilla to steal money from a bedroom cabinet, under circumstances that remain unexplained.

Because Palin had taken particular umbrage in the fall campaign at any effort to criticize her children or invade their privacy, her willingness to mix it up in public with an 18-year-old, who is after all the father of her only grandchild, struck many in Alaska as odd. So did Palin’s suggestion, at a time when declining oil prices have thrown the state budget into the red, that she did not want to accept about a third of the $930 million in federal stimulus money available to Alaska, because it would come with too many big-government strings attached. The move seemed calculated to burnish her national conservative credentials. In the face of bipartisan outcry, Palin’s aides insisted she had never meant to say she wouldn’t take the money, only that she wanted to review the matter carefully. That was news to former aide Larry Persily. After the first meeting on the stimulus money, Persily told me, “Everyone in the room left thinking she’d said no. Then her staff said, ‘She didn’t say no. She just didn’t say yes.”’ Palin wound up taking all but about 3 percent of the $900 million available to Alaska. The consensus even among the Republicans I spoke to was that she rejected the last $28 million—for energy assistance—mostly to save face.

The ever shifting sands of Palin’s sensibility were also on display after former senator Ted Stevens’s conviction on corruption charges was set aside, in April. Palin’s old nemesis, the Alaska Republican Party chair Randy Ruedrich, called on Stevens’s Democratic successor, Mark Begich, who had defeated Stevens just days after the original conviction last fall, to step down and allow a new election. Palin told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in an e-mail, “I absolutely agree.” Days later, at a news conference, Palin insisted she had never called on Begich to step down.

Perhaps nothing has caused a bigger stir than Palin’s nomination of Wayne Anthony Ross to be Alaska’s attorney general. Ross is a two-time gubernatorial candidate and a board member of the National Rifle Association. He had sown controversy over the years by referring to gays and lesbians as “degenerates” (he later sought to downplay the remark, saying his aversion to homosexuals was no different from his aversion to lima beans) and for staunchly opposing subsistence-hunting preferences for native Alaskans. A flamboyant divorce lawyer who drives a big red Hummer with the vanity license plate war, Ross is a good old boy of pithy expression and considerable charm. (“In Alaska,” Ross told me, “a liberal is someone who carries a .357 or smaller.”) The final vote against Ross—with the Republican leaders of both chambers joining to defeat him—came just as Palin was speaking in Evansville. It was the first time in Alaska history that a cabinet nominee was rejected. “If I wince a little, it’s from the arrows in my back,” Ross told me a few weeks later. “I think there were a number of people who were trying to show her who the boss was.”

A year ago, 80 percent of Alaskans viewed Palin very favorably or somewhat favorably; by this spring, just 55 percent had a positive opinion. All this has given rise to speculation in Alaska that Palin may not run for re-election next year. She does not have to declare her candidacy until June 2010. Most politicians of both parties in Alaska with whom I spoke assume she could win, though not as persuasively as she did in 2006, which would hardly help her standing in a 2012 presidential campaign. Though Palin’s spokeswoman has said she does not intend to challenge Senator Lisa Murkowski, the former governor’s daughter, who is also up for re-election next year, Palin has changed her mind without warning in the past, and becoming a senator would keep her in the national spotlight. Surveying the landscape of political and policy troubles in Alaska, Gregg Erickson, an independent economic consultant in Juneau, concludes, “Everything she’s doing seems to be saying that there’ll be a problem in the future owing to her inattention, but she won’t be here to deal with it.”

“Just Make It All Go Away”
As Palin has piled misstep on top of misstep, the senior members of McCain’s campaign team have undergone a painful odyssey of their own. In recent rounds of long conversations, most made it clear that they suffer a kind of survivor’s guilt: they can’t quite believe that for two frantic months last fall, caught in a Bermuda Triangle of a campaign, they worked their tails off to try to elect as vice president of the United States someone who, by mid-October, they believed for certain was nowhere near ready for the job, and might never be. They quietly ponder the nightmare they lived through. Do they ever ask, What were we thinking? “Oh, yeah, oh, yeah,” one longtime McCain friend told me with a rueful chuckle. “You nailed it.” Another key McCain aide summed up his attitude this way: “I guess it’s sort of shifted,” he said. “I always wanted to tell myself the best-case story about her.” Even now, he said, “I don’t want to get too negative.” Then he added, “I think, as I’ve evaluated it, I think some of my worst fears … the after-election events have confirmed that her more negative aspects may have been there … ” His voice trailed off. “I saw her as a raw talent. Raw, but a talent. I hoped she could become better.”

None of McCain’s still-loyal soldiers will say negative things about Palin on the record. Even thinking such thoughts privately is painful for them, because there is ultimately no way to read McCain’s selection of Palin as reflecting anything other than an appalling egotism, heedlessness, and lack of judgment in a man whose courage, tenacity, and character they have extravagantly admired—and as reflecting, too, an unsettling willingness on their own part to aid and abet him. They all know that if their candidate—a 72-year-old cancer survivor—had won the presidency, the vice-presidency would be in the hands of a woman who lacked the knowledge, the preparation, the aptitude, and the temperament for the job. To ask why none of them dared to just walk away is to ask why Colin Powell did not resign in protest over the Bush administration’s foreign policy, or why none of Bill Clinton’s disillusioned aides resigned after he lied to them about Monica Lewinsky. The question cannot comprehend the intense bonds that the blood sport of modern politics produces. To leave a campaign—especially a struggling, losing campaign—is akin to desertion in wartime, and even as they began to understand her limitations, plenty of McCain aides still saw Palin as the campaign’s best hope. Some still believe that, simply in terms of the electoral math, she helped at least as much as she hurt, and maybe helped more.

