Excellent detailed piece on Sarah Palin by journalist Michael Joseph Gross in the October 2010 issue of Vanity Fair …
Sarah Palin: The Sound and the Fury
Even as Sarah Palin’s public voice grows louder, she has become increasingly secretive, walling herself off from old friends and associates, and attempting to enforce silence from those around her. Following the former Alaska governor’s road show, the author delves into the surreal new world Palin now inhabits—a place of fear, anger, and illusion, which has swallowed up the engaging, small-town hockey mom and her family—and the sadness she has left in her wake.
Backstage in the arena, a little girl in Mary Janes pushes her brother in a baby carriage, stopping a few yards shy of a heavy, 100-foot-long black curtain. The curtain splits the arena in two, shielding the children from an audience of 4,000 people clapping their hands in time to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The music accompanies a video “Salute to Military Heroes” that plays above the stage where, in a few moments, the children’s mother will appear.
When the girl, Piper Palin, turns around, she sees her parents thronged by admirers, and the crowd rolling toward her and the baby, her brother Trig, born with Down syndrome in 2008. Sarah Palin and her husband, Todd, bend down and give a moment to the children; a woman, perhaps a nanny, whisks the boy away; and Todd hands Sarah her speech and walks her to the stage. He pokes the air with one finger. She mimes the gesture, whips around, strides on four-inch heels to stage center, and turns it on.
And how. Palin and the crowd might as well be one. She’s glad to be here with the people of Independence, Missouri, “where so many of you proudly cling to your guns and your religion”—the first laughline in a 40-minute stump speech that alludes to many of the perceived insults she and her audience have suffered together, and that transforms their resentments into badges of honor. Palin waves her scribbled-on palm to the crowd, proclaiming that she’s using “the poor man’s teleprompter.” Of the Obama administration, she says, “They talk down to us. Especially here in the heartland. Oh, man. They think that, if we were just smart enough, we’d be able to understand their policies. And I so want to tell ’em, and I do tell ’em, Oh, we’re plenty smart, oh yeah—we know what’s goin’ on. And we don’t like what’s goin’ on. And we’re not gonna let them tell us to sit down and shut up.”
The crowd’s ample applause at these lines swells to something vastly bigger when Palin vows defiantly that “come November, we’re taking our country back!” The phrase plays on the name of this event, “Winning America Back,” which has been billed as a Tea Party rally organized by a grassroots Missouri political-action committee that no one had heard of until a few months ago, when the event was announced.
Behind the curtain, Piper plays with other children, oblivious to the speech. She runs in circles, plays hide-and-seek, poses for snapshots, and generally acts as if she were in another world—until she gets the signal to do her job: march to the podium, pick up Palin’s speech, and allow Palin to make a public display of maternal affection.
On cue, Piper parts the curtain. As the child appears, a loud and doting “Awww” melts through the crowd.
Sarah Palin’s connection with her audience is complete. People who admire her believe she is just like them, and this conviction seems to satisfy their curiosity about the objective facts of her life. Those whose curiosity has not been satisfied have their work cut out for them. Palin has been a national figure for barely two years—John McCain selected her as his running mate in August 2008. Her on-the-record statements about herself amount to a litany of untruths and half-truths. With few exceptions—mostly Palin antagonists in journalism and politics whose beefs with her have long been out in the open—virtually no one who knows Palin well is willing to talk about her on the record, whether because they are loyal and want to protect her (a small and shrinking number), or because they expect her prominence to grow and intend to keep their options open, or because they fear she will exact revenge, as she has been known to do. It is an astonishing phenomenon. Colleagues and acquaintances by the hundreds went on the record to reveal what they knew, for good or ill, about prospective national candidates as diverse as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Al Gore, and Barack Obama. When it comes to Palin, people button their lips and slink away.
She manages to be at once a closed book and a constant noisemaker. Her press spokesperson, Pam Pryor, barely speaks to the press, and Palin shrewdly cultivates a real and rhetorical antagonism toward what she calls “the lamestream media.” The Palin machine is supported by organizations that do much of their business under the cover of pseudonyms and shell companies. In accordance with the terms of a reported $1 million annual contract with Fox News, Palin regularly delivers canned commentary on that network. But in the year since she abruptly resigned the governorship of Alaska, in order to market herself full-time—earning an estimated $13 million in the process—she has submitted to authentic, unpaid interviews with only a handful of journalists, none of whom have posed notably challenging questions. She keeps tight control of her pronouncements, speaking only in settings of her own choosing, with audiences of her own selection, and with reporters kept at bay. (Despite many requests, neither Palin nor her current staff would comment for this article.) She injects herself into the news almost every day, but on a strictly one-way basis, through a steady stream of messages on Twitter and Facebook. The press plays along. Palin is the only politician whose tweets are regularly reported as news by TV networks. She is the only one who has been able to significantly change the course of debate on a major national issue (health-care reform) with a single Facebook posting (in which she accused the Obama administration, falsely, of wanting to set up a “death panel”).
Palin makes speeches before large audiences at least a few times a week, on a grueling schedule that has taken her to as many as four locations in three states in one day. She’s choosy, restricting herself to Tea Party gatherings; fund-raisers for charities and Republican organizations and candidates; and moneymakers for herself, mainly business conventions and “Get Motivated!” seminars. Judging from the bootleg videos that sometimes turn up, her basic speech varies little from venue to venue. She presents herself as the straight-shooting, plainspoken, salt-of-the-earth advocate for “hardworking, patriotic, liberty-loving Americans” and as the anti-Obama, the lone Republican standing up to a federal government gone “out of control.” Last July, the quarterly filing by Palin’s political-action committee, SarahPAC, revealed a formidable war chest and hefty investments in fund-raising and direct mail, the clearest signs yet that she may indeed run for president. Republican leaders privately dismiss her as too unpredictable and too undisciplined to run a serious campaign. But on she flies, carpet-bombing the 24-hour news cycle: now announcing her desire to meet with her “political heroine” Margaret Thatcher (the better to look like Ronald Reagan, presumably, though Palin seemed unaware that Thatcher is suffering from dementia); now yelping in theatrical complaint (“I want my straws! I want ’em bent!”), to shrug off revelations that her speaking contract demands deluxe hotel rooms, first-class air travel, and bottles of water with bendable straws; now responding (in a statement read on the Today show) to reports of her daughter Bristol’s re-engagement to Levi Johnston; and all the while issuing scores of political endorsements and preparing a fall media blitz. A TV show, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, for which Palin is being paid $2 million, will have its premiere on the TLC network in November. A new book, America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag, will be published the following week.
