Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Just Another Concerned Parent Firing Librarians

We've covered the tale of Sarah Palin's repeated inquiries into banning books at the Wasilla town library and firing the librarian in earlier posts. False rumors, misleading denials and minor discrepancies have muddied the waters on this story, so let's attempt to clear things up. We now have a few new developments - pushback from the McCain campaign, an ABC piece on the story, and other new details. Let's start with ABC:

Pam's House Blend has a transcript. It's a pretty good segment from ABC, and I'm glad they managed to contact librarian Mary Ellen Emmons (now Mary Ellen Baker). It's especially helpful to know that Palin's church was seeking to ban books, specifically two dealing with drugs and sexuality.

As Publius writes:

To believe Palin's version, you must think (1) she was just casually asking a rhetorical question; and (2) the subsequent firing of the librarian had nothing to do with the librarian's sharp resistance to Palin's question.

The key part of the ABC News story, though, is that Palin's prior -- and bat do-do crazy -- church had started making some noise about banning books from the library around the time she was elected. That is, removing certain books (e.g., "Pastor, I am Gay") had been on the church's radar at the time, and the church had been instrumental in getting her elected. Thus, it makes sense that Palin would -- upon taking power -- look into removing books. All in all, it's a pretty strong data point against her.

That's a good summary, although I'd add that the more one digs, the more reasons emerge to cast doubt on Palin's version of events. (Palin and some of her supporters have said her questions were "rhetorical," although I believe they and Publius mean "hypothetical.")

Meanwhile, Seth Colter Wallis has a piece at The Huffington Post about the McCain campaign's pushback on the story:

In a page right out of the Obama playbook, John McCain's campaign is responding directly and forcefully to a smear email campaign currently making the rounds. Betting against the conventional wisdom -- which, until this cycle, held that scurrilous rumors were not worth drawing attention to via a rebuttal -- the Republican nominee is disputing the charge that Sarah Palin supposedly banned a list of books when she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska.

Introducing the comprehensive memo to reporters in an email that recalls the Obama camp's "Fight the Smears" missives, McCain spokesman Brian Rogers decried "the latest false smear spreading from liberal blogs to the mainstream press - that Governor Palin banned books as Mayor of Wasilla. This is categorically false. The fact is that as Mayor, Palin never asked anyone to ban a book and not one book was ever banned, period."

That is true, though not a comprehensive account of the matter. The librarian in question has admitted that she only ever heard from Palin in the abstract on the issue of whether books could be pulled from library stacks. After the librarian responded that she would oppose such a move, no further discussions were held with Palin. Certainly, there was no official list drawn up. However, in a fact the McCain email leaves out, Palin approached the librarian three times to ask about the possibility, which could legitimately appear to some as something of a pressure campaign (especially considering that Palin attempted to have the librarian removed afterward).

Wallis is basically correct, but Palin did fire Emmons, giving her two weeks' notice in January 1997. However, due to public outcry, Palin rescinded that order the next day (more on this later on). One can parse the language, I suppose, since Emmons apparently was back at work before the termination was to take effect, but I don't think 'tried to have her fired' (or any variation) without further explanation captures the full timeline and dynamic, and it's rather important. FactCheck's summary blurb on the book-banning story is misleading on this point, but their actual analysis, which they apparently updated, is far better. Police Chief Irl Stambaugh was fired at the same time as Emmons, but stayed fired. The Time article on Palin's stint as mayor states that "The animosity spawned some talk of a recall attempt, but eventually Palin's opponents in the city council opted for a more conciliatory route," and that "At some point in those fractious first days, Palin told the department heads they needed her permission to talk to reporters."

Let me recap some key links and add a few new ones. Here's The Frontiersman article from 1996, the recent Anchorage Daily News piece, and this Unbossed post, which links the Time, Politico and New York Times pieces that mention this story. There are some minor discrepancies between articles, and the timeline's a bit muddled in some accounts.

GLBT site Bent Alaska links the ABC segment and cites another old Frontiersman article by Paul Stuart that puts Reverend Howard Bess (now retired) and his book Pastor, I am Gay into a more central role. Bess is interviewed in the ABC story above, and the ABC website also covers this angle:

Palin's church at the time, the Assembly of God, had been pushing for the removal a book called "Pastor I Am Gay" from local bookstores, according to the book's author Pastor Howard Bess, of the Church of the Covenant in nearby Palmer, Alaska.