McCain has delivered his own postmortem on Palin with the patented brand of winking-and-nodding ironic detachment that he usually reserves for painful political questions, an approach that simultaneously seeks to confess his sin and presume absolution for it. In November, he told Jay Leno he was proud of Palin and did not blame her for his defeat, but by April, when Leno asked him about who was running the Republican Party, McCain declined to mention Palin: “We have, I’m happy to say, a lot of choices out there: Bobby Jindal, Tim Pawlenty, Huntsman, Romney, Charlie Crist—there’s a lot of governors out there who are young and dynamic.” McCain went on, “There’s a lot of good people out there, and I’ve left out somebody’s name and I’m going to hear about it.” When I ask Mark Salter, McCain’s longtime speechwriter and co-author, about that comment, he says simply, “McCain always talks unscripted,” and adds that he has heard “not one word of regret” about Palin ever pass McCain’s lips. McCain’s daughter Meghan, who has continued the blog she began on the campaign last year, has said that Palin is the one topic on which she will have no public comment.

Palin herself has alternately shied away from the spotlight and injected herself into public debate on questions dear to conservatives, as she did when she issued a statement defending the former Miss California, Carrie Prejean, for opposing gay marriage despite “the liberal onslaught of malicious attacks.” Palin’s speech in Evansville was her first major post-election foray into the national media, and she followed it up in June with a trip to New York State, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Alaska’s entry into the union, visiting Auburn, the hometown of William H. Seward, who bought the Alaska territory from Russia, and making appearances at events supporting families with autism and developmental disabilities. But the biggest headlines the trip produced were those about Palin’s feud with David Letterman, who joked that Palin had gone to Bloomingdale’s to update her “slutty flight-attendant look” and made a tasteless sexual jibe about one of the Palin daughters. Letterman eventually apologized, though Palin fanned the flames in ways that were not necessarily to her advantage.

In Evansville, though, Palin concentrated on the task at hand: an emphatic defense of the anti-abortion cause. But in doing so she made a startling confession about what she thought when she learned she was pregnant at 43 with her youngest child, Trig, who arrived in April 2008, as the world now knows, with Down syndrome. “I had found out that I was pregnant while out of state first,” Palin told the crowd. “While out of state, there just for a fleeting moment, I thought, Nobody knows me here. Nobody would ever know. I thought, Wow, it is easy to think maybe of trying to change the circumstances and no one would know—no one would ever know. Then when my amniocentesis results came back, showing what they called abnormalities—oh, dear God—I knew, I had instantly an understanding, for that fleeting moment, why someone would believe it could seem possible to change those circumstances, just make it all go away, get some normalcy back in life.” It is almost impossible not to be touched by the rawness of her confession, even if it is precisely this choice that Palin believes no other woman should ever have, not even in the case of rape or incest.

Sarah Palin is a star in Evansville and all the many Evansvilles of America, but there is a big part of the Republican Party—the Wall Street wing, the national-security wing—in which she cuts no ice. At the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference, Palin essentially came in tied for second with Governor Bobby Jindal, of Louisiana, and Representative Ron Paul, of Texas, with 13 percent support in a straw poll of potential 2012 presidential candidates; former governor Mitt Romney, of Massachusetts, got 20 percent. A more recent survey has Palin in a three-way tie with Romney and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. She could do well in the Iowa caucuses or South Carolina primary, but it is much harder to imagine her making headway in New Hampshire, where independent voters were turned off by her last fall. It is also difficult to see just how she would expand her appeal beyond the base that already loves her.

In Alaska, almost everyone I met wondered who was advising her in Washington—and in Washington, everyone wonders the same thing. There are one or two clues. On the eve of the Alfalfa dinner, in January, Palin was a guest in the home of Fred Malek, a veteran Republican fund-raiser and government official dating back to the days of the Nixon administration. Malek raised money for McCain’s campaign last year, and also agreed to play host to a fund-raising dinner for Republican governors in early May. (Palin was to have been an honored guest, but canceled owing to spring flooding in Alaska.) As noted, Palin has established a political-action committee with the legal advice of John Coale, who met Palin when his wife, Greta Van Susteren, the Fox News host, went to interview her during the campaign. Coale, a former Hillary Clinton supporter, told me he felt Palin had gotten a bum rap from liberals and conservatives alike, and he advised her that a pac was a logical and legal way to pay for out-of-state political travel. “We raised a good bit of money without even asking,” Coale says. “Just set up a Web site and, I think in the first month, $400,000 came in.” Coale says he still exchanges e-mails with Palin from time to time, but doesn’t consider himself a political adviser; he also says that Van Susteren has “put up a Chinese wall about all of this,” and has obtained her interviews with the Palins independently. Since the campaign ended, Van Susteren has interviewed Palin twice more, but she says she has never had a conversation with Palin off-camera, except for when Palin called to rescind her acceptance of Van Susteren’s invitation to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in May, because of the Alaska flooding. Todd Palin came solo as Van Susteren’s guest, and when a reporter for Politico sought to interview him at a pre-dinner brunch attended by hundreds of journalists, Van Susteren interposed herself, as in the manner of a staffer, to say it was a social event. Van Susteren told me she was just trying to exercise good manners.

Palin’s closest adviser remains her husband—the “first gentleman” or “first dude,” as she calls him. Testimony in the Troopergate investigation suggested that Todd was physically in the governor’s office for about 50 percent of the time, often sitting in on meetings or phone calls in which he had no obvious official function. By the end of last fall’s campaign, McCain’s friends had picked up word that Todd was calling around to Republicans in South Carolina, urging them to keep his wife in mind for 2012—the implication being that the Palins believed McCain was about to lose. This spring, he stood in for Palin at an event in Manhattan—at Alaska House in SoHo, the cultural antipode of Wasilla—promoting the Alaska commercial-fishing industry’s contributions to world food aid. In a brief prepared speech, he extolled Alaska salmon as “some of the world’s healthiest protein, rich in vitamins and minerals, and a source of omega-3 fats.”