This spring and summer I traveled to Alaska and followed Palin’s road show through four midwestern states, speaking with whomever I could induce to talk under whatever conditions of anonymity they imposed—political strategists, longtime Palin friends and political associates, hotel staff, shopkeepers and hairstylists, and high-school friends of the Palin children. There’s a long and detailed version of what they had to say, but there’s also a short and simple one: anywhere you peel back the skin of Sarah Palin’s life, a sad and moldering strangeness lies beneath.
Fist of the North Star
It was a baking-hot Kansas afternoon, and from the lobby I watched as three slender, solemn young hairstylists and makeup artists approached a front-desk clerk at the Hyatt Regency hotel, in Wichita. The tallest of them said, “We’re here for North Star.” The desk clerk understood. He nodded and directed the three women to the Keeper of the Plains suite, on the 17th floor, where North Star herself awaited. The North Star is mentioned in Alaska’s state song and appears on its state flag. Fairbanks lies in a region called the North Star Borough. Palin is on the way to making North Star a personal brand. If she ever does run for president, it might well serve as her Secret Service code name.
Hours after the styling session, three bodyguards and one aide accompany Sarah, Todd, and Piper to a $1,000-a-plate V.I.P. dinner to raise money for Wichita’s Bethel Life School. Each guest has a photo taken with Palin and receives a “personally autographed bookplate copy” of Palin’s autobiography, Going Rogue. (The autographs are fake, made with an Autopen.) After dinner, Pat Boone, his skin a taut orange against the trademark white suit, leads the crowd in the singing of a spiritual. Congressman Todd Tiahrt, who will receive Palin’s endorsement in his race for the U.S. Senate, tells everyone to buy a copy of Palin’s book—“so Sarah can buy a Learjet!” (Learjet is based in Wichita.)
Palin delivers basically the same speech she gave 18 hours earlier to the Tea Party group in Independence. You could pretty much replace the word “constitution,” from yesterday’s remarks, with “Bible,” and be good to go. Then Palin departs from the script and speaks as if from the heart, describing her fear and confusion upon discovering that Trig would be born with Down syndrome. “I had never really been around a baby with special needs,” she tells her listeners. For what it’s worth, this statement is untrue. Depicting the same moment of discovery in her own book, Palin writes that she immediately thought of a special-needs child she knew very well: her autistic nephew. Such falsehoods never damage Palin’s credibility with her admirers, because information and ideology are incidental to this relationship. Palin owes her power to identity politics, pitched with moralistic topspin. She exploits the same populist impulse that fueled the career of William Jennings Bryan—an impulse described by one Bryan biographer as “the yearning for a society run by and for ordinary people who lead virtuous lives.”
Palin does not always treat those ordinary people well, however—it depends on who is watching. Of the many famous people who have stayed at the Hyatt in Wichita (Cher, Reba McEntire, Neil Young), Sarah Palin ranks as the all-time worst tipper: $5 for seven bags. But the bellhops had it good in Kansas, compared with the bellman at another midwestern hotel who waited up until past midnight for Palin and her entourage to check in—and then got no tip at all for 10 bags. He was stiffed again at checkout time. The same went for the maids who cleaned Palin’s rooms in both places—no tip whatsoever. The only time I heard of Palin giving a generous tip was in St. Joseph, Michigan, after the owner of Kilwin’s chocolate shop, on State Street, sent a CARE package to Palin’s suite, and Palin walked to the store to say thank you. She also wanted to buy more boxes of candy to take home. When the owner would not accept her money, Palin, encircled by the crowd that had jammed the store to get a glimpse of her, pressed a hundred-dollar bill into the woman’s hand, saying, “This is for the staff.” That Ben Franklin was the talk of State Street the whole rest of the day.
Warm and effusive in public, indifferent or angry in private: this is the pattern of Palin’s behavior toward the people who make her life possible. A onetime gubernatorial aide to Palin says, “The people who have worked for her—they’re broken, used, stepped on, down in the dust.” On the 2008 campaign trail, one close aide recalls, it was practically impossible to persuade Palin to take a moment to thank the kitchen workers at fund-raising dinners. During the campaign, Palin lashed out at the slightest provocation, sometimes screaming at staff members and throwing objects. Witnessing such behavior, one aide asked Todd Palin if it was typical of his wife. He answered, “You just got to let her go through it… Half the stuff that comes out of her mouth she doesn’t even mean.” When a campaign aide gingerly asked Todd whether Sarah should consider taking psychiatric medication to control her moods, Todd responded that she “just needed to run and work out more.” Her anger kept boiling over, however, and eventually the fits of rage came every day. Then, just as suddenly, her temper would be gone. Palin would apologize and promise to be nicer. Within hours, she would be screaming again. At the end of one long day, when Palin was mid-tirade, a campaign aide remembers thinking, “You were an angel all night. Now you’re a devil. Where did this come from?”
The intensity of Palin’s temper was first described to me in such extreme terms that I couldn’t help but wonder if it might be exaggerated, until I heard corroborating tales of outbursts dating back to her days as mayor of Wasilla and before. One friend of the Palins’ remembers an argument between Sarah and Todd: “They took all the canned goods out of the pantry, then proceeded to throw them at each other. By the time they got done, the stainless-steel fridge looked like it had got shot up with a shotgun. Todd said, ‘I don’t know why I even waste my time trying to get nice things for you if you’re just going to ruin them.’ ” This friend adds, “As soon as she enters her property and the door closes, even the insects in that house cringe. She has a horrible temper, but she has gotten away with it because she is a pretty woman.” (The friend elaborated on this last point: “Once, while Sarah was preparing for a city-council meeting, she said, ‘I’m gonna put on one of my push-up bras so I can get what I want tonight.’ That’s how she rolls.”) When Palin was mayor, she made life for one low-level municipal employee so miserable that the woman quit her job, sought psychiatric counseling, and then left the state altogether to escape Palin’s sphere of influence—this according to one person with firsthand knowledge of the situation. The woman did not want to be found. When I finally tracked her down, her husband, who answered the phone, at first pretended that I had dialed the wrong number and that the word “Wasilla” had no meaning to him. Palin’s former personal assistants all refused to comment on the record for this story, some citing a fear of reprisal. Others who have worked with Palin recall that, when she feels threatened, she does not hesitate to wield some version of a signature threat: “I have the power to ruin you.”