"And she was one of them," said Bess, "this whole thing of controlling information, censorship, that's part of the scene," said Bess…

The local newspaper reporter who covered the controversy, Paul Stuart, claims he was later told by the librarian that Palin wanted three specific books removed from the library.

In her statement to ABC News, the librarian said, "I am unable to dispute or substantiate the information Paul Stuart provided to you."

Stuart said he was confident of his memory. "She may have said that but that's not how it was."

After she got her job back, Baker spent two more years in Wasilla before leaving for a library job in Fairbanks.

She would not address her reasons for leaving Wasilla, but friends say she felt badly treated by Mayor Palin.

"I don't care to revisit that time in my life," Baker told ABC News.

Baker doesn't want to speak on it, but to recap, according to Stuart, there were at least three books Palin actually mentioned to Baker/Emmons at the time. According to the ABC account, Palin's church was targeting Howard Bess' book and Go Ask Alice (a frequently-challenged book over the years). If Palin's list was the same as her church's, there's still a 'targeted book to be named later.' (I'd still like more detail and further confirmation on all this, but I'm not counting on it, given the reticence factor and the passage of time.)

Meanwhile, the aforementioned Frontiersman article from December 1996, also by Paul Stuart, adds a wealth of details. It's a short read, but here's the bulk of it (the web version currently has several typos):

WASILLA -- In the wake of strong reactions from the city's library director to inquiries about censorship, Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin on Monday was taking pains to explain her questions about censoring library material were “rhetorical.”

Library Director Mary Ellen Emmons last week said Palin broached the subject with her on two occasions in October - once Palin was elected mayor Oct. 1 but before she took office on Oct. 14, and again in more detail on Monday, Oct. 28. Besides heading the Wasilla City Library, Emmons is also president of the Alaska Library Association. The issue became public last Wednesday, when Palin brought it up during an interview about the now-defunct Liquor task Force. Palin used the library topic as an example of discussions with her department heads about understanding and following administration agendas. Palin said she asked Emmons how she would respond to censorship.

Emmons drew a clear distinction Saturday between the nature of Palin's inquiries and an established book-challenge policy in place in Wasilla, and in most public libraries.

“I'm not trying to suppress anyone's views,” Emmons said. “But I told her (Palin) clearly, I will fight anyone who tries to dictate what books can go on the library shelves.”

Palin said Monday she had no particular books or other material in mind when she posed the questions to Emmons.

Emmons said in the first conversation, before being sworn in as mayor, Palin briefly touched on the subject of censorship.

But on Monday, Oct. 28, Emmons said Palin asked her outright if she could live with censorship of library books. This was during a weak when Palin was requesting resignations from all the city's department heads as a way of expressing loyalty.

“This is different than a normal book-selection procedure or a book-challenge policy,” Emmons stressed Saturday. “She was asking me how I would deal with her saying a book can't be in the library.”

Monday Palin said in a written statement she was only trying to get aquatinted with her staff at the time. “Many issues were discussed, both rhetorical and realistic in nature,” Palin added.

Emmons recalled that the Oct. 28 conversation she pulled no punches with her response to the mayor.

“She asked me if I would object to censorship, and I replied 'Yup',” Emmons recounted Saturday. “And I told her it would not be just me. This was a constitutional question, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) would get involved, too.”

Emmons said Palin asked her on Oct. 28 if she would object to censorship, even if people were circling the library in protest about a book. “I told her it would definitely be a problem the ACLU would take on then,” Emmons said

Asked who she thought might picket the library, Palin said Monday, “Had no one in mind ... again, the issue was discussed in the context of a professional question being asked in regards to library policy.

“All questions posed to Wasilla's library director were asked in the context of professionalism regarding the library policy that is in place in our city. Obviously the issue of censorship is a library question... you ask a library director that type of question,” Palin said

“Palin also said Monday censorship issues would not involve any departments other than the library.

Emmons said she has been offered help if it is ever needed on censorship issues from the state library association's Intellectual Freedom Committee and the National Freedom to Read Foundation.

Palin called Emmons into her office Monday to discuss the censorship questions again.

Palin also attended Friday's staff meeting at the library, but without mentioning censorship , Emmons said.

“I'm hoping it was just a trial balloon,” Emmons said, “because the free exchange of information is my main job, and I'll fight anyone who tries to interfere with that.”

The timing of the issue comes at a time when Emmons is trying to get the book-challenge policies of the Wasilla Library and of the Palmer City Library in line with the Mat-Su Borough policy, revised in December of last year.