“She doesn’t at all have anyone who’s willing to give it to her straight,” one person who occasionally advises Palin told me. Todd may be the one exception. “I saw nobody else like that, nobody who would sit her down and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’” He added, of the poor communications operation run by Stapleton, “I don’t know what part Sarah Palin plays in the lack of communications, but I don’t think she’s aware of how big a problem it is.”

And her national ambitions? “What it looks like to me she’s trying to do is try the same formula that got her the governorship,” John Bitney says. “You sort of start off with a conservative base. The right-wing base is obviously out on the far end of the spectrum, but it’s a very motivated base. They show up, they’re committed. It gets you that political beachhead. She did not get started with the blessing of the Republican Party. She started with a dedicated corps of sort of right-wing true believers who killed themselves for her, and got her going. And then she began to build on that, and after she crossed the primary hurdle, she moderated her message on some points.”

When I ask Bitney what he makes of the whole Palin phenomenon, he sighs. “What do I take away from this?” he asks. “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s just a lot of emotions and stuff. I find it’s frustrating dealing with Sarah, because it seems we’re always dealing with emotional crap and we never seem to be able to focus on the business at hand that needs to be done. I don’t know whether to blame her or pity her for all this emotional upheaval that we’re always going through with her. Now we all get to listen to Levi and Bristol. Check my feet for horseshoes if I have to sit there and listen to another talk show. I got involved in helping her become governor because we needed to change some policy directions. Teen abstinence is not why I waved signs for her.”

Palin herself often sounds tired and resentful these days, as if wondering whether she should have blinked and just said no to John McCain. In a rambling, 17-minute speech introducing Michael Reagan, the former president’s son and a conservative radio host at an event in Alaska in June—a speech that borrowed heavily, without clear attribution, from a four-year-old article by Newt Gingrich and the Republican strategist Craig Shirley—Palin seemed resigned to the fact that her reputation would never again be as fresh and glowing as it once was. She complained about “national figures and some in the press who, who want to put not just me, but anybody who dares speak up, it seems nowadays, right back down in their place.” She bemoaned her changing fortunes in Alaska. “I think things here that have so drastically changed these past months … Some want to forbid others from speaking up, and it’s been through lawsuits, been ethics-violation charges, media distortions And those are the folks who want to tell me, they want to tell you to sit down and shut up. We will not do so. I just can’t because I love my state, I love my country, and I need you, we need Michael Reagan to keep on fighting for our freedoms, for our country, and what we’re being fed today, it seems, is a steady diet of selected misrepresented news So I join you in speaking up and asking the questions and taking action, and here at home in my beloved Alaska, I just say, politically speaking, if I die, I die.”

Poll: Who is the most powerful woman in the G.O.P.?
Palin has disappointed many of those who once had the highest hopes for her. She has stumbled over innumerable details. But as she said to Andrew Halcro years ago, “Does any of this really matter?” Palin has shown herself to have remarkable gut instincts about raw politics, and she has seen openings where others did not. And she has the good fortune to have traction within a political party that is bereft of strong leadership, and whose rank and file often demands qualities other than knowledge, experience, and an understanding that facts are, as John Adams said, stubborn things. It is, at the moment, a party in which the loudest and most singular voices, not burdened by responsibility, wield disproportionate power. She may decide that she does not need office in order to have great influence—any more than Rush Limbaugh does.

On a rare fine day in Juneau, not long ago, Palin was seen sitting in the sunshine in the broad plaza near the state capitol, alone with her thoughts and some reading material for more than an hour and a half. Down the hillside below her, the big cruise liners that ply Alaska’s Inside Passage in the summer months were beginning to call in the port. Only two years have elapsed since William Kristol and his colleagues disembarked from one of them and hearkened to her siren call. Sarah Palin might well have been wondering whether her own ship is going out, or just coming in.

Minnesota court declares Franken Senate winner

The Hill By Aaron Blake

Minnesota’s Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Democrat Al Franken is the winner of the state’s Senate race and should be awarded a certificate of election, paving the way for Franken to be seated.

“For all of the foregoing reasons, we affirm the decision of the trial court that Al Franken received the highest number of votes legally cast and is entitled under [state law] to receive the certificate of election as United States Senator from the State of Minnesota,” the ruling states.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) has suggested that he would follow the court’s lead on whether to sign a certificate of election.

Without the certificate, Democrats have declined to attempt to seat Franken.

Coleman was the leader after Election Day, but a recount showed Franken overtaking him. A three-judge panel then affirmed Franken’s victory, which led to Coleman’s appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Coleman can still file suit in federal court, which could issue an order preventing Franken from being seated. It’s not yet clear whether Coleman will pursue further legal action, as his legal bills mount and public patience with his challenge wanes.

The former senator has seen several members of his staff disperse in recent months including, recently, his campaign manager.

Monday, June 29, 2009


MY TIMES/Insurance Company Schemes
Congressional committees heard a lot this month about the devious schemes used by health insurance companies to drop or shortchange sick patients. It was a damning portrait — and one Americans know from painful personal experience — of an industry that all too often puts profits ahead of patients.

As health care reform moves forward, Congress must impose tighter regulation of companies that clearly are not doing enough to regulate themselves. Creating a public plan could also help restrain the worst practices, by providing competition and an alternative.

A House oversight subcommittee took a close look at a particularly shameful practice known as “rescission,” in which insurance companies cancel coverage for some sick policyholders rather than pay an expensive claim. The companies contend that rescissions are rare. But Congressional investigators found that three big insurers canceled about 20,000 individual policies over a five-year period — allowing them to avoid paying more than $300 million in medical claims.