Palin’s public voice is an instrument of great versatility. In a few moments, she can turn from kind to hateful, rational to unhinged. At her best Palin can be folksy and pungent. But she needs outside help to give her voice its national range. For messaging strategy, Palin relies on William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, and Fred Malek, who was an aide to Presidents Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush. The lawyer Robert Barnett, the most successful literary agent in Washington—his clients range from Hillary Clinton to Dick Cheney to Tony Blair—negotiated Palin’s reported $7 million advance for Going Rogue, and he helps oversee her speaking schedule, which is arranged by the Washington Speakers Bureau. The small inner circle that shapes Palin’s voice day to day includes lobbyist Randy Scheunemann, a director of the neoconservative think tank Project for the New American Century, who advises Palin on foreign affairs, and Kim Daniels, a lawyer with the Thomas More Law Center, which has been called “the Christian answer to the A.C.L.U.,” who advises her on domestic issues. Palin’s speechwriter is Lindsay Hayes. Doug McMarlin and Jason Recher, both of whom did advance work for George W. Bush, serve as body men and confidants. Both Hayes and Recher were on Palin’s 2008-campaign road team, and both were known for indulging her whims, according to their colleagues. (When John McCain decided to pull out of Michigan, a decision Palin disagreed with, Recher and Palin hatched a plan one day to make an early-morning drive to Michigan anyway. The Secret Service, becoming aware of the plan, asked the McCain campaign what it should do. The answer came: “Shoot out the tires.”) Campaign e-mails indicate that Recher was disrespectful of field staff and support workers. “Our volunteers don’t want to do Palin trips because of the way they are treated by Recher,” wrote one of his supervisors. Of all those who have professional relationships with Palin, only Robert Barnett is generally considered to be at the top of his game, and he is basically just cutting deals, as he would for any client.
Palin’s most unconventional hire is a novice media consultant, Rebecca Mansour, a 36-year-old Los Angeles resident who has been identified in news stories as a screenwriter. Mansour has said that she volunteered for Obama early in the 2008 campaign and then became disillusioned. Not long after the election, with Joseph Russo, a then 23-year-old college student from New Jersey, who would also go to work for Palin, she co-founded the most popular pro-Palin blog, Conservatives4Palin, known informally as C4P (and not to be confused with the “adult swingers” Web site of that name). C4P functions as a hybrid news service, discussion board, and field headquarters for a virtual army of Palin supporters, who pride themselves on brute devotion. “Who We Are and What We Stand For,” a post written by Mansour, declares, “We’re ordinary barbarians here. No one controls us. We’re a horde.” A prominent C4P contributor, Nicole Coulter, told CBS.com this summer, “We would literally walk across hot broken glass for this woman… She’s our family, and you protect your family; it’s like the mafia.”
On C4P, any journalist or public figure who questions Palin in any way is flicked off as a “creep,” a “hack,” a “loser,” a “storm trooper,” a “liar,” or as just plain “slime.” “I assumed the governor was above that,” says Jay Ramras, an Alaska state legislator who has been a frequent target of the site. “Or at least that there was a Chinese wall between her and these people. But then they crossed over—she hired them.” Mansour’s words have continued to appear on the site occasionally, even after she was formally taken on board by SarahPAC. She used to police C4P message boards for dissenters from the party line and, under the name RAM (her initials, shortened from her earlier, more descriptive handle, RAM Hammer), rip them mercilessly: “Now you are banned for life, you sick son of a bitch.” In one comment string, a woman named Sandra wrote, “I wish Sarah would tell us more about what is involved with caring for Trig. I understand there are many professionals involved in his education and training. If we knew more about this there would be more support for organizations that are involved.” Mansour shot back, “Sandra, what are you implying?,” and the comment string went dead. The nastiness on C4P exists alongside an idealization of the former governor, as displayed in the closing lines of “Who is Sarah Palin?,” an 8,000-word posting by Mansour: “C4P has your back, Governor. And when you finally ride out from the north with your banner lifted high, we’ll rally.”
These words resonate with the code name Palin used in Wichita. Palin has invoked the North Star in several of her most important speeches, including her July 2009 farewell address, when she resigned as governor of Alaska (“Wherever the road may lead us, we have that steadying great North Star to guide us home”), her January 2009 state-of-the-state speech (“United, protecting and progressing under the great North Star, let’s get to work”), and her December 2006 inaugural address, in which she used the North Star concept to frame Alaska’s relationship to the rest of the country, much the way Ronald Reagan used the “city on a hill” image to portray America’s relationship to the rest of the world. “America is looking for answers. She’s looking for a new direction; the world is looking for a light,” Palin said. “That light can come from America’s great North Star; it can come from Alaska.” According to an account on US for Palin, another pro-Palin blog, Palin recently told a Christian audience in Georgia that “in Alaska they refer to the North Star a lot,” and indicated that this is sometimes meant as a reference to God.
Palin’s rooms in Wichita were booked by NorthStar Strategies, a Virginia company registered to Jason Recher. When a man in Wichita asked Palin how he could get involved if she decides to run for president, Doug McMarlin offered him a business card identifying himself as a partner in NorthStar. An Amazon.com store called the North Star Group, maintained by a Palin blogger, “sells Governor Palin’s books, and numerous products she has referenced or is known to use,” such as the red Naughty Monkey Double Dare pumps she often wears. As a side project to Conservatives4Palin, Joseph Russo in 2009 contributed to a separate pro-Palin blog called Fist of the North Star. The blog shares its name with a Japanese manga series set in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by nuclear war, in which a faithful remnant work to save their Heavenly Empress, who has been imprisoned by the corrupt Imperial Army. The Fist of the North Star blog once featured a staggeringly obscene mock news item about one of Palin’s Alaska nemeses, the activist Andree McLeod, who had filed a series of ethics complaints against the then governor: “On Friday, an international team of doctors successfully removed the world’s largest parasite from her desperately overstretched colon. One must wonder what kind of freaky shit this ghetto bitch was ingesting… You never know what else that Harpies Twat is carrying!”
As late as April 2009, Palin’s press spokesperson contended that C4P was “not affiliated in any way with the governor.” Mansour’s reaction to that statement suggested otherwise. The next day on C4P, she wrote, “Some readers have wondered if I felt tire tracks on my back this morning,” and went on to say, “I understand” why Palin’s spokesperson denied any connection, adding, “I’m not hurt … much.” Twelve days later she told a reporter for a McClatchy newspaper a different story: Sarah Palin, Mansour said, “has nothing at all, whatsoever, to do with any of what we’re doing here.” In early July, Mansour made a trip to Alaska to meet with Palin, according to a source in Anchorage. By mid-August, her byline, long the most prominent one on C4P, had vanished from the site.
