The Palin Network
By ROBERT DRAPER
On the night of the midterm elections earlier this month, Sarah Palin stayed up until 3 in the morning. From her hotel bedroom in Manhattan, she and her husband, Todd, followed the returns while she wrote e-mails on her iPad — congratulating winners, consoling losers — while reading others from people who wanted her to know that they had cast their vote for her daughter Bristol on “Dancing With the Stars” the evening before. Like much of her recent life, Palin’s day had been replete with reminders of the clout she had rapidly acquired. She had spent most of her time ensconced at the Fox television studios, though she managed to squeeze in a jog in Central Park — which she promptly chronicled on Twitter: “Beautiful!” Also at the studios was her fellow Fox News contributor Karl Rove, who had recently questioned in a British newspaper whether Palin’s new reality TV series, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” made her appear Oval Office-worthy. The building was abuzz over what would ensue when the two would inevitably bump into each other. The moment came after Palin finished a segment with the anchor Bret Baier and saw Rove lingering stageside with Brit Hume, a Fox colleague, holding a well-marked copy of “Alaska for Dummies” — a prop clearly intended to mollify Palin. She laughed, used her phone’s camera to take a picture of Rove with the book, traded brief hellos and then left the studio without mentioning Rove’s earlier comment.
Of course, Palin’s purpose for being at Fox on Nov. 2 was to share her views on the midterm elections that she worked so vigorously to influence. It was indicative of the competing demands on her time that her participation in the campaign’s final days was weirdly anticlimactic. In the three weeks before the elections, Palin was bombarded with campaigning requests, many of them sent to her personal e-mail account. But her young son, Trig, was to have an operation — routine but still worrisome — on the Friday before Election Day, and so the mother was loath to commit to anything. Trig’s procedure went well. That evening, Palin’s political adviser, Andrew Davis, pulled an all-nighter arranging for her to make a Saturday drop-in on behalf of John Raese, the West Virginia senatorial candidate who was trailing the Democratic nominee, Joe Manchin, the popular governor. Raese’s wife, Elizabeth, had issued a personal plea to Palin to save the day.
After Palin arrived in Charleston, and exhorted the state’s “mountain mamas” to “keep Manchin in the mansion,” she and Todd flew to New York on Saturday afternoon. She was still mulling over several invitations to campaign along the Eastern Seaboard. One was a Tea Party Express event in Wilmington, Del., in support of the controversial senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell. Palin’s endorsement of O’Donnell over a more-moderate candidate had been catalytic to her primary victory. Later Palin authorized an adviser, Randy Scheunemann, and two others to go to Wilmington to help O’Donnell in her debate preparation. But this particular event for the woman who proclaimed “I’m not a witch” was on Sunday — Halloween — and Palin prudently elected not to attend. Instead, she spent the afternoon watching the New York Jets play from the luxury box of the team’s owner, Woody Johnson.
In Syracuse, meanwhile, the campaign staff for the Republican Congressional candidate Ann Marie Buerkle, who had erased her Democratic opponent’s double-digit lead, was begging for Palin to make an appearance. Despite significant logistical complications, Palin wanted to oblige them. But a story in Politico (“Next for G.O.P. Leaders: Stopping Sarah Palin”) that quoted unnamed party operatives fretting over Palin’s growing popularity had her juices flowing, and her schedule suddenly became cluttered with Fox segments, which allowed her a platform to fight back. (“Some within the establishment don’t like the fact that I won’t back down to a good-old-boys’ club,” she declared on Fox Business Network.) On the day before the elections, she could find time to record only one final robocall of more than 25 she made throughout the campaign cycle — this one for Tom Tancredo, a third-party candidate for governor of Colorado whose strident remarks about illegal immigration made him a “destructive” force according to the Tea Party leader Dick Armey.
As it developed, Tancredo would lose by 14 points and Raese by 10, while Buerkle’s race was so close that a recount was imminent. The fate of another endorsee, Joe Miller — who was running for a U.S. Senate seat in Alaska against a Palin nemesis, Lisa Murkowski — remained in doubt. Palin had thrown her early support to two candidates backed by the Tea Party who wound up losing, O’Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada, which helped the Democratic Party retain control of the Senate. Nonetheless, it was a good night in Palin’s estimation: a majority of her endorsees won, the Republicans took the House and Bristol survived another round of voting on “Dancing With the Stars.” After three or four hours of sleep, the Palins took a commercial flight (economy class) out of Kennedy Airport on the morning of Nov. 3, headed back to Wasilla, Alaska.
