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.
While she’s waiting for her television career to begin in earnest, she’s been busy on the speaker’s circuit, having signed with the prestigious Washington Speakers Bureau. Palin commands $100,000 per speech, putting her in the same league as fellow Speakers Bureau clients Colin Powell, George W. Bush, and Rudy Giuliani. Since leaving office, she’s scheduled speeches to the Daytona Chamber of Commerce; the Salina Area Chamber of Commerce; the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America; the Charity of Hope fund-raiser in Hamilton, Ontario; the Get Motivated Seminar in Beaumont, Texas; the Complete Woman Expo; the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America; and the Sierra-Cascade Logging Conference. In February, she delivered the keynote address at the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville.
Palin’s $100,000 contract for the tea-party event—which drew fire from rival tea-party groups angry that Palin was cashing in at their expense—included $18,000 for private-jet travel for her and an entourage of five people, according to two people who’ve seen the contract. Palin jetted to Nashville with two bodyguards, her spokesperson Meg Stapleton, and her daughter Piper. “I remember looking at the contract and was thinking, Holy cow,” one person involved in organizing the event says. “It was very specific on a lot of details.” Most events require a Learjet, or its equivalent, from Wasilla, at a cost of some $1,500 per hour of flight time.
Though Palin may not like it, she makes money for Democrats and Republicans alike. Across the political spectrum, Palin is a ratings magnet. Whenever she appears on Fox News, ratings tick up by 10 to 15 percent. At MSNBC, she’s also a ratings phenomenon, albeit with opposite adjectives. Tina Fey’s reprisal of her Palin character in early April juiced Saturday Night Live’s ratings, beating prime-time programming, a rare feat. Online, right-wing sites like the Drudge Report frequently plug Palin headlines, while Palin’s presence at liberal outlets like the Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo routinely sparks hundreds of reader comments. During the campaign, people said she could be another Oprah, but now, in many ways, she’s bigger than Oprah, an empath for people who feel, rightly or wrongly, that America has forgotten them. “People are drawn to her,” says Fox News programming chief Bill Shine. “People look at her and say, ‘She has a bunch of the same troubles I do, there’s a mom who’s there changing diapers.’ ”
And she’s a canny—and completely modern—promoter of her product. Last year, Bristol introduced her mom to Facebook, and Palin began speaking to her audience of 1.5 million fans directly with frequent status updates and tweets, which consist of conservative boilerplate (“Man-Made Global Warming=Snow Job”) interspersed with chirpy reports about goings-on in Wasilla (“Family is getting ready for Todd’s IronDog race tomorrow; I’m watching @GlennBeck on TV now giving #CPAC speech, while racers are in garage).
For an operation with such a massive footprint in both politics and entertainment, Palin has a tiny inner circle. Her team includes husband Todd and her close friend Kris Perry. In D.C., Palin relies on her former advance aide Jason Recher, and she also maintains ties to John Coale, the powerful Democratic lawyer and husband of Fox News host Greta Van Susteren, former Nixon aide Fred Malek, and neoconservative foreign-policy adviser Randy Scheunemann, a McCain adviser and hunting enthusiast from Minnesota who was a fierce ally inside the McCain campaign. Palin also hired former RNC finance director Tim Crawford as her PAC’s treasurer, as well as Pam Pryor, a former spokesperson for conservative black Republican congressman J. C. Watts, to improve her relationships with fellow Republicans. Palin gets advice from Rebecca Mansour, a right-wing activist who co-founded the blog Conservatives4Palin.com, and Kim Daniels, a pro-life attorney for the Thomas More Law Center in Michigan, whose slogan reads, “The Sword and Shield for People of Faith.”
Palin’s bare-bones staff and seat-of-the-pants approach have often caused her problems. In February 2009, Palin canceled a planned appearance to headline the CPAC conference in D.C., claiming she was too busy. Also this past winter, Palin’s spokesperson Stapleton quit, and Palin has made no move to replace her. Communication in and out of Palinworld for many reporters, and even fellow Republicans, is virtually nonexistent. Last month, her staff told Republican officials to take her name off the guest list of a fund-raiser after they had hyped her appearance. Palin’s relations with the national GOP, which have always been fraught, haven’t gotten any better. Palin is a fund-raising machine and a turbocharger for the right-wing base. The party knows she is a possible bridge to the fractious and suspicious tea-party crowd. But Palin’s conspicuous lack of depth—and the sheer joy she takes in what she doesn’t know—is a source of angst among Republicans who see larger brand risk if Palin comes to define the party. Meanwhile, she continues her erratic flirtation with a presidential run. Where other likely candidates—Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty—are preparing for 2012 with staffs and advisers and carefully planned travel schedules, Palin is, essentially, winging it.