The companies typically argue that the policyholders withheld information about pre-existing conditions that would have disqualified them from coverage. But the subcommittee unearthed cases where the pre-existing conditions were trivial, or unrelated to the claim, or not known to the patient. When executives for the three companies were asked if they would be willing to limit rescissions to cases where the policyholder deliberately lied on an application form, all said they would not. This tactic will not be ended voluntarily.

Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce Committee was getting an earful from a former head of corporate communications for Cigna, a big health insurer. He charged that the industry deliberately confuses its customers by making it hard to obtain information about its practices and issuing incomprehensible documents.

He also charged that the companies “dump the sick,” through rescissions and by purging small businesses whose employees’ claims exceed what underwriters expected. They are often hit with huge rate increases intended to force them to drop coverage.

The Commerce Committee also released a staff report elaborating on how insurance companies operating in every region of the country have used statistically manipulated databases to reduce their payments for services provided by doctors outside their networks. Patients must then pay the often considerable difference.

Any legislation to reform the health care system, and extend coverage to millions of uninsured Americans, must stop these practices.

One way to do that is by creating insurance exchanges where individuals and small businesses could buy policies from insurers that would be required to accept all applicants without regard to pre-existing conditions and charge them premiums unrelated to their health status, and would be barred from dropping them no matter what illnesses they developed.

If health care reform requires virtually all Americans to carry health insurance — as it should — industry leaders acknowledge that there would be enough healthy people paying premiums to offset the higher costs of covering the sick and the need for rescissions and other such practices would disappear.

No matter what happens, strong regulatory oversight will be a must to ensure that insurers skilled in denying coverage don’t find new ways to evade just claims.

Competition from a new public plan could provide a benchmark for judging how well private plans are performing. And clear evaluations of both public and private plans would be a boon for consumers. Senator Jay Rockefeller has proposed creating a nonprofit organization to grade all plans offered on a national exchange based on such factors as adequacy of coverage, affordability, customer and health provider satisfaction, and transparency of procedures and decision-making.

The health insurance industry has pledged to assist in the reform effort. Congress will have to be tough and vigilant to ensure that it does.


Focus on results, not treatments
The way to cut costs is to base payments on medical outcomes rather than pouring money into individual medical services.

Alarmed by increases in healthcare costs, policymakers and insurers have adopted a series of reforms over the years -- such as price controls and HMOs -- whose savings proved to be temporary at best. With that history in mind, some experts say that the only sure way to control the growth in healthcare spending is for the government to cap it, a cure that would be worse than the disease. There may be no quick fix, but there certainly are ways to deliver and pay for healthcare that can give consumers more value for their money. If we undertake them now, the eventual result will be a higher-quality system that's more sustainable and affordable.

The cost problem has multiple causes, but a primary one is the overuse of medical services and technology. Today's health insurance system gives physicians and hospitals little incentive to practice medicine cost-effectively. And as long as they can pass their costs on to consumers in the form of ever-rising premiums, insurance companies don't need to be disciplined spenders either. To create the right incentives, insurers should move away from paying for each treatment or service performed for a patient -- an approach that rewards volume, not effectiveness -- and instead base reimbursements on the treatment plans that produce the best results.

It's a fundamental shift that would take years to implement, in part because of the work healthcare providers must do to create and maintain treatment guidelines for doctors and hospitals. To help advance the process, Congress included $1.1 billion in the economic stimulus bill in February for research that compares the effectiveness of different treatments. There's much that remains unknown about how best to treat various illnesses and injuries, and each new drug or device that's developed raises new questions about effectiveness. There are significant issues too about how to enforce such guidelines. But the development of "best practices" could help doctors by providing a shield against malpractice claims, reducing the incidence of wasteful tests and other "defensive" procedures.

Another needed improvement would be to simplify the interaction between doctors and insurers. A recent study in Health Affairs magazine reported that for every three full-time physicians, two employees were needed to handle the billing and insurance paperwork. That's an outrageous administrative burden that diverts money from delivering care. Doctors and hospitals, meanwhile, must update the way they collect, store and share information about patients and treatments. Computerizing medical records and integrating information technology into patient care promise to improve care and cut costs by eliminating duplication, averting errors and better monitoring chronic ailments, among other benefits. Congress promoted the effort with about $20 billion in subsidies for electronic medical records in the stimulus bill. But it's an expensive and time-consuming process -- one estimate put the total cost at $150 billion -- and especially daunting for primary-care doctors in small practices.

A new approach to paying for care can also bring valuable improvements to the way healthcare is delivered. By bundling payments into a lump sum -- rather than reimbursing doctors, hospitals and specialists separately for what they do for a patient -- insurers can promote more coordinated, team-based care. Such techniques have helped such organizations as the Veterans Health Administration, the Mayo Clinic and Minnesota-based HealthPartners, a combined insurer and healthcare provider, deliver high-quality care while also cutting costs.

Just as the incentives for insurers and providers must change, so must the incentives for consumers. Far too many healthcare dollars are being spent on ailments that could have been prevented. Doctors typically start by citing America's obesity problem -- this country has the highest obesity rate in the developed world by far, contributing to such costly chronic illnesses as diabetes and heart disease -- but they also point to simpler behavioral lapses, such as the high percentage of patients who don't take their medications as directed. Grocery giant Safeway has demonstrated that employers can save themselves and their workers money by providing financial incentives for healthy behavior and making workers responsible for a meaningful share of their healthcare expenses. Other public and privately funded insurance programs should follow suit, with this caveat: The incentive system shouldn't penalize those who get sick. After all, that's one of the biggest shortcomings of private insurance today.

More broadly, the overhaul should help bring market forces to bear on healthcare costs. Most people are concerned about getting the best care, not the least expensive, yet there are few standards for measuring how well healthcare providers do their jobs. Healthcare providers -- not insurers -- need to take the lead in developing those measures to ensure that performance is gauged mainly by medical standards, not economic ones. Consumers could then seek out the best care at the lowest price. The same goes for insurance -- making it easier for consumers to compare insurance companies' policies and performance would promote competition and restrain costs.