But her voice, or at least a voice that sounds much like hers, was about to turn up in another venue. When it was first set up, in January 2009, Palin’s Facebook page might as well have been a file cabinet for official press releases (“Palin Pushes Parental Consent Legislation”) written mostly in a stiff, third-person form. The same was true of her Twitter feed, which went live in April. After Mansour’s voice disappeared on C4P, however, Palin’s voice on Facebook and Twitter started sounding increasingly provocative and irascible. A company called Aries Petra Consulting was formed in September and registered to Mansour’s home address, but under someone else’s name. (In astrology, Aries is the ram—or “RAM.”) SarahPAC’s first payment to the firm was made in October, about two weeks before Palin began her book tour. By then, Palin’s new virtual voice was growing in intensity. The more shrill it became, the more news Palin made: “QUIT MAKING THINGS UP DNC” … “OBAMA ADMINISTRATION’S ATROCIOUS DECISION: HORRIBLE DECISION, ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE” … “ARE YOU CAPABLE OF DECENCY, RAHM EMANUEL?” The payments to Mansour were not made public until February 1, 2010, when SarahPAC had to disclose its quarterly filings with the Federal Elections Commission. The day before the disclosure, knowing what was coming, C4P made an official announcement acknowledging that both Mansour and Russo had left the site months earlier and gone to work for SarahPAC. This summer, in her capacity as a SarahPAC staffer, Mansour insisted to a reporter that “anything that goes out under [Palin’s] name is hers.” Palin’s virtual voice does sometimes have the ring of authenticity. But often it sounds less like Palin herself than someone else’s fantasy version of Palin at her most vitriolic. On one occasion Palin’s virtual voice contradicted remarks she made in a TV interview two days later.
Angels and Demons
Early in the 2008 campaign, when John McCain’s aides discovered that Alaska-size gaps existed in Palin’s general knowledge (among those previously unreported: she had no idea who Margaret Thatcher was), they from time to time would give her some books to read in hopes of improving the candidate’s learning curve. On one such occasion, Palin accepted the books, set them aside, and for the next 25 minutes was held rapt by one of her three BlackBerrys.
Eventually, an aide asked, “What are you working on?”
“I’m reading these great e-mails,” she said, “from the prayer warriors.”
On the road, Palin gives “prayer warriors” regular shout-outs. She did it in Wichita and again in June during “An Evening with Sarah Palin” at Chicago’s Rosemont Theatre. Standing in front of a 50-foot-long American flag, wearing a black leather jacket, Palin thanked prayer warriors in the audience, just as at other events she has thanked them for keeping her “covered” and “providing [a] prayer shield.”
The term “prayer warrior” describes a person who offers a specific kind of supplication: asking God to direct an unseen battle between forces of light and darkness—literal angels and demons—that some Christians believe is occurring all around us. A leading member of Wasilla’s Church on the Rock, the non-denominational evangelical congregation where Palin sometimes attends worship, confirmed this understanding of the term. When Palin thanks prayer warriors for keeping her covered, she is thanking them for calling on angels to shield her from demonic attacks. On the night of the vice-presidential debate with Joe Biden, Palin received an e-mail marked “URGENT … Urgent for Sarah to read … ” The e-mail came from pastor Lou Engle, a prominent right-wing activist who identifies himself as a prayer warrior and is a central figure in dominionist theology. (Dominionists believe that, until Jesus Christ returns to earth, society should be governed exclusively by God’s law as revealed through a literal reading of Scripture.) In the e-mail, Engle compared Palin to the biblical Queen Esther. “This is an Esther moment in your life,” he wrote. “Esther hid her identity until Mordecai challenged her to risk everything for such a time as this. Your identity is ‘Sarah Barracuda.’ Esther removed corruption from the Persian government and Haman fell. She didn’t have experience, she had grace and favor. Sarah, don’t hide your identity tonight.”
Palin has often stated that the strokes of luck propelling her political success were divinely ordained: “There are no coincidences” is a favorite maxim. In Going Rogue, Palin casts herself as a reluctant prophet, accepting providential election against her wishes. The reluctant prophet is a character trope found throughout Hebrew and Christian scripture. (Jesus prays, “Father, if it is Thy will, let this cup pass from me.”) The opening scene of Going Rogue, at the 2008 Alaska State Fair, ends with Palin’s BlackBerry ringing. As she reaches to answer, Palin prays, “Please, Lord, just for an hour, anything but politics,” only to find John McCain on the line, “asking if I wanted to help him change history.”
Whenever I heard Palin speak on the road, her remarks were scored with code phrases expressing solidarity with fundamentalist Christians. Her talk of leading with “a servant’s heart” is a dog whistle for the born-again. Her dig at health-care reform as an expression of Democratic ambitions to “build a Utopia” in the United States is practically a trumpet call (because the Kingdom of God is not of this earth, and perfection can be achieved only in the life to come). But it is Palin’s persistent encouragement of the prayer warriors that most clearly reveals her worldview: she is good, her opponents are evil, and the war is on.
Palin’s belief that evil surrounds her may account for the secretive nature of her business arrangements. SarahPAC staffers and contractors have made what seem like concerted efforts to disclose an absolute minimum of information. Palin’s tours around the country are supported by a network of organizations that are not always what they claim to be. The Winning America Back conference was organized by a Missouri political-action committee called Preserving American Liberty (PAL-PAC). The group’s Web site states that “Members of Preserving American Liberty are from the Kansas City metropolitan area and are all unpaid volunteers who want to make a positive difference in the community.” Yet when I asked local politicians (including state representatives, a Senate candidate, and a congressional candidate) and local journalists about who had organized the event, I found that they knew nothing about the sponsors—“maybe because they’re Tea Partiers,” one reporter guessed, “and they’re all new to politics.”
