“One hundred, two hundred, three, four, five hundred,” she counted. “Ugh! I gotta start over.”
“Five, six, seven, eight, nine hundred. Okay, that’s $3,300,” she said, piling bills into neat rows.
“Are there corn dogs here, somebody?” yelled Melanie Morgan, a blonde conservative talk-radio host sitting nearby. Just then, Russo informed her that he’d heard Palin had agreed to speak alongside Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh at Morgan’s upcoming charity event for the troops, which would mean more care packages. “Oh my God! This is fabulous. Sal, brilliant. I could cry I’m so happy,” she said. “That’s gonna be so many hundreds of thousands of dollars more.”
The Tea-Party movement is Palin’s political base and a central part of her audience. Early on, it was a profit center, too, but politics and the profit motive had a near-disastrous collision in early February, when Palin showed up at the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville to deliver her first significant public speech since stepping down from office. Landing Palin was the work of Judson Phillips, a smooth-talking Nashville defense lawyer who was active in the tea-party movement and wanted to make a business out of it. While many tea-party groups, such as Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks, operated as traditional activist organizations, Phillips’s effort was entrepreneurial: He had launched the Tea Party Nation network as a conservative social-media website that would also put on for-profit conferences. Phillips told me he saw a business opportunity to create a right-wing version of Facebook, which he believes is a liberal front that could be used to silence conservatives. “I knew people on Facebook who had their accounts disabled for no reason,” Phillips told me. “My fear is that we’d be 72 hours out from Tax Day tea parties and Facebook would wipe us out.”
Phillips saw Palin as the linchpin of his new business, and was willing to pay top dollar. And since the tea-party convention was a profit-making enterprise, Palin insisted on her full fee.
In Wasilla, the Palins are in the midst of a major lifestyle upgrade.
Sometimes, for the right organization, Palin takes a pay cut. While negotiating with Phillips last summer, she was also in negotiations to speak to a Nashville group called Proclaiming Justice to the Nations, a Christian organization that supports Israel. Laurie Cardoza-Moore, the group’s president, wanted Palin to headline a dinner in Nashville during the National Religious Broadcasters convention. Palin cut a deal for the Christian group. She agreed to appear for only $50,000, and the three-page contract required only two first-class tickets, one coach ticket, and accommodations at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel. As part of the contract, Cardoza-Moore gave Palin and her family the option of traveling to Israel for ten days this summer. “She was willing to come in and speak for [$50,000], and that said a lot to me,” Cardoza-Moore says.
To help pay Palin’s fee, Phillips turned to Bill Hemrick, the founder of Upper Deck baseball cards, for a seed investment of $25,000. With Phillips, Palin struck a hard bargain. Her contract stipulated that for almost any reason she could back out and send a surrogate. “If we fart wrong, she is gonna back out on us,” Phillips declared in one planning meeting, according to a participant. “That’s how detailed this contract is.”
Palin finally agreed to speak—but then Phillips and Hemrick’s deal fell apart amid mutual recriminations, with Hemrick accusing Phillips of misrepresenting the deal and Phillips claiming Hemrick had tried to use his access to Palin to pitch her on a business opportunity. In March, Hemrick sued Phillips for $500,000.
Last fall, after Cardoza-Moore had signed the $50,000 contract and gotten a verbal commitment from the Washington Speakers Bureau, Palin mysteriously backed out. “It was a personal issue,” Palin’s agent told Moore.
After the imbroglio, Palin announced she was giving her $100,000 Tea Party Nation fee to charity, and has since done such events for free.
In 1996, a few weeks into her run for Wasilla mayor, Palin revealed to Laura Chase, her campaign manager at the time, the scope of her ambition. “We were sitting at my table one night and I said, ‘Sarah, one day you could be governor.’ She just looked at me and said, ‘I don’t want to be governor, I want to be president.’ ”
Palin’s winking star turn at the Republican convention, and the polling bounce for McCain that followed it, showed that it wasn’t just an idle dream. But it looked to many like there was a great deal of work to do. “My advice to her,” a former McCain staffer told me, “was to keep a reasonably low profile and do your job as governor and come back and do an interview with Oprah, something big that will give you a platform and rebuild your image as a successful executive. But that’s not what she did.”