These changes are ambitious, but they could make a significant difference in costs even if they were implemented only for patients with the handful of chronic diseases that account for most healthcare spending. Insurers, hospitals and medical groups have already started testing most of these ideas, with some promising results. The federal government can do its part by promoting these reforms in Medicare and Medicaid. The entire healthcare system would benefit if Washington made those programs more efficient,rather than just slashing payments to doctors and hospitals again and shifting more costs onto other consumers.

High Court Rules for White Firefighters

The conservative judges get another one wrong!
Making decisions to avoid problems is always a good way to modify behavior.
Speed limits have no effect on street safety?
That a look at the '10 Commandments'. Hk

High Court Rules for White Firefighters in Discrimination Suit
Ruling Reverses High-Profile Decision by Supreme Court Nominee Sonia Sotomayor

By Robert Barnes Washington Post

The Supreme Court today narrowly ruled in favor of white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., who said they were denied promotions because of their race, reversing a decision by Judge Sonia Sotomayor and others that had come to play a large role in the consideration of her nomination for the high court.

The city had thrown out the results of a promotion test because no African Americans and only two Hispanics would have qualified for promotions. It said it feared a lawsuit from minorities under federal laws that said such "disparate impacts" on test results could be used to show discrimination.

In effect, the court was deciding when avoiding potential discrimination against one group amounted to actual discrimination against another.

The court's conservative majority said in a 5 to 4 vote that is what happened in New Haven.

"Fear of litigation alone cannot justify an employer's reliance on race to the detriment of individuals who passed the examinations and qualified for promotions," wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the liberals on the court and said the decision knocks the pegs from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

She read her dissent from the bench for emphasis. "Congress endeavored to promote equal opportunity in fact, and not simply in form," she said. "The damage today's decision does to that objective is untold."

On the last day on the bench for retiring Justice David H. Souter, the court failed to reach a decision on one of its most important cases of the term: whether a conservative group's production of a 90-minute film on Hillary Rodham Clinton amounted to a documentary, or merely a long commercial of the type restricted by the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act.

Instead, the court took the unusual action of scheduling new arguments on the case for Sept. 9, before the court's new term begins next October. The court wants new briefings on issues that could lead to the justices declaring unconstitutional that part of the act, formally called the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002.

The court's decision probably will lead Democrats to push efforts to have a vote on Sotomayor's confirmation so she can be in place before the September hearing, although it is unclear whether her replacement of Souter would affect the outcome of the case.

Senate hearings on her nomination are set to begin in two weeks.

The New Haven case, Ricci v. DeStefano, has become the ruling that Sotomayor's critics most point to for evidence that she lets her background influence her decisions, even though her role has been somewhat inflated.

The promotion test results produced a heated debate in New Haven, and government lawyers warned the city's civil service board that if it certified the test results, minority firefighters might have a good case for claiming discrimination under Title VII. Federal guidelines presume discrimination when a test has such a disparate impact on minorities.

The board split 2 to 2, which meant the exam was not certified. Those who opposed using the results said they worried the test must be flawed in some way that disadvantaged minorities. (The test questions have not been made public.)

The white firefighters filed suit, saying their rights had been violated under both the law and the Constitution's protections of due process.

District Judge Janet Bond Arterton dismissed their suit before it went to trial. She said in her 47-page decision that the city was justified under the law in junking the test, even if it could not explain its flaws.

The case then went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, where Sotomayor and judges Robert Sack and Rosemary S. Pooler heard the appeal. Oral arguments lasted an hour, with Sotomayor leading the questioning, as is her reputation. But instead of issuing a detailed and signed opinion, the panel said in a brief summary that, although it was "not unsympathetic" to the plight of the white firefighters, it unanimously affirmed the lower court's decision for "reasons stated in the thorough, thoughtful, and well-reasoned opinion."

Kennedy's opinion referred to the judgment of Sotomayor and the other judges only by noting the short opinion.

Kennedy said the standard for whether an employer may discard a test is whether there is a strong reason to the employer to believe that the test is flawed in a way that discriminates against minorities, not just by looking at the results.

In New Haven's case, "there is no evidence -- let alone the required strong basis in evidence -- that the tests were flawed because they were not job-related or because other, equally valid and less discriminatory tests were available to the city," Kennedy wrote.

The case has drawn considerable attention not just because of Sotomayor's role but because of the sympathetic nature of the claim brought by the firefighters, who said they were discriminated against simply because of the color of their skin.

The lead plaintiff, Frank Ricci, is a veteran firefighter who said in sworn statements that he spent thousands of dollars in preparation and studied for months for the exam. Ricci said he is dyslexic, so he had tapes made of the test materials and listened to them on his commute to work.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Genius in the Bottle

As in all great affairs, Mark Sanford fell in love simultaneously with a woman and himself — with the dashing new version of himself he saw in her molten eyes.

In a weepy, gothic unraveling, the South Carolina governor gave a press conference illustrating how smitten he was, not only with his Argentine amante, but with his own tenderness, his own pathos and his own feminine side.

He got into trouble as a man and tried to get out as a woman.

He wanted to get his girlfriend a DVD of the movie “The Holiday,” presumably the Cameron Diaz-Kate Winslet chick flick about two women, one from L.A. and one from England, who trade homes and lives. He was fantasizing about catapulting himself into an exotic life where stimulus had nothing to do with budgets.

With Maria, he was no longer the penny-pinching millionaire Mark, who used to sleep on a futon in his Congressional office and once treated two congressmen to movie refreshments by bringing back a Coke and three straws.

No, he was someone altogether more fascinating: Marco, international man of mystery and suave god of sex and tango.