PAL-PAC seems to have been created for a single purpose: to pay Sarah Palin to give a speech. PAL-PAC announced the Palin event at the same time that it announced its own formation. After the Palin event was over, most of the information on PAL-PAC’s Web site disappeared. In effect, PAL-PAC was a disposable entertainment company, set up to put on a one-day show that collected the contact information of thousands of people who came to see Palin in the flesh, and to give her their money. The organization has not been mentioned again anywhere online or in local newspapers. The group’s financial statements are curious. PAL-PAC was registered in Missouri last November; as of April 15, 2010, when it made its second quarterly disclosure report to the Missouri Ethics Commission, two weeks before Palin arrived in Independence, PAL-PAC had only $3,202 in the bank. This was not nearly enough money to reserve the venue, much less cover security, printing, advertising, or any of the other expenses associated with throwing an event for 4,000 people. PAL-PAC’s third disclosure report, filed on July 14, reveals large payments to Wayne Graves, a Kansas City physician, whose wife, Karladine, also a doctor, is the president of PAL-PAC. Wayne Graves performed a key service for Winning America Back: he personally paid the speakers’ fees and travel expenses. On June 23, according to the report, he was reimbursed for these outlays: $15,134.83 for “Reimburse Speak[er],” and $126,000, also for “Reimburse Speak[er].” By fronting the money for these expenses, Graves made it possible for PAL-PAC to keep details such as Palin’s precise fee under wraps. But the lion’s share of that $126,000, it seems safe to assume, went to Palin—that would tally with verified reports of what Palin has been paid elsewhere. When reached by phone, Karladine Graves refused to answer any questions about PAL-PAC: “I’m—we’re just a tiny little group, and we’re not really anything, I just, oh, no, I can’t talk about this.” (Palin is on track to earn well over $3 million in speaking fees for events this year. Washington Speakers Bureau did not respond to an interview request.)
Other stops on Palin’s road show raise questions similar to those surrounding Winning America Back. Palin spoke to a group in Dallas that claimed to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit group but is not registered as one. That event was advertised as a fund-raiser for the Uptown Women’s Center, whose eponymous U.R.L. redirected visitors to a Web site selling tickets for the event, palin4life.com, which has since disappeared. In June, Palin was scheduled to go to Charlotte, North Carolina, for two events, a $300-per-ticket “Evening with Sarah Palin” and the free “Complete Woman Expo 2010.” Both were sponsored by a newly formed organization, the Blue Ridge Educational Resource Group. Like PAL-PAC, the Blue Ridge group had sprung up from nowhere, and also like PAL-PAC, it somehow landed one of the country’s most-sought-after female speakers to headline its very first event. Local officials eventually expressed skepticism that Blue Ridge was competent to manage the logistics for an expected crowd of 30,000, and at the last minute both events were canceled. The Blue Ridge group’s Web site, like PAL-PAC’s, was reduced to a shell.
Timothy Crawford, the treasurer of Sarah-PAC, presumably has some responsibility for the byzantine structures undergirding Palin’s travels. Before joining Palin, Crawford was the interim finance director of the Republican National Committee. He is currently being investigated by the Ohio secretary of state for his role in Let Ohio Vote, a state-referendum campaign bankrolled in its entirety by New Models, a Virginia organization Crawford owns, which calls itself a nonprofit. Earlier this year, he refused to respond to a subpoena—issued under state laws that prohibit concealment of campaign money—that sought to discover where New Models had gotten the $1.6 million to fund Let Ohio Vote. Ohio secretary of state Jennifer Brunner has called New Models “a ‘straw-person’ out of state corporation.” Also, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, New Models “was behind controversial automated calls to Pennsylvania voters made during the 2008 presidential election. The calls told voters that Barack Obama’s aunt was living in America illegally and that he accepted campaign contributions from his ‘illegal alien aunt.’ ”
If Satan and his associates top Palin’s list of enemies, the legions of anti-Palin bloggers may rank a close second. After the 2008 presidential campaign, when she returned briefly to the governor’s office, Palin became so obsessed with responding to criticism from bloggers that it sometimes paralyzed her administration. In the year since her resignation, independent bloggers have produced some of the most robust reporting about her—for instance, revealing that the Palins did not pay taxes for years on two vacation cabins, and pointing out that, during the “bus tour” to promote her book, Palin in fact sometimes traveled by private Gulfstream. The Anchorage Daily News no longer has a beat reporter assigned to Palin. Owing to newsroom cuts, the paper has no staff to spare, and editors reportedly see Palin as “a nonentity” in Alaska now—a phenomenon primarily of concern to the rest of the country (collectively referred to as “outside”). The blogs that keep closest tabs on Palin include Palingates, Mudflats, the Immoral Minority, and Shannyn Moore: Just a Girl from Homer. Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish and Arianna Huffington’s Huffington Post serve as the main conduits of information from the blogs to the mainstream media. Palingates is run by a German attorney who will identify himself only as “Patrick.” Jeanne Devon, who owns an Anchorage retail store, runs Mudflats. Jesse Griffin, a part-time assistant teacher in Anchorage, is the Immoral Minority.
All attend to Palin’s every move with a focus that could be called obsessive, and all are given, in varying degrees of intensity, to juvenile outbursts that can rival C4P at its worst. For instance, among the Immoral Minority’s fictional captions for screen grabs from a Palin interview with Sean Hannity was the following: “Yeah I tole Levi to place his nasty sperm filled nuggets right here before he started his apology to my family. And every time he did not look sorry enough to me, I just gave them a little squeeze.” Still, without these blogs, the world would have much less information about Palin’s life right now.
Of the group, only Shannyn Moore, an Anchorage radio and TV personality, has any experience as a journalist. Moore and Devon, who consider themselves political activists as well as reporters, have become close friends and share a dream of persuading wealthy donors to give them millions of dollars to renovate an old Anchorage theater as headquarters for a foundation, where they would study Alaskan politics and do proper investigative work on Palin. For now, they do what they can with the meager resources they have, which means they spend a lot of time reading tea leaves. Moore, a green-eyed blonde who, like Palin, was once an Alaska beauty queen, albeit a few stripes more self-aware, drives her Subaru through downtown Anchorage, steering with one hand, holding a cigarette and her smartphone in the other. When Devon calls to tell her that Glenn Beck has booked the Dena’ina Center, the largest venue in Anchorage, for a speech on September 11, 2010, she sits bolt upright and yells. Immediately, they start trying to figure out what the news might mean. “Listen, listen, listen: Why in the world do you imagine Glenn Beck would come to Anchorage on 9/11? You think he might have a special guest? With a special announcement? Oh,” she says, her whole face falling as the implications of a Palin campaign kickoff hit her, “Jesus Christ.”
The best-known investigative reporter to insert himself into Alaska is Joe McGinniss, the author of The Selling of the President and Fatal Vision, who moved to Wasilla in May to spend the summer reporting for a book about Palin to be published next year by Random House. McGinniss rented the property next door to Palin, who, upon learning his identity, wrote a scathing Facebook post, accompanied by a snapshot of McGinniss standing outside on his deck: “Wonder what kind of material he’ll gather while overlooking Piper’s bedroom, my little garden, and the family’s swimming hole?”
