Wednesday, October 08, 2008

STEPHANIE SALTER: Purdue alum was right guy in right place to shed light on Palin

By Stephanie Salter
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE On the morning of Aug. 29, Larry Persily was just one of millions of relatively unknown folks working on and in government in Washington, D.C. Then, John McCain named Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. Before sundown, Persily’s daily existence was transformed.

“I became the Alaska geek in D.C.,” said Persily. “I’m a former journalist, I worked for Palin and I’m within driving distance of the major news media studios. That afternoon, I did interviews with the BBC, CNN International, CNN and ABC.”

For weeks after, “it was non-stop.” Everybody wanted to talk to the Alaska governor’s former aide. More than a month later, Persily is still a go-to guy, as much now for advice about other news sources as for his own impressions of Palin.

“A lot of people who are still working for her don’t want their names connected to any news stories,” Persily said. “She is so popular and can be so vindictive — and Alaska is such a small state in population — it’s getting really hard for anyone in the news media to get people to talk.”

I have known Persily since the late-1960s when we toiled on the Exponent, Purdue University’s student daily. Like me, Persily didn’t come to West Lafayette thinking he would end up as a journalist. A Chicago native, his first major was organic chemistry.

But the news bug bit him, and he has spent his adult life writing, editing and publishing news, or using his journalist’s skills to gather and disseminate information for public entities — such as the Alaska governor’s office.

Palin is the third Alaska governor for whom Persily worked (two Republicans, one Democrat). From May 2007 until June 2008, Persily served as the associate director of Palin’s D.C. office. His specialty was oil and gas tax policy.

The reasons he quit had nothing specific to do with Palin, although he is adamant that she is “totally unqualified” to be VP. It was his stomach capacity for politics on the federal level.

“D.C. is a very unproductive place; I knew I wasn’t making any real difference here,” Persily said, in a phone interview earlier this week. “I like to do something besides pass notes between two people, trying to get them to agree. I missed working on the state and local issues, too, and it seemed dishonest to just sit there and pull down an exorbitant paycheck.”

So, after 13 months in the Palin administration, Persily resigned without rancor and turned his efforts to a couple of research projects: a citizen’s guide to oil and gas for a University of Alaska think tank, and a legislative committee report on natural gas taxes.

Then, McCain pulled his August surprise.

Hundreds of journalists from around the globe were caught flat-footed. They needed someone, anyone, to weigh in on Sarah Palin and — while he was at it — maybe give them a crash course in all things Alaska.

“I feel for them because Alaska is such a foreign country up there,” Persily said. “Where do you start?”

To the continued amazement of those of us who hung out with him in college, you start with Persily, who truly knows Alaska.

He has lived in the 49th state since 1976. His government work has included a stint as an investigator for the state ombudsman’s office, a job he likens to “being a reporter with subpoena power.” He also owned two news weeklies, worked for the Associated Press, and wrote and edited for the Anchorage Daily News and the Juneau Empire.

“When Palin ran for governor, I wrote the editorial for the Daily News in which we did not endorse her,” Persily said. “We didn’t think she was qualified.”

Knowing both sides of the media biz has helped Persily handle the attention and be less than intimidated by some of its glitter.

“I got a call from someone who said, ‘Hi, I’m with Anderson Cooper,’ and I said, ‘Is that some law firm?’ I knew better. I just couldn’t help myself,” Persily said.

Early on, he noticed an aspect of the electronic news process that print journalists often don’t appreciate.

“Someone would spend an hour interviewing me about Palin and end up using one sentence,” he said. “I started out saying good things and bad things about her. But I’d see that Fox would use only the good things and some other network, maybe MSNBC, only the bad. I realized I wasn’t controlling what was being attributed to me.

“I also realized that the important part of the information I could lend to the situation — that Sarah Palin is not at all ready to be vice president — was getting lost in my comments about her being personable and eating whatever she hunts and kills.”

So, Persily condensed his knowledge to a three-point sound bite that can stand on its own or be expanded: “She isn’t qualified; she governs by BlackBerry; and an in-depth briefing to her is bullet points.”

The latter trait is especially disturbing, Persily said, because it reminds him of another politician known for his short attention span and quick decisions based, not on investigation and analysis, but on his gut — George W. Bush.

The president’s name surfaced, in fact, during one of the many interviews Persily gave to international media.

“A woman with a German newspaper said, ‘You say she is not qualified. George Bush wasn’t qualified and you elected him!’ I said, ‘Well, I didn’t elect him.’ And she said, ‘Your country did.’ I said, ‘What do you want me to say — my country is stupid — is that the quote you’re looking for?’”

All in all, Persily said, the experience of the last few weeks has been entertaining and instructive, but he is looking forward to returning to Alaska full-time when his projects are done in D.C.

“Palin’s popularity ratings are in the high 60s, which most governors would kill for, but they’ve dropped from the 80s since her VP nomination,” he said. “I think Alaskans are getting to see a different side of her, the publicly mean side. And there are a lot of Democrats and Republicans back home who are pretty ticked off at her. If she loses, it’s going to be an ugly next couple of years.”

And if her ticket wins and…?

“I am not much of a fan of what Eisenhower called ‘the military industrial complex,’ but you could only hope that, God forbid, if she gets to be president, the generals will all get together and secretly change the code on the red phone,” Persily said. “They could give her a placebo key that doesn’t turn on anything.”

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or