Mark was the self-righteous, Bible-thumping prig who pressed for Bill Clinton’s impeachment; Marco was the un-self-conscious Lothario, canoodling with Maria in Buenos Aires, throwing caution to the e-wind about their “soul-mate feel,” her tan lines, her curves, “the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of night’s light.”

Mark is a conservative railing against sinners; Marco sins liberally. Mark opposes gay marriage as a threat to traditional marriage. Marco thinks nothing of risking his own traditional marriage, and celebrates transgressive relationships. He frets to Maria in e-mail that he sounds “like the Thornbirds — wherein I was always upset with Richard Chamberlain for not dropping his ambitions and running into Maggie’s arms.”

Marco, the libertine, wonders how they will ever “put the Genie back in the bottle.” And in the sort of Freudian slip that any solipsistic pol like Mark would adore, Maria protests in Spanglish: “I don’t want to put the genius back in the bottle.”

Mark is so frugal for the taxpayers that he made his staffers use both sides of Post-it notes and index cards, and once brought two (defecating) pigs named “Pork” and “Barrel” into the statehouse to express his disgust with lawmakers’ pet spending projects.

Marco is a sly scamp who found a sneaky way to make South Carolina taxpayers pay for a south-of-the-border romp with his mistress.

Mark is so selfish he tried to enhance his presidential chances by resisting South Carolina’s share of President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package, callously giving the back of his hand to the suffering state’s most vulnerable — the jobless and poor and black students.

Marco is generous, promising to send a memento of affection that Maria wants to keep by her bed.

Mark hates lying. As he said of Bill’s dalliance with Monica, “If you undermine trust in our system, you undermine everything.”

Marco lies with brio, misleading his family, his lieutenant governor, his staff and his state about his whereabouts, even packing camping equipment to throw off the scent from South America. He told whoppers to his wife, a former investment banker who managed his campaigns and raises his four sons (solo on Father’s Day). She put out a statement quoting Psalm 127 to snidely remind her besotted husband “that sons are a gift from the Lord.”

Jenny Sanford told The Associated Press on Friday that Mark had told her he needed time to be alone and write, so she was stunned to learn he was in Argentina on a “Roman Holiday.” Before he left to “write,” she warned him not to skip off to the other woman.

Mark, who disdains rascals, agreed that he wouldn’t. Marco, who is a rascal, skipped off.

Mark went back to work on Friday, giving his cabinet a lecture on personal responsibility and comparing himself to King David, who “fell mightily ... in very, very significant ways but then picked up the pieces and built from there.”

Actually, the one thing David didn’t do after his adulterous fall was build, because he was forbidden by God to construct his dream temple in Jerusalem.

Sanford should give his piety a rest. He told his cabinet that the Psalms taught him humility. (There’s a chance that a younger Argentine boyfriend of Maria’s also taught him humility, by jealously hacking into her e-mail account and leaking the governor’s missives.)

Sanford can be truly humble only if he stops dictating to others, who also have desires and weaknesses, how to behave in their private lives.

The Republican Party will never revive itself until its sanctimonious pantheon — Sanford, Gingrich, Limbaugh, Palin, Ensign, Vitter and hypocrites yet to be exposed — stop being two-faced.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Busting a cap and trade in their ... spin

As the House vote on the American Clean Energy and Security Act approached this week, prominent media conservatives once again took to the airwaves and displayed their true colors. Criticism of the bill from the right -- especially its cap-and-trade provisions -- has not been the product of principle, but of misinformation and, at times, willful denial.

On Friday, radio host Rush Limbaugh once again flagrantly denied that global warming exists and continued to advance the shockingly erroneous, comically false argument that under the legislation, "we could be taxed because of the carbon dioxide we exhale." Thanks, Professor Limbaugh, for another science lesson!

"This bill is about raising taxes and taking away people's freedom," Limbaugh continued, before comparing it to a "Soviet-style five-year plan" that is "all based on hoaxes," a crooked scheme worthy of Bernie Madoff.

The fearmongering continued as Fox News' Glenn Beck agreed with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) when she argued of the bill, "You're either for freedom or you're not."

Indeed, portraying the legislation as a massive financial penalty for ordinary Americans is a major line of attack for media conservatives. Thursday's Fox & Friends claimed that the average family would have to pay an extra $3,100 a year in energy costs if it passed. But that number is based on a distortion of a 2007 MIT study -- a distortion that has since been discredited by one of the study's authors. Fox's Sean Hannity also pushed a similar myth, claiming that the bill would cost families $2,000 a year.

Entirely absent from these critiques is the result of a recent Congressional Budget Office analysis that found that the bill's net impact to households would eventually range between a benefit of $40 per year and a cost of $340 per year, with an average cost of $175 per year. Hannity isn't the only one ignoring this crucial study while claiming the bill will lead to far higher costs; CNN's The Situation Room and Lou Dobbs Tonight and Fox News' Special Report and On the Record with Greta van Susteren have also repeated the misinformation or failed to challenge guests who advanced it. Unfortunately, as of June 23, none of them had reported on the new CBO study.

Other major stories this week:

Sanford: An affair to remember; others, they forget

As everyone knows by now, the case of the missing South Carolina governor has been solved. Those who watched Mark Sanford's press conference on Fox News, however, may be a bit confused, since the conservative network briefly identified the Republican politician as a Democrat before correcting the error. While Fox apologized the next day, the "mistake" was nothing new. The news channel seems to have a habit of identifying unpopular or scandal-ridden Republicans as Democrats.

It's especially hard to take the apology seriously when you consider that in two segments over the course of four hours on June 25, Fox's James Rosen highlighted only scandals involving Democrats during reports that purported to examine earlier political sex scandals in an effort to assess Sanford's situation. Neither segment mentioned any of the numerous sex scandals that involved Republican politicians such as Sen. John Ensign (NV), Sen. David Vitter (LA), and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, among others.