Overnight, C4P, Glenn Beck, talk-radio hosts, and many other Palin allies rallied around. Within 24 hours, McGinniss had received 5,000 hostile e-mails. Death threats were investigated by the F.B.I. A local man who helped move some furniture into McGinniss’s house had one of his truck’s windows shot out. The author, with his disingenuous response to all this, did himself no favors. On the Today show, McGinniss absurdly claimed that he “didn’t expect any publicity at all” for moving in next door to Palin. On July 3, the first anniversary of Palin’s surprise resignation, I had dinner with McGinniss on the deck of his rented house. “I can’t even see her windows!” he said, gesturing across the way. Actually, from where I stood on the deck, even with the 14-foot-high fence the Palins put up the week McGinniss moved in, it was possible to see several of the Palins’ windows, a fair bit of the yard, and much of the lakefront edge of their property.
McGinniss told me his version of the story of the night Todd came over to ask who he was and what he was doing there. After a tense conversation, McGinniss says, Todd left, and Track Palin, Sarah and Todd’s older son, came out to the front yard “to do sit-ups” while holding what McGinniss assumes was a digital camera—which he figures Track used to take the picture that Sarah posted on Facebook. While McGinniss and I talked, there was no sign of life in the Palin house, and the only noise on the water came from squawking grebes—until about 8:30, when a floatplane roared in for a landing on Lake Lucille. It slowed to a stop directly in front of the Palins’ house, turned, crept closer to the shore, then idled for a long moment in front of us before taking off and heading back in the direction whence it came. The airplane was too far away for me to read the tail number, but it was a white Piper PA-18 Super Cub with red stripes: the same model and colors as Todd Palin’s airplane.
The Palins that night were in Todd’s hometown of Dillingham, about a two-hour flight southwest of Wasilla. If this was Todd’s plane, and if he was flying it, the choice to make the trip up here seemed odd. Given that this was the anniversary of Sarah’s resignation, it perhaps made sense that the Palins would want assurance that no curiosity seekers would trespass. But why make such a long flight, just for a quick look at the house? “Wouldn’t it be easier to hire a guard?,” I asked aloud. McGinniss, whose reporting has put him in the frame of mind of his subject—where everything is fungible, and everyone is suspect—replied, “A guard would have a story he could sell.”
City of Fear
You might be tempted to dismiss such a thought as the product of paranoid contagion—and it does seem at odds with the way Wasilla likes to present itself. Outsiders’ descriptions of the town (population 7,245) usually highlight the strip malls and the drug problems—which are real, but are less salient features of life here than the townspeople’s connection to the landscape, especially the majestic peaks of the Chugach Range to the southeast, visible from almost everywhere. The people of Wasilla, in the main, are reflexively generous and open. During coffee hour after worship at Church on the Rock, where a moose head is mounted over the sanctuary entrance, a member of the congregation invites me to join him for a three-day fishing trip a mere 15 minutes after we meet.
When I ask about Palin, though, a palpable unease creeps in. Some people clam up. Others whisper invitations to call later—but on this number, not that one, and not before this hour or after that one. So many people answer “Off the record?” to my initial questions that it almost seems the whole town has had media training. They certainly have issues with the press. Some tell of reporters who seduced them with promises—Don’t worry, I’ll make you look good—and then published stories that made them out to be hicks, stupid, less-than. “These were people we let into our house,” one Wasilla resident says. “We served them food.” But the real concern is with Palin herself—they don’t want her to find out they have talked with a reporter, because of a suspicion that bad things will happen to them if she does. The salty, seen-it-all bartender at one of the town’s best restaurants says, “I wish you luck—but I like my job.” Has Palin actually had people fired for talking about her?, I always ask, and the answer always comes, Remember that trooper? The reference is to Mike Wooten, a state policeman who fell out with the family after divorcing one of Sarah Palin’s sisters and ended up at the center of the scandal known as Troopergate. The Alaska Legislative Council found in 2008 that Palin “abused her power” as governor in attempting to get Trooper Wooten fired.
Even Palin’s strongest supporters say they feel confused by what their former governor has become. “She quit us,” says one Wasilla woman. “We elected her, and she left us,” says another. (“Sarah was my babysitter,” she later adds, as an indication of goodwill.) Yet they are too nice to turn me away, and they are too honest to completely suppress what they themselves feel unable to tell. After one local Republican delivers 90 minutes of uninterrupted praise for Palin, I ask whom else I should talk to, and the answer comes so fast it’s like a cry for help—which is how, the next day, I end up in the living room of Colleen Cottle, who is the matriarch of one of Wasilla’s oldest families, and who served on the city council when Palin was mayor. She says she and her husband, Rodney, will pay a price for speaking candidly about Palin. Their son is one of Todd Palin’s best friends. “But it is time for people to start telling the truth,” Colleen says. She describes the frustrations of trying to do city business with a mayor who “had no attention span—with Sarah it was always ‘What’s the flavor of the day?’ ”; who was unable to take part meaningfully in conversations about budgets because she “does not understand math or accounting—she only knows buzzwords, like ‘balanced budget’ ”; and who clocked out after four hours on most days, delegating her duties to an aide—“but he’ll never talk to you, because he has a state job and doesn’t want to lose it.” This type of conversation is repeated so often that Wasilla starts to feel like something from The Twilight Zone or a Shirley Jackson short story—a place populated entirely by abuse survivors.
To appreciate how alien Palin has become in Wasilla, how inscrutable to her own people, you have to wrap your mind around the fact that Sarah Palin is more famous than any other Alaskan, ever, and to remember that mass-media fame is a property of “outside.” It still does not quite seem real to most Alaskans that there are all these thousands of people in the Lower 48 turning out for … Sarah. It seems all the more unreal because Palin’s image as an engaging, down-to-earth small-town hockey mom was more or less accurate until two years ago. To be sure, some elements of that image were never true to life. “This whole hunter thing, for Sarah? That is the biggest fallacy,” says one longtime friend of the family. “That woman has never hunted. The picture of her with the caribou she says she shot? She got out of the R.V. to pose for a picture. She never helps with the fishing either. It’s all a joke.” The friend goes on to recall that when Greta Van Susteren came to the house to interview Palin “[Sarah] cooked moose chili and whatnot. Todd was calling everyone he knew the day before—‘Do you got any moose?’ Desperate.” In any event, her life is very different now: flying by private jet, driving a gleaming new Escalade ESV with tinted windows, and speaking to the whole world via a Fox News feed from her house until the network installs a TV studio on her property, where contractors are now also finishing a 6,000-square-foot stone-clad château that will contain an airplane hangar for Todd’s Piper Cub, two private apartments, and an office for Sarah.
