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The Revolution Will Be Commercialized

Logo illustration by Felix Sockwell.   

When he returned to Washington, Coale went to see McCain in his Senate office to discuss Palin’s desperate finances.

“If Sarah Palin knew I was here, she would be very upset,” Coale said to McCain.

McCain told Coale he wasn’t aware she was in debt for Troopergate. “I’ll do fund-raisers, I’ll help,” McCain offered.

Still, Palin was stewing about money. Before Coale’s meeting with McCain, she was in Atlanta campaigning for Republican senator Saxby Chambliss, who was in a runoff. Coale visited her in her suite at the Four Seasons, and explained to Palin that she could form a political-action committee and a legal-defense fund to cover her travel and legal bills. “I told her, ‘Almost all of this can be paid for by a PAC, and you could contribute to other candidates.’ She liked that.” Palin was worried, though, that forming a legal-defense fund would signal to her critics that she had done something wrong and was trying to get out of it. “She wasn’t sure how that would look.”

With Coale’s help, Palin set up SarahPAC in January 2009. Immediately, money started pouring in, especially, says Coale, after Cindy Adams mentioned it in her New York Post column. “It was like $100,000 every week. Without any ask,” Coale says. When Going Rogue was released last November, it became the fastest-selling nonfiction debut since Bill Clinton’s 2004 memoir, My Life. Palin’s torrid book sales are the single biggest reason HarperCollins returned to profitability last year. When Palin sat down to promote Going Rogue with Oprah in November, she boosted Oprah’s ratings to the highest level in two years. The campaign-style tour through Palin’s heartland strongholds was executed flawlessly. Burnham was amazed at the response. “When the cover was revealed, every screen I turned to, every television show I turned on, was showing it. As a publisher, I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

The book, which gleefully skewered her former adversaries in the McCain campaign and elsewhere, did not seem to have made extensive use of a fact-checker, but that only seemed to accentuate its from-the-heart Palinness, part of her brand: In Palinworld, Palin, by definition, speaks the truth. The only real blip concerned her ghostwriter, Lynn Vincent, a writer for the Evangelical World magazine, whom Palin chose from a short list of candidates presented to her by HarperCollins. After news of Vincent’s selection leaked, critics seized on a January 2009 pro-life piece she had written for World titled “Black Genocide”—as well as her association with the co-writer of her 2006 book Donkey Cons, former Washington Times writer Robert Stacy McCain (no relation), who had a history of racially charged statements and associations—to claim that Vincent was racist. Vincent, who had collaborated on a New York Times best seller about racial reconciliation, told me that she was deeply hurt by the racism allegation and considered suing the Daily Beast for a piece by writer Max Blumenthal headlined “Palin’s Noxious Ghostwriter.” But when the media shifted its focus to Palin’s next adventure, Vincent dropped the lawsuit idea.

From Buffalo Bill to the Marlboro Man, the self-reliant frontiersman has always been an image with mass appeal. Palin has managed to graft this rugged Western myth onto a beauty-pageant face and a counterpunching, don’t-tread-on-me verbal style—a new kind of character, and a remarkably compelling one. In early March, Palin was in a midtown conference room with Burnett and Abbe Raven, the CEO of A&E Television Networks. It was the final stop in a series of meetings with television executives. In January, Palin had signed a production deal with Burnett, the impresario behind reality shows Survivor and The Apprentice, to pitch a show about Alaska that she would star in. His pitch to executives was the wispiest of concepts. The show would have Palin tagging along with prototypical Alaskan characters—miners, loggers, oilmen—“against the background of this beautiful outdoor world,” as one network executive explained. Palin could “go meet the ice fishermen. You’ll see her whether she interviews them or goes to the far reaches to where they’re fishing.” Another idea is to have her go to the part of Alaska where you can see Russia (take that, Tina Fey).

Not incidentally, the commercial and political appeal are in perfect synergy. “Alaska represents a place of possibility in the way Denver used to or California used to,” Mary Matalin says. “I have friends who have gone up there and put up a tepee and stuck a stick in the ground and made it. It is compelling to the imagination, and it’s a connection to our heritage.”

A few days before Palin’s meeting at A&E, Burnett introduced her to CBS CEO Les Moonves in Los Angeles and NBC chief Jeff Zucker in New York. Both networks passed on the show, since, even under the best circumstances, it would most likely attract a few million viewers, strong by cable standards yet far too small to justify a network’s economics. Discovery Communications, the parent company of TLC, emerged as the successful bidder. Burnett negotiated the deal with Discovery COO Peter Liguori and TLC head Eileen O’Neill. Palin is a centerpiece of a strategy that TLC executives see as positioning the network as the anti-Bravo, whose shows like Top Chef, the Real Housewives franchise, and America’s Next Top Model are programmed to a liberal urban audience. TLC’s fare, like the antics of Jon and Kate Gosselin, or the inspirational documentary about Captain Sullenberger’s miracle landing, or American Chopper, which moved over from Discovery, are decidedly downmarket. “We don’t program TLC to the coasts,” one Discovery executive said. “To counterprogram against that Bravo audience, we are programming to Middle America, and we’ve built a successful business doing that.”