But it’s not yet been shown that Palin needs any specifically political organization, or that she has to kowtow to any gatekeeper to get where she wants to go. In fact, she and her new network have themselves become the gatekeepers. It’s very hard to get anywhere in Republican politics without going past them. And the gate also happens to be a tollbooth.
Nowadays, for both poles of the political spectrum but especially for the right, politics is a business—the entertainment business. The freak show, as Mark Halperin termed it, has been turned into a fully merchandised product. It was Fox’s Roger Ailes who had the insight that the American right was an underserved market, one with a powerful kind of brand loyalty. Fox News has turned a disaffected segment of the populace into a market, with the fervor and idiosyncratic truth standards of a cult. Wingnut-ism has been monetized, is one admittedly partisan way of looking at it. Palin stokes the disaffection of her constituents and then, with the help of Fox, offers to heal them, for a price. And—surprise—they’re more affluent than most Americans. Fifty-six percent make over $50,000 a year, according to a Times/CBS poll. Running for president is no doubt part of her business model. But forget elections (as many Palin supporters already seem to have done); she’s already the president of an alternative America—and also its CEO.
In Wasilla, the Palins are in the midst of a major lifestyle upgrade. There’s a new Escalade in the driveway and a new Dodge Ram pickup for Bristol, says someone who knows the family. When I visited in early April, the sound of whirring saws and hammers could be heard emanating from the trees from the deck of the Best Western Hotel next door, which, since the campaign, has served as a base camp of sorts for visiting press. Todd’s cherry-red seaplane sits propped on its floats by the shoreline.
A couple of years ago, the Palins purchased the adjacent lot from their neighbor, and they are currently building a 6,000-square-foot, three-level structure, according to building plans filed at the Wasilla Planning Office. On the ground floor, Palin will have an apartment for Track, who recently returned from his deployment in Iraq. Upstairs, there’s a second residence for Bristol. Palin is building herself an office that features custom woodwork, a long marble countertop, and panoramic windows. “The view is incredible, from the Chugach Range all the way to the Alaska Range,” Wasilla mayor Verne Rupright told me.
Palin stokes the disaffection of her people, then heals them, for a price.
But her current prosperity was not the case when the campaign ended. Then, Palin needed money, and a crash course in post-campaign reinvention. Palin Inc. began coalescing almost immediately after November 4. Around the holidays, Palin’s spokesperson called Mary Matalin, who was vacationing on her farm in the Shenandoah Valley. During the GOP convention, when Palin first came under fire from the left, Matalin went on CNN and vigorously defended her (“She’s the future of the party,” she said). Palin heard about her performance, and the two began communicating during the campaign and kept in touch afterward. “After the campaign, they were just asking, ‘What do we do now? How does this work?’ ” Matalin says. Matalin, who is editor-in-chief of a conservative imprint at Simon & Schuster, gave her publishing-industry advice and offered to call Washington power agent Bob Barnett—who’s also represented Bill Clinton, Bob Woodward, and Barack Obama. Barnett, recognizing Palin’s value, quickly signed her on. The first order of business was a book deal, which he pitched exclusively to Jonathan Burnham, the publisher of HarperCollins.
Partly because her meltdown with Katie Couric promised more great television, and partly because of her outlandish family life and moose-shooting habits, Palin was a massive American celebrity, and the interest seemed to build rather than fade. “I fielded 1,000 individual requests in the first four or five months after the election,” Bill McAllister told me. Barbara Walters, George Stephanopoulos, and Charlie Gibson all made personal calls in an effort to land post-election interviews with Palin. Stephanopoulos was especially aggressive in his pursuit. “George and I talked so much we’re like new best friends,” McAllister joked. “Bill Maher also tried to book her. In that case, he had to be dreaming.”
But everyone wanted her for free, which was a problem. In November 2008, John Coale tagged along with Van Susteren, who was in Alaska taping an interview with Palin for Fox News. Later, the Fox camera crew, Van Susteren, and Coale gathered around the Palins’ dinner table in Wasilla for some moose chili in her kitchen overlooking Lake Lucille. After dinner, Coale and Palin retreated to the pantry and sat on stacks of boxes and talked for the next hour about her Troopergate dilemma. Palin confessed she didn’t know what to do about her legal bills. “She was concerned she didn’t know how to deal with this,” Coale told me. Coale assured Palin he would figure something out.
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.”
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.
“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.”