Almost any small-town person who makes it big has some slight edge of ruthlessness, or an above-average ability to cut and run. The nickname “Sarah Barracuda” doesn’t come from nowhere, and Palin’s edge was always harder than most people’s. Her sense of entitlement, fueled by persistent feelings that she was underappreciated, came to full blossom in the heat of the 2008 race. In late October, when stories of Palin’s exorbitant campaign clothing budget surfaced, Todd Palin dismissed the criticism in an e-mail (subject line: “Cloths”) to several campaign aides: “How many fundraiser’s has she done for RNC, how much money has she raised and how much has voter registration increased for RNC since she was announced. So what if RNC purchase’s some cloths for her for the work she has done for the party.” Though the clothing issue has been discussed at length, internal campaign documents reveal new information that contradicts the account Palin has given. The shopping sprees continued through late October and were not, as previously claimed, mainly undertaken to clothe the family for the unexpected emergency of the Republican National Convention, in St. Paul. The number and range of items purchased for the entire Palin family—more than 400 in total—is mind-boggling. For Sarah, the campaign bought about 30 pairs of shoes, roughly $3,000 worth of underwear (including many Spanx girdles), a pair of Bose headphones costing more than $300, and even her incidentals and toiletries. Charging a campaign for underwear would appear to be unprecedented. A campaign e-mail shows that one of Sarah’s senior aides requested that an outfit be purchased for Bristol for her birthday, explicitly stating that the items should be charged “via the campaign.” Todd Palin received as much as $20,000 worth of clothing—a wardrobe that would last most men for many years, if not for life.
Even after the campaign was over, and Palin had returned to Wasilla, she continued to try to get what she could. In an e-mail, she wrote, “Remember the five black leather Flyers bags w sweatshirts and jerseys and Flyers propaganda in each bag? Anyone know where they ended up?” At the same time, she was scrambling to contain the damage to her image: “Absolutely amazing … now the negative coverage that is on our local news, all regarding these campaign clothes that are not even mine. Amazing. Where are all the campaign spokespersons on all this?”
During these post-campaign days, according to insiders, Palin’s temper veered wildly. It was as if something had snapped. Visitors to her house witnessed her in core meltdown. To one of her children, she cried, “We weren’t good enough for America. We’ll never be good enough for America.” Sometimes when she went out in public, people were unkind. Once, while shopping at Target, a man saw Palin and hollered, “Oh my God! It’s Tina Fey! I love Tina Fey!” When other shoppers started laughing, the governor parked her cart, walked out of the store, and drove away.
After starting her new career as a national figure, Palin disengaged from the community. When in Wasilla, she rarely leaves the house. At her favorite coffee shop, Mocha Moose, Palin has been seen only once in the past three months. On those occasions when she goes to Church on the Rock, she usually arrives late, leaves early, and sits in the back. For runs to Target, she waits until it’s almost closing time. She has never darkened the doorway of Wasilla’s one independent bookstore, Pandemonium Booksellers, which took part in her Going Rogue book signing at the Curtis D. Menard Memorial Sports Center. Sarah’s mother, Sally Heath, is a charter member of the Valley Republican Women’s Club, which sells a batch of Palin-family recipes for $5, but Palin has not been to any of their meetings since resigning as governor.
Her Wasilla social circle has narrowed practically to nothing. People who know Kristan Cole and Kris Perry, her closest local friends and advisers of longest standing, say that the relationships have deteriorated. Her former aides Meg Stapleton and Ivy Frye are said to have parted with Palin on bad terms. (None of the four responded to requests for comment.) Palin’s only employees in Alaska appear to be the staff of True North L’Attitudes, a small scheduling firm in Anchorage. Someone must give the family a hand with errands; the rumor around town is that the Palins have “a Mexican” who helps out, though nobody knows his name. Palin does lean on her parents. Chuck and Sally Heath, together with at least one of Palin’s church friends, handle the mountains of mail that arrive for Palin at the post office. When Piper and Willow are not traveling with their mother, they go to schools east of Wasilla, not far from where the Heaths live in a house that gives some idea of how Charles Addams might have imagined Old MacDonald’s farm. It is full of stuffed and mounted animals ranging from a tarantula to a mountain goat. The license plate on Chuck’s truck reads “EIEIO.” One person at Church on the Rock said that the girls frequently sleep overnight at their grandparents’ because the Heaths’ house, unlike the Palins’, is near their schools. When Trig joins Sarah on the road, Palin’s mother sometimes goes along to take care of the baby.
Every year on July 4, a parade marches through downtown Wasilla, ending at a city park, where the mayor throws a picnic. When I saw Chuck and Sally Heath marching in the parade, behind the campaign float for the current governor, Sean Parnell, I jumped from the curb to say hello. Chuck wouldn’t—couldn’t—talk about his daughter; the strict rule in the family now is no interviews, ever, without Sarah’s permission. After we had been walking for a while, he looked around and asked where Sally had gone. “Sally’s upset,” said the woman marching next to him, glaring at me, “because you are not following orders.”
In whatever remains of Palin’s inner circle, however, most people are following orders. Some details of the Palins’ private life, however, suggest a reality at odds with Sarah’s image. In speeches, Palin pays tribute to the man she still calls “the First Dude.” One of the strangest passages in Going Rogue concerns post-election rumors that the couple was considering a divorce. “That day in sunny Texas when the divorce rumors were rampant in the tabloids, I watched Todd, tanned and shirtless, take the baby from my arms and walk him back to the ranch house,” she writes, like a frontier Barbara Cartland. “Dang, I thought. Divorce Todd? Have you seen Todd?” Locally, much speculation surrounds the marriage. Some say Todd is henpecked, and others see him as the heavy. One person who has been a frequent houseguest of the Palins’ says that the couple began many mornings with screaming fights, a fusillade of curses: “ ‘Fuck you,’ ‘Fuck this,’ ‘You lazy piece of shit.’ ‘You’re fuckin’ lucky to have me,’ Sarah would always say.” (This person never saw Todd and Sarah sleep in the same bed, and recalls that Todd would often joke, “I don’t know how she ever gets pregnant.”) Whatever the nature of the relationship, Todd is now as much a part of Sarah as Hillary Clinton is of Bill. Whether they like it or not, the Palins, like the Clintons, are probably stuck with each other.