Fox News was hardly alone in its selective memory. MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski claimed there is a "double standard" when it comes to the sex scandals of Republican and Democratic politicians -- that Democrats like Bill Clinton have "completely survived" their scandals. I wonder if she's told survivors Vitter, Ensign, Gingrich, and Rudy Giuliani of this "double standard" that apparently doesn't apply to them. Mort Kondracke could benefit from the same reminder of these survivors. Roll Call's executive editor, without a hint of irony, took to Fox News to say that "the Democratic Party is a lot more tolerant of licentiousness than the Republican Party is." Oh, brother.

So who is to blame for Sanford's downfall? Well, if you're Limbaugh or fellow conservative radio host Michael Savage, placing blame is pretty easy. They blame -- wait for it, wait for it ... President Obama. Seriously. Limbaugh suggested the president may have been a catalyst for Sanford's affair -- because the governor was sooo stressed out trying to reject stimulus funds -- while Savage, citing the affairs of Sanford and Ensign, said that "Obama's team is taking out potential rivals one after another."

If you really want to see the hypocrisy of these media conservatives, I suggest you watch this video of democratic strategist Bob Beckel trying to pin Hannity down on his opinion of Ensign's affair. You'll have to fight the giggles; Hannity's consistency is quite laughable.

Nico Pitney is no Jeff Gannon

Remember Jeff Gannon? He's the former Talon News "Washington bureau chief and White House correspondent" who lobbed softballs at President Bush and his former press secretary Scott McClellan in the White House press briefing room and lifted big chunks of language verbatim from GOP documents for his "news reports." Gannon wasn't a credentialed reporter -- not by the House or Senate press galleries, not by the White House Correspondents' Association, not by the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association. Nope, for quite some time, Gannon was granted a day-to-day pass to White House press briefings by ... the White House.

Oh, yeah, one other thing: As The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz noted at the time, "naked pictures [of Gannon] have appeared on a number of gay escort sites." More on that here.

Jeff Gannon is no Nico Pitney. I'd just hate for Gannon to think that his integrity, journalistic or otherwise, even remotely matches that of The Huffington Post's national editor.

Beltway establishment journos and conservative media figures were apoplectic after Obama selected Pitney to ask a question concerning Iran at his press conference this week.

Leading the Beltway charge, The Washington Post's Dana Milbank ridiculed Obama for taking "a preplanned question" by "a planted questioner." Of course, Milbank omitted the substance of Pitney's question. Limbaugh directly compared the media response to Pitney's question with "the outcry over Jeff Gannon."

For the record, since so many have failed to, I present you Pitney's question to Obama, which was offered up on behalf of an Iranian:

Under which conditions would you accept the election of [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad? And if you do accept it without any significant changes in the conditions there, isn't that a betrayal of the -- of what the demonstrators there are working towards?

What about Gannon? Here's what he asked Bush in a 2005 presser:

Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S. economy. Harry Reid was talking about soup lines. And Hillary Clinton was talking about the economy being on the verge of collapse. Yet in the same breath they say that Social Security is rock solid and there's no crisis there. How are you going to work -- you've said you are going to reach out to these people -- how are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?

As the song goes, "one of these things is not like the other." Far from Gannon's softball, Pitney's question was described as "tough" by Michael Tomasky and Glenn Greenwald. ABC News' Jake Tapper described it as "one of the tougher" questions.

So it can't be the substance of Pitney's question that has the right and Beltway insiders in such a huff. In fact, most conservatives skipped past the question entirely, attempting to paint a picture of a White House picking a liberal out of the blue to come into the presser and ask a prearranged question. Those assertions are both unfair and untrue. But it didn't stop Hannity from falsely claiming that Pitney himself had "explained" that the White House chose his question. In fact, both Pitney and the White House deny that Obama had prior knowledge of the question. Hannity's Fox News colleague Bret Baier accused The Huffington Post of "coordinat[ing]" with Obama to ask the question. The Fox Nation website took things a step further, equating The Huffington Post question to "state-run media."

For what it's worth, the whole episode smacks of journalistic jealousy. Anyone who has been following Pitney's live coverage of the ongoing crisis in Iran knows that his work has been nothing but top-notch and worthy of praise, not derision. If you haven't been reading Pitney, I strongly suggest that you start ... today.

Perhaps a CNN caption during an interview with Pitney best summed up the controversy: "A blogger gets press room Q&A. So what?"

ABC: Now it's premeditated liberal media bias?

Right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin may not believe it, but ABC's health care town hall with Obama this week was a ratings success for the network. The strong showing came after days of relentless (and nonsensical) conservative attacks attempting to paint the special as an "infomercial" and a left-wing propaganda coup. Fox News' Mike Huckabee and Chris Wallace, apparently struck by the lunacy of the right-wing charges, defended ABC, essentially saying that anyone would jump at the chance to host such an event. Perhaps they could have discussed the issue with other Fox News personalities around the fair and balanced water cooler.

While some media critics like Kurtz correctly identified the conservative efforts as a classic example of "working the refs," they kept largely mum. Kurtz himself said he was "amazed" by the attacks, but has yet to say more.

As usual, the content of the program proved that charges of pro-Obama favoritism just wouldn't fly. Hosting, ABC's Charles Gibson claimed that "a lot of people are very uncomfortable" with the "idea" of "government insurance," even though a recent New York Times poll pegged support for such a plan at a whopping 72 percent. Gibson was also schooled over his interpretation of a Lewin Group report concerning future health care coverage of Americans by ... the Lewin Group's president and Obama.

Funny enough, ABC's Diane Sawyer, who co-hosted the town hall, noted this week that Bush had turned down the opportunity to participate in a similar program during his time in office.

It really was a case of imagined premeditated liberal media bias on the part of media conservatives.