Emmons described the new borough policy as “a very good one.”

It is a step-by-step blueprint of procedures for anyone wanting to challenge the selection and availability of library material, Emmons explained. “it is a good process, and almost all public libraries have one.”

The borough's policy was revised mainly to replace the borough manager as the final decision maker with a formal Reconsideration Committee Mat-Su Borough Manager Don Moore said Saturday that changes were made, with the blessings, after a dispute that was resolved about two years ago involving a challenged book at the Big Lake Library.

Emmons said the current Wasilla policy, which she described as written in more general terms than the borough's, also worked procedurally in a book-challenge case last year. Emmons said then-council-woman Palin was distressed about the issue when it came up, indicating she was aware of the city's book-challenge policy.

Emmons said in the conversations with now-Mayor Palin in October, she reminded her again that the city has a policy in place. “But it seamed clear to me that wasn't really what she was talking about anyhow,” Emmons added. “I just hope it doesn't come up again.”

Several other accounts report that the matter also came up at a City Council meeting, according to Wasilla resident Ann Kilkenny, with a similar interchange – a hypothetical inquiry by Palin, and the same basic response by Emmons. I wasn't there to hear tone or judge dynamics, but everything Emmons said certainly corresponds with my understanding of common library procedures and professional conduct for a librarian. Any citizen should be able to express concerns, of course, but the library had provided a formal mechanism for doing so if, say, a citizen wasn't satisfied by an informal discussion with the librarian or library staff. In any case, I'd hope all librarians would stand up for the same principles Emmons expressed.

The newly linked pieces clear up some chronology issues for me. The 'tests of loyalty' requests for resignation (which I still think are troubling) were submitted by Palin to all department heads in October 1996 when she took office. She fired Emmons in January 1997, then reinstated her the next day due to public pressure. Stambaugh, the police chief, was fired at the same time, but stayed fired. Some accounts conflate the resignation requests with the later termination letters, which had been confusing me. Unless I'm missing something, the ABC Blotter piece repeats this same mistake. That's not to say that the two events were completely unrelated, just that they were distinct events. Some of the pushback I've seen claims that Emmons was not fired (she was), or that she was asked for her resignation, but merely along with everybody else (she was, but in a separate event a couple of months before being fired).

There are a few key elements for me. One is that, according to Emmons, Palin wasn't inquiring about existing procedures, with which she was already familiar, since a case the previous year had "distressed" Palin. Palin was asking about outright banning. And her rhetorical-hypothetical queries were about how Emmons would react if Palin asked/ordered her to yank a book – "She was asking me how I would deal with her saying a book can't be in the library.” Maybe that was just Emmons' characterization, but I doubt it. It sounds like Palin was testing the waters. Looking at this from a slightly different angle, Palin continued to ask about banning books (hypothetically) even after she had been informed of the borough's challenging policy (which she apparently already knew anyway). What's the explanation for that one? If she wanted to challenge a book, or was asking on behalf of one of her constituents who did (or several in her church), she had the answer for how to proceed already. Outright banning would only be a way to bypass the existing process, avoiding oversight and a panel's input, or perhaps to hide that banning had occurred - if the librarian was willing to play along, or cowed into complying. And Palin's stated reason for firing Emmons a couple of months later, "'I do not feel I have your full support in my efforts to govern the city of Wasilla," raises the question we explored in earlier posts – isn't it odd for a mayor to talk about "full support" and "administrative agendas" regarding a librarian? Even if we grant that Palin's book-banning questions were strictly hypothetical, or even some sort of "test" for Emmons, Palin comes off as inept or maybe just petty. Emmons was president of the Alaska Library Association at the time, suggesting she was well-regarded by her peers, and the public outcry over her firing indicates she was popular with many of the townsfolk.

Meanwhile, Palin's a socially conservative authoritarian and evangelical with extremist, fringe views on abortion and global warming, among other things, but also an extremist agenda. She opposes gay marriage. She's also shown she's a brazen liar on bridges, state troopers and other matters. Time's article reported Palin made her social conservatism (including her anti-abortion stance) a key part of her campaign for mayor, and such "culture war" issues were a marked change in tone for local politics. According to ABC, her church, which supported her, has some pretty extreme beliefs too, is hardly gay-friendly, and wanted to ban certain books.

All that's still circumstantial, of course, but it goes to character, credibility and plausibility. And ABC's information from Howard Bess and Paul Stuart further undercuts the plausibility of Palin's version of events.