There’s a general consensus in town that, at least since the start of the 2008 campaign, Todd has been shouldering the bulk of the parenting and that Sarah’s relationship with her children has grown more distant. The children did not, as Sarah has claimed, have a chance to weigh in on her decision to run for vice president. She did not even deliver the news to them personally; as has been reported, she asked McCain’s campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, to do it for her. Todd reportedly told Sarah that, if the children spent too much time on the campaign trail, they would pay a price: grades would tumble and discipline would fall apart. When she agreed to serve as McCain’s running mate, one of her children was already failing in school, according to campaign aides. But Sarah, these aides say, seemed comforted by having the children around, and she seemed lonely when they were gone. An aide overheard conversations between Sarah and Todd in which Sarah tried to make a self-serving argument sound selfless, holding that the campaign was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, one that she could not deny the children. “I don’t care what it costs,” she said. “I want them here.” Although the couple hired a nanny to help the children with their homework, little homework got done.
On the road, aides say, Sarah spared the rod. When one child refused to sign autographs unless she was provided with pink or purple Sharpies that had been custom-printed with her name, the staff tried to argue that black Sharpies—the only kind they had—would do just fine. But Sarah ordered them to do what the child said, and personalized pink and purple markers were produced. Another time, when one daughter wanted to have her hair and makeup done by Palin’s campaign stylists (the children’s grooming was not part of their job), Palin’s initial response seemed like an old-fashioned lesson in manners. According to an aide, Palin told the daughter that, since she was seeking a favor from the stylists, she should ask them nicely herself and see what they said. When the stylists apologetically told the girl they didn’t have time that day, Palin, incensed, sent the child back to give them a message: “Tell them they don’t have a choice. They have to do it.” And so they did. Despite railing at the press for invading her family’s privacy, Palin showed little ambivalence during the campaign about making some aspects of the childrens’ private lives public to serve her interests. Soon after her nomination, she brought up with McCain aides the subject of Bristol’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy by Levi Johnston: “Would it be good for the campaign if they got married before the election?” she asked, and went on to wonder whether one weekend or another would be more advantageous for media coverage.
Sometimes the children rebelled. A campaign aide remembers that one of the Palin children found her mother’s public displays of piety especially grating. Though Palin prayed and read the Bible every night, aides never saw the family join her for devotionals. “You’re just putting on a show. You’re so fake,” one of the children said when Palin made a point of praying in front of other people. “This is not who you are. Why are you pretending to be something you’re not?”
Managing the Palin family is an increasingly unwieldy business. Track was discharged from active duty in the army at the end of January and now reportedly lives at the Palin house. Bristol, who has said she works as a dermatologist’s assistant, also generates a healthy income from her celebrity and bought a $272,000 condominium in Anchorage. She enrolled in a certified-nursing-assistant program at a local technical school last year but quickly dropped out, according to one of her high-school classmates. In addition to TV appearances, including a guest spot on The View and playing a teen mom on an episode of The Secret Life of the American Teenager, she reportedly received $100,000 from In Touch magazine for rights to photographs of Tripp on his first birthday. The New York Post reported that she and Johnston received another $100,000 for giving the story of their re-engagement to Us Weekly.
A week prior to the engagement announcement, Johnston, who has been critical of Palin, told People magazine that, “against my better judgment, I publicly said things about the Palins that were not completely true. I have already privately apologized to Todd and Sarah. Since my statements were public, I owe it to the Palins to publicly apologize.” It was an odd pronouncement, never indicating which statements were not “completely true,” or where he had said them. (Johnston’s October 2009 article in Vanity Fair, “Me and Mrs. Palin,” was one possibility.) The negotiations that led to Johnston’s statement, like almost everything else about the family’s life, were more complex than may ever be fully known. According to a source close to Johnston, Levi met with Sarah Palin in June in hopes of burying the hatchet. Palin opened the meeting with two questions: “Are you recording this?” and “Are you wearing a wire?” When Johnston said he wasn’t, the source says, Palin told Johnston that burying the hatchet wasn’t good enough. He had to publicly recant his critical remarks about her. Asked whether this account is accurate, Johnston answered, through his attorney Rex Butler, “I do not want to respond to that… I don’t want to stir up that fight again.”
In a conference call involving Johnston, Butler, and representatives of the Palin family, Butler proposed that Johnston make a statement to the effect that “a maturing Levi has decided to reach out to the Palins and end an ongoing feud to bring the families together in the best interests of his son.” That formulation did not go far enough. Butler’s understanding is that Todd Palin wrote the statement that eventually was issued. Johnston, through his lawyer, now says, “I had nothing to do with putting that statement together.” Nor, in the end, did it secure the desired rapprochement. On the day the couple’s US Weekly cover hit newsstands, Bristol called the whole thing off, as she later explained in an interview with People. After that, an agreement for joint custody of Tripp, filed in Alaska Superior Court, forbade both Bristol and Levi to “speak badly about the other parent in front of the child… [or] allow anyone else to speak badly about the other parent or members of their family in front of the child.” A few days later, Johnston declined further comment on his relationship with the Palins, but suggested that the story is far from over. “If I am going to marry Bristol,” he said, again through his lawyer, “responding to that situation doesn’t help anything.”
Why are you pretending to be something you’re not? That is the question so many Alaskans have asked this year as they’ve watched Sarah Palin travel the nation. According to almost everyone who has ever known her, including those who have seen the darkest of her dark side, Sarah Palin has a great gift for making people feel good about themselves. Her knack for remembering names and faces and the details of her interactions with people—and for seeming to be present to the person in front of her—constitute an extraordinary power of engagement. Now she is using that power in a fundamentally different way. In part she is using it in the service of her own ambitions. But she is also planting the idea with audiences that they might not be good enough, by telling them she thinks they’re plenty good, no matter what anybody else may say. (“They talk down to us… They think that if we were just smart enough … ”) To some, the message sounds like an affirmation. But is it really? Or does it seed self-doubt and rancor among her partisans, and encourage them to see everyone else as malign?
Those who once felt close to Palin have followed her public transformation with a confused range of emotions. The common denominator is sadness. “People who loved Sarah Palin are disappointed,” said one woman in Wasilla, “because they found out that Sarah Palin loves Sarah Palin most of all.” I remembered that remark every time I drove past the Palins’ property. The entrance runs through a grove of birch trees, at least eight of which have NO TRESPASSING signs nailed to them. For all that, police have been called to the property only once in the past year, when someone at the house reported a Peeping Tom. The investigating officer found nothing.
The freshly paved driveway is blocked by a new, spiked gate, which, though forbidding, is ornamental and freestanding, and not connected to a fence. From a thin piece of wire looped over one of the gate’s central spikes hangs a large metal decoration. It is five-pointed and two feet high and wide. The North Star has long been seen as a symbol for Alaska—and for God. They can both move over now. It belongs to someone else.
Clarification: Lindsay Hayes, identified in this article as Sarah Palin’s speechwriter, left that position in April.