The crazy world of Michael Savage

This week, Examiner.com's Ron Moore reported that Savage (née Weiner), the nation's third-most-listened-to talk radio host, vowed to "retaliate" against Media Matters for America by posting photos and "pertinent information" about staff on his website. Seriously. You can listen to Savage's disturbing words for yourself.

The comments led Ed Schultz, host of MSNBC's The Ed Show, to discuss the right-wing fringe talker's attacks in his appropriately titled "Psycho Talk" segment. Schultz declared Savage "is pinning a 'Wanted' sign on employees at Media Matters."

As Huffington Post political reporter Jason Linkins put it, "What's strange about this is that Media Matters has been making the case for some time now that right-wing voices have been ramping up rhetoric that specifically urges violent acts and intimidation. So now, Savage is talking about a running a web-stalking campaign against them? Hmmm. I wonder what sort of conclusions a person might draw from that?"

Media Matters responded to Savage, posting a video on YouTube that juxtaposes the seemingly rational face the host put on a during recent CNN interview with screeching audio clips from his own nationally syndicated radio program, including his threats against Media Matters' staff. The video concludes with on-screen text stating "We're Still Listening."

That night on his show, Savage dug in deeper, telling listeners that he's getting "tax returns for Media Matters." Of Media Matters' staff, Savage also repeated his vow to "expose not only their names and their pictures, but also how much money they make for being the good Stalinists that they are."

Friday, June 26, 2009

Credit Scores: What You Need to Know


You may not have checked your credit score lately, but there’s a good chance someone else has.

If you have applied for a mortgage or a loan — or even received a credit card offer in the mail — someone accessed that three-digit number to help determine the amount you can borrow and the interest you’ll owe on it.

So what goes into this all-important score? And how can you make sure you’ve got a good one?

The term credit score usually refers to your FICO score, a number based on a formula developed by the Fair Isaac Corporation. Fair Isaac looks at a summary of all your credit accounts and payment history. If you’ve got a mortgage, a MasterCard or a Macy’s account, it will be included in the report, as will late or missed payments. FICO scores range from 300 to 850, and Fair Isaac calculates them for each of the three big credit-reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. That’s one reason why your FICO score with each may differ slightly. Generally speaking, the higher your score, the more money you can borrow and the less you’ll pay for the loan.

Here’s how your score is determined:

¶ 35 percent is determined by your payment history. Do you regularly pay your bills or fines on time to any creditor that submits your information to the credit bureau? Even unpaid library fines, medical bills or parking tickets may appear here.

¶ 30 percent is based on the amounts you owe each of your creditors, and how that compares with the total credit available to you or the total loan amount you took out. If you’re maxing out your credit cards, your score may suffer.

¶ 15 percent is based on the length of your credit history, both how long you’ve had each account and how long it’s been since you had any activity on those accounts. The fewer and older the accounts, the better (assuming you’ve made timely payments).

¶ 10 percent is based on how many accounts you’ve recently opened compared with the total number of your accounts, as well as the number of recent inquiries on your report made by lenders to whom you’ve applied for credit. Your score can drop if it looks as if you’re seeking several new sources of credit — a sign that you may be in financial trouble. (If a lender initiates an inquiry about your credit report without your knowledge, though, it should not affect your score.) Shopping around for an auto loan or mortgage shouldn’t hurt, if you keep your search to six weeks or less. But every inquiry you trigger when you apply for a credit card can affect your score, says Craig Watts, a spokesman for Fair Isaac. So be selective.

¶ The final 10 percent is determined by the types of credit used. Having installment debt — like a mortgage, in which you pay a fixed amount each month — demonstrates that you can manage a large loan. But how you handle revolving debt, like credit cards, tends to carry more weight since it’s seen as more predictive of future behavior. (You can pay off the balance each month or just the minimum, for example, charge to the limit of your cards or rarely use them.)

For the best rates on a loan or credit card, you want a score that’s above 700, at least. To achieve that, make sure to pay all your bills on time. It’s also a good idea to have at least one credit card you plan to use for a long time, but not too many. Keep a low balance — generally less than one-third of your total credit limit. Of course, it’s best to pay off your balance entirely each month. And stay on top of the information in your reports.

You can get a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit agencies once a year. Be sure to order it through annualcreditreport.com, the only authorized online site under federal law. If you notice information that’s inaccurate, you can submit a request for removal online at Equifax, , Experian or TransUnion. Or submit your request by mail. Be sure to specify what information you think is inaccurate and why, and include any documents that support your argument. Ask in writing that the information be corrected or removed from your report. By law, the bureaus must investigate your complaint, usually within 30 days, and give you a response in writing (or via e-mail, if your request was made online) and a free copy of your report, if the information is changed as a result. Your score should reflect that change shortly after.

To see your actual score, you’ll generally have to pay. You can go through Equifax, Experian or TransUnion directly, but be aware that the score you order may be one developed by the agencies themselves, like the TransUnion TransRisk New Account Score, Experian Plus or VantageScore. These are different than the FICO scores lenders generally use when they evaluate your loan applications. Myfico.com offers two reasonably priced options on its site. The $15.95 FICO Standard package (as of December 2008) gives you 30-day access to one FICO score and a credit report from one of the three major credit agencies. The $47.85 FICO Credit Complete package gives you 30-day access to your FICO scores and credit reports from all three major agencies. Myfico.com and other sites also offer services that monitor your score and report for a monthly fee (ranging from about $4.95 a month for myFico’s quarterly report to $6.65 a month for TransUnion’s Credit Monitoring Service).

Whether you need to monitor your credit that often is debatable. For most, a close look at the free annual reports from each bureau is probably enough. But if you plan to apply for a loan or credit card, check your score and report at least a couple of months beforehand. Not only will you be aware of how creditworthy you are, you’ll also have time to remove any errors you spot and make sure your score reflects the changes before you fill out any applications.