Instead, Palin doubled down on building—and monetizing—her personal brand, the plainspoken Alaskan frontierswoman who’s not ashamed of what she doesn’t know. (If her Couric interview showed to many that she needed remedial education in various political areas, she doesn’t seem to have received it.) And she hasn’t modified her lone-wolf management style, something many see as a massive handicap for any presidential race. “People are constantly close to her and then estranged,” one former McCain-campaign staffer said. “It’s a great weakness to her and will be a great challenge for her to ever put together a team that could mount a successful campaign.” Adds another former staffer who traveled on her plane: “She’s difficult to staff. She likes to make her own decisions. That’s the way she’s always been. She’s a strong-willed person.”
In New Orleans at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference a few weeks ago, as Palin’s PAC staff gathered to assess her operation, some of her close advisers expressed concern that her minimalist approach is damaging. According to one person familiar with the matter, when one adviser, Pam Pryor, suggested that the PAC should conduct some polling, the idea fell on deaf ears.
While careful not to say anything that might make her rear her head, some in the GOP Establishment whisper that they hope Palin stays in Wasilla. She may be useful in raising funds and drawing crowds, but Palin’s unseriousness and carnival antics damage the brand. “There’s a big piece of the Republican Party that doesn’t want her to run,” said one national Republican strategist.
Even among her base, some see her rogue operation as a form of selfishness and her cashing in as unseemly. And Palin’s close relationship with John McCain is a liability for her right-wing audience. In March, Palin made several campaign stops in Arizona with McCain and tried to convince the crowd of his tea-party bona fides. “People in the tea-party movement despise John McCain,” Judson Phillips says. “When was the last time John McCain drove his own car?”
The synergies that have driven Palin Inc. thus far may evaporate if she pursues a presidential run in earnest. There will be, eventually, interviews to do, with networks other than Fox. Why Palin would trade the presidency—and the salary—for a candidacy that faces possibly insurmountable political hurdles is a question to ponder.
As Palin took to the stage in New Orleans, I sat down for lunch with Levi Johnston at a local brewpub in Anchorage. Johnston was slumped down in his chair, faded green baseball cap pulled low. Tank Jones, his manager-bodyguard, sat across the table, fielding calls on his cell phones from television producers. It turns out that Johnston’s career is precisely parallel to Palin’s, a doppelgänger. In the middle of the night, Jones and Johnston had flown back (first-class, of course) to Alaska from L.A., where they had taped a segment for ET while taking meetings with producers to pitch Johnston’s reality show. “It’s everything I do, man. Kinda like the Kardashian show,” Johnston says, describing his proposed show. “It’s everything. Like one day I’ll be hunting, next day I’ll be, ‘Hey, I gotta fly to California tonight,’ so I’ll hop on a flight. Go to a party, maybe meet a chick, bring her back to Alaska and take her fishing and see if she can hang. If not, kick her out. Then go hang out with my son, or go to the track and race my dirt bike. Next week, up in the mountains sheep hunting. Or jumping out of airplanes. I don’t know. It’s not looking at glaciers and going to Bristol Bay.”
Johnston sipped a Diet Coke while picking at a plate of fried calamari, his preferred dish (“Every time I came here, I had the fish or something ’cause I was training for the Playgirl shoot,” he said when we first sat down).
Johnston told me he’s not surprised Palin is cashing in. “When she lost, I knew exactly what she was gonna do,” he says. “The whole time she was getting big-money offers for book and TV shows. I was like, All right, she’s gonna pick that up. It was just a matter of time before she quit.”
Johnston says he’s working on a memoir that would air the true story of the Palin household. “They’re never around each other,” Johnston says of Sarah and Todd. “It’s like they hate each other but they don’t want anyone to know it. I think they were gonna get a divorce, but then they were like, ‘Let’s not prove them right.’ I’ve never seen them sleep in the same room, he’s always on this little recliner. For years, they never really talked.” (This summer, Palin threw cold water on the divorce rumors, telling Politico that the speculation was “made up.”)
“I know everything there is to know about her,” Johnston adds. “She’s so fake. But she’s so good at it, too. She’s amazing at it. If I didn’t know it, I wouldn’t know the difference. She’s gifted. She could do movies because she’s so gifted.”
Relations between Johnston and the Palins have been surprisingly good considering all the public feuding—essentially, they’re actors on the same show. But that will likely soon get worse. In May, Johnston’s lawyer Rex Butler plans to file for joint custody of Tripp, which will drag the Palins back into court.
Johnston gets up from lunch and wants to beat the traffic on the only highway back to Wasilla. He’s off to practice his motocross before leaving on a weeklong bear-hunting trip in the Alaska Range. “Why not jump on it?” he says of all the money being offered his way. “I’m not gonna lie and say I’m not gonna go for it. It’s there, why not? It’s a great living, you make money, and it’s fun.”
Sarah Palin is clearly having fun. As her longtime Wasilla friend Judy Patrick told me, “I always used to say she needed a bigger crowd.”