Once Palin resigned from the governorship in July, the race was on to sign her. Roger Ailes deputized Bill Shine to land her. Rupert Murdoch met Palin during a charity dinner hosted by his wife, Wendi, at Cipriani 42nd Street in September 2009, and that only increased the network’s appetite. Shine called Palin’s agent Barnett in the summer, but negotiations dragged out over the next six months.
Barnett drove negotiations with Fox hard. Palin made it clear to Fox that she wouldn’t be willing to move to New York or Washington. “If you take someone like Karl Rove who left office, he lives in D.C. and he could take a car down to the bureau,” Shine says. Fox offered to build a remote-camera hookup in her Wasilla home. Barnett also told Shine that Palin didn’t want producers hounding her for interviews. Barnett wanted all her appearances to have to go through Shine personally. In January 2010, Palin finally had her deal. Her star power at Fox has sparked competition among the various personalities, all of whom would like more Palin on their shows. Shine is responsible for making sure everyone gets equal time, to maximize her ratings appeal across the network. “Obviously, there needs to be a sense of fairness,” Shine explains.
In March, the traveling political carnival known as the Tea Party Express III tour arrived in Senator Harry Reid’s hometown of Searchlight, Nevada, a dusty strip of highway on a high desert plateau about 50 miles south of Las Vegas. The venue was a gravel parking lot near an abandoned mine. Palin’s scheduled appearance caused numbers to swell far beyond organizers’ most bullish estimates. The line of cars waiting to enter stretched for more than a mile down the road.
Here, as everywhere, the tea party is a carnival where politics and commerce commingle. Vendors on the perimeter of the crowd manned booths hawking conservative books, pins, OBAMA REPELLENT bracelets, and ONE NATION UNDER GOD sweatshirts. Palin paraphernalia was prominently on display. A stack of round pink pins with a moose cartoon read DRAFT SARAH PALIN next to a bumper sticker with big block letters: RUN SARAH, RUN. There was also brisk business in anti-Obama items. Rachel Hamil, a home-schooled 17-year-old running a booth, smiled and pointed to one of the more popular pins: SOMEWHERE IN KENYA, A VILLAGE IS MISSING ITS IDIOT.
Fans jockeyed to get their photo taken with Joe the Plumber, who was posing in his trademark Carhartt jacket and wraparound Oakleys. “Right on, brother!” he said. “I’ve been to over 140 tea parties,” he told me. “I do my own events, I schedule my own stuff. It’s just me.”
I walked a little farther into the crowd and met Kevin Unck, an unemployed truck driver from northern Utah who was selling T-shirts out of the trunk of his faded blue Ford Taurus. Unck said he used his last unemployment check along with a loan from his girlfriend to come up with $1,600 to print up 300 T-shirts that proclaimed OBAMA: ONE BIG ASS MISTAKE, AMERICA I asked Unck what bothered him most about Obama. “I think he’s a communist, plain and simple as that,” he said. “I’m fearful for the country.” Unck said he didn’t expect to make much money selling T-shirts, but it gave him an excuse to come see Palin.
Then Palin took the stage. “Thank you, tea-party America!” she yelled. “Do you love your freedom?” Palin primed the crowd. “My husband, Todd, is here … I was gonna ask Todd if I could borrow his sunglasses, but I’d have to take these off, though, and it’d make it really rough for me to see the teleprompter, and then I realized, ‘No teleprompter, time to kick it old-school!’ ” She raised her palms marked with pen. “Good thing I remembered how to use a poor man’s version of the teleprompter!” The crowd exploded in cheers. For the next nineteen minutes, Palin worked her true believers into ecstasy.
She built toward the climax. “Now, when I talk about, it’s not a time to retreat, it’s a time to reload, what I’m talking about—now media, try to get this right, okay?” she sneered. “It’s telling people that their arms are their votes. It’s not inciting violence. It’s telling people, ‘Don’t ever let anybody tell you to sit down and shut up, Americans.’ You stand up, and you stand tall!”
After the speech, Sal Russo, a former Ronald Reagan aide and conservative operative whose PAC runs the Tea Party Express, invited me onto the tea-party bus. The coach was luxuriously appointed, with soft carpeting, mood lighting, and mirrored walls. A large flat-screen hanging from the ceiling was tuned to Fox News. We eased into a plush leather couch next to some of the conservative celebrities who travel along with the tour. A young woman named Bethany Owens was sitting at a small table, pulling bills from a leather satchel. The 20-year-old daughter of black conservative entrepreneurs William and Selena Owens, Bethany had spent the morning at her parents’ booth selling books and CDs, like her mother’s title The Power Within a Conservative Woman ($9.95) and her dad’s motivational CD Answers Beyond the Rhetoric ($19.95). Bethany began stacking up bills, doling them out like a Vegas dealer.