The list of books Palin "banned" that's circulating is not real – those are books that have been challenged over the years, but they were not banned in the Wasilla town library. Palin didn't actually ban books. Or, if you prefer, she didn't succeed in banning books. She didn't get that far. She inquired about what the librarian's response would be to censorship. Palin may be a liar, but she's not dumb, and I think she knew she might wind up with a lawsuit on her hands. If the ACLU got involved, it might become a national story. Emmons, Kilkenny, Stein, Reverend Bess and others interviewed by ABC and in the linked pieces certainly thought Palin's intent was to ban books, or at least to float a "trial balloon" (as Emmons put it) to see if it was feasible. Palin's essentially claimed they misunderstood her intent. Personally, I don't buy her version at all. But she still does have some deniability.

This story makes for interesting comparison and contrast with her veto as governor of a bill that would prohibit granting benefits to same-sex partners. Palin doesn't have a great record on gay rights, and stated that she still opposed gay marriage, but that she had to veto the bill on constitutional grounds (although it may have actually been a procedural necessity). Regardless, her veto of the bill was contrary to her political position, and more a matter of maneuvering and feasibility.

In this book-banning story, feasibility was also key – it was unlikely Palin could pull off banning books outright, certainly if Emmons remained as librarian – but Palin's denying her intent was to ban books. That's not surprising, since banning books would play well with authoritarian conservatives – as does banning gay marriage – but banning books would play worse with the public at large. There's still not incontrovertible proof; it's a circumstantial case, but I'd say a fairly solid one. Palin's conduct and statements raise several red flags, especially if you've seen such things play out. (I'll disclose once again that I count some librarians among my family and friends, and ran into similar issues as a teacher, if far less extreme.) You'll also notice that the McCain campaign pushback consists of narrow refutations, based on the facts that the Wasilla banned books list is bogus, and Palin didn't get as far as actually banning books. I don't think they want close scrutiny on this one in the court of public opinion. Meanwhile, my favorite lines so far come from GOP op Alex Castellanos:

"A mom being concerned about what kind of books our kids read and asking rhetorical questions about what can legally be done to protect them? What's wrong with that? ... This kind of foolishness is making her a hero to more than the evangelical right. It will make her a hero to working class women."

Castellanos is correct about the evangelical right, but not about "working class women," nor the majority of Americans, if the details get out – the GOP wants the public to receive a very select, favorable fact-check, not the context of the full story or any more pieces like the ABC segment. Palin wasn't asking as a mom, she was asking in her official capacity as mayor, and had already been informed of the borough's challenge policy and that Emmons would fight any attempts at outright banning. But sure, Palin was just another concerned parent firing a librarian.

Anyway, that's my take, some of which is speculation, obviously. Anyone's free to disagree, and please pass on any significant new pieces of information I've missed. I hope I've provided enough links that people can get the facts and make up their own minds. It's a principle I think I read about in a book somewhere...

Update 9/14/08: A new piece has been added, discussed in a followup post. In 1995, Palin wanted to remove from the town library a book (Daddy’s Roommate) dealing with homosexuality that she hadn't even bothered to read. But she's no book-banner, in deed nor intent, no sirree!

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)


LizM said...

Thanks for the informative run down.
The McCain campaign is working very hard to cover up the trail in these issues.

I've linked her from my post at Cityzenjane.

Proud2bHumble said...

Fortunately, fine posts like this on the 'sphere are starting to push the MSM into doing some actual reporta'ge instead of just slapping a 'banned-aid' on it, as evidenced by Gibson's uncharacteristically journalist-like interview of the Paliar in Veep's clothing...

Thanks for the effort, B.


Anonymous said...

In some ways I worry more about her insistence on loyalty to her personally than I do about her wanting to ban books. Bigots and despots can't prevail unless they're surrounded by either sycophants or wussy/greedy enablers. We've seen that over the past seven years. And we've seen it also in the sudden about-face of the Alaska National Guard's commanding general: First comment on the record? Palin has no experience as a military commander. Next comment? Even more emphatically, she has no say in military matters. Third comment? Of course she has had command experience. To suggest otherwise is to demean every National Guardsman! Day or two later? He's promoted one level of rank.

RossK said...

Excellent post.

And an invaluable record for future scholars that want to get a fulsome picture of what really happened.


: smintheus :: said...

This is a great overview of what's known about Sarah Palin's book-banning adventure. There are several things you note that I hadn't seen before. Thanks for drawing attention to it at unbossed, I've added a link there to your post.