On the morning of July 3, 2009, a national holiday, Sarah Palin placed a call to her communications director and told her that she wanted to hold a press conference at her Wasilla, Alaska, home. She wouldn’t disclose the topic. For Palin, the months since Election Day had been a letdown even bigger than the loss to Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Being governor was drudgery. “Her life was terrible,” one adviser says. “She was never home, her [Juneau] office was four hours from her house. You gotta drive an hour from Wasilla to Anchorage. And she was going broke.” Her sky-high approval ratings in Alaska—which had topped 80 percent before John McCain picked her—had withered to the low fifties. She faced a hostile legislature, a barrage of ethics complaints, and frothing local bloggers who reveled in her misfortune. All this for a salary of only $125,000? The worst was that she had racked up $500,000 in legal bills to fend off the trooper scandal and other investigations. She needed money and worried about it constantly. “You have to keep in mind,” Bill McAllister, her then–press secretary, told me, “she and Todd were middle class. They’re rich now, but not then.”
And, whatever one thinks of her intelligence, she was more than shrewd enough to see that there was money to be made on her newfound national profile, and she hadn’t been the one making it—this was her particular American resentment. The tabloid-media culture began cashing in on the Palin-family drama ever since her pregnant 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, and boyfriend Levi Johnston stepped on the Xcel Energy Center stage at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. On multiple occasions, Palin complained to campaign aides about Kaylene Johnson, an Alaska journalist, who had just published a book about her. “I can’t believe that woman is making so much money off my name,” Palin said.
From the time of her infamous wardrobe selection, money had been an issue in Palin’s politics. Her relationship with the McCain campaign had been plagued by financial misunderstanding. In her book Going Rogue, she claimed that the McCain campaign had left her on the hook for her Troopergate bills. Palin was furious. “Deep down, she wanted to make money,” a McCain adviser says. “There was always financial stress. They’re not wealthy people.”
Palin knew there were ways to solve her money problems, and then some. Planning quickly got under way for a book. And just weeks after the campaign ended, reality-show producer Mark Burnett called Palin personally and pitched her on starring in her own show. Then, in May 2009, she signed a $7 million book deal with HarperCollins. Two former Palin-campaign aides—Jason Recher and Doug McMarlin—were hired to plan a book tour with all the trappings of a national political campaign. But there was a hitch: With Alaska’s strict ethics rules, Palin worried that her day job would get in the way. In March, she petitioned the Alaska attorney general’s office, which responded with a lengthy list of conditions. “There was no way she could go on a book tour while being governor” is how one member of her Alaska staff put it.
On Friday morning, July 3, Palin called her cameraman to her house in Wasilla and asked him to be on hand to record a prepared speech. Around noon, in front of a throng of national reporters, she announced that she was stepping down as governor. To many, it seemed a mysterious move, defying the logic of a potential presidential candidate, and possibly reflecting some hidden scandal—but in fact the choice may have been as easy as balancing a checkbook.
Less than a year later, Sarah Palin is a singular national industry. She didn’t invent her new role out of whole cloth. Other politicians have cashed out, used the revolving door, doing well in business after doing good in public service. Entertainment figures like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, and even Ronald Reagan have worked the opposite angle, leveraging their celebrity to make their way in politics. And family dramas have been a staple of politics from the Kennedys—or the Tudors—on down. But no one else has rolled politics and entertainment into the same scintillating, infuriating, spectacularly lucrative package the way Palin has or marketed herself over multiple platforms with the sophistication and sheer ambitiousness that Palin has shown, all while maintaining a viable presence as a prospective presidential candidate in 2012.
The numbers are staggering. Over the past year, Palin has amassed a $12 million fortune and shows no sign of slowing down. Her memoir has so far sold more than 2.2 million copies, and Palin is planning a second book with HarperCollins. This January, she signed a three-year contributor deal with Fox News worth $1 million a year, according to people familiar with the deal. In March, Palin and Burnett sold her cable show to TLC for a reported $1 million per episode, of which Palin is said to take in about $250,000 for each of the eight installments.