Andrew Davis, her adviser, saw the Palins off, and I met him for coffee later that morning in Midtown Manhattan. Davis is a personable and quick-witted 33-year-old Massachusetts native who was a deputy campaign manager for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in 2004 and later an opposition researcher for the Republican National Committee before working with Palin at the close of the 2008 campaign. He’s nonetheless low-profile in the extreme, like all of Palin’s senior associates. (The New York Times Magazine’s photo editors had been trying to find an image of Davis; he assured me that they would not succeed.) Davis and his colleagues recognize that the issue of trust informs Sarah Palin’s every dealing with the world beyond Wasilla since her circular-firing-squad experience at the close of the 2008 presidential campaign. Her inner circle shuns the media and would speak to me only after Palin authorized it, a process that took months. They are content to labor in a world without hierarchy or even job descriptions — “None of us has titles,” Davis said — and where the adhesive is a personal devotion to Palin rather than the furtherance of her political career.
Davis’s main task this year had been serving as Palin’s point man throughout the endorsement process. He was now tallying her midterm scorecard, which at the time was 50 wins and 32 losses (with 8 not yet decided), including victories by 14 so-called mama grizzly Republican candidates. Some of Palin’s picks were early, bold and pivotal, as in the case of Nikki Haley, who is now South Carolina’s governor-elect. Other picks — like those for Tim Scott (South Carolina’s first Republican African-American congressman in more than a century) and Marco Rubio (the incoming senator from Florida and a rising G.O.P. star on par with Palin) — came too late to be consequential except, perhaps, to her own ambitions. Palin also raised more than $10 million for Republican candidates and committees — including the Republican National Committee, which plastered her image on the center of its Web page at the close of the election cycle. Having crawled from the wreckage of the 2008 presidential campaign and her much-derided resignation as governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin had emerged as arguably the most captivating and influential Republican in America — and therefore a viable contender for the presidential nomination in 2012.
So I asked her political adviser whether there would be a summoning of the troops in the coming days to discuss what the next moves will be. Davis laughed and replied, “That’s not going to happen.” Each of them, he said, would simply be doing the work that was in front of them that day, the way things always operated in Palin World. I brought up an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken three weeks before, which concluded that Palin’s favorability rating among registered voters stood at 39 percent, while 54 percent viewed her unfavorably and a whopping 67 percent saw her as unqualified to be president. “On a staff level, we all think about ways we can improve her numbers,” Davis said. “It’s politics — that’s our job.” But, I pressed, had he discussed the subject with her? “I’m not going to sit around and ask her, ‘What do you think of your approval rating?’ ” Davis said. “I’m just not.” Then he added, “Maybe the family’s talked about it.”
“I am,” Sarah Palin told me the next day when I asked her if she was already weighing a run for president. “I’m engaged in the internal deliberations candidly, and having that discussion with my family, because my family is the most important consideration here.” Palin went on to say that there weren’t meaningful differences in policy among the field of G.O.P. hopefuls “but that in fact there’s more to the presidency than that” and that her decision would involve evaluating whether she could bring unique qualities to the table.
“Yes, the organization would have to change,” Palin said during an hourlong phone conversation. “I’d have to bring in more people — more people who are trustworthy,” she clarified. Palin said that her experience as John McCain’s running mate was for the most part “amazing, wonderful, do it again in a heartbeat.” But she added, “What Todd and I learned was that the view inside the bus was much better than underneath it, and we knew we got thrown under it by certain aides who weren’t principled” and that “the experience taught us, yes, to be on guard and be very discerning about who we can and can’t trust in the political arena.”
She went on: “I know that a hurdle I would have to cross, that some other potential candidates wouldn’t have to cross right out of the chute, is proving my record. That’s the most frustrating thing for me — the warped and perverted description of my record and what I’ve accomplished over the last two decades. It’s been much more perplexing to me than where the lamestream media has wanted to go about my personal life. And other candidates haven’t faced these criticisms the way I have.”
I asked her if by avoiding the national press, she didn’t bear at least some responsibility for the way the public viewed her. “I’m on television nearly every single day with reporters,” she shot back. “Now granted, that’s mainly through my job at Fox News, and I’m very proud to be associated with them, but I’m not avoiding anything or anybody. I’m on Facebook and Twitter. I’m out there. I want to talk about my record, though.” Palin was referring to “getting in there and cleaning up corruption, taking on the oil companies and the good old boys in the party, things like the natural-gas pipeline” and “getting things out of the government’s hands, like the state-owned dairy creamery in Alaska.” Asked if she believed in 2008 that these accomplishments made her at least as qualified as Barack Obama to be president, her response was immediate: “Absolutely. If I had any doubt in my ability or administrative experience that would’ve been put to good use in a McCain administration, then I never would have accepted the nomination.”
Palin told me that because of the media’s unfairness toward her, “I fear for our democracy.” She cited a recent Anchorage Daily News article that commented on her casual manner of dress at a rally for Joe Miller, as well as a Politico headline that used the word “drama” for an item about Representative Michele Bachmann’s quest for a Republican leadership position. Palin viewed these references as sexist — but also, she said, as “distractions.”
Purposefully distracting, I asked, or just simplistic? “How can it be simplistic?” she scoffed. “They’re the elite,” she said sarcastically of news organizations. “They know much more than I know and other people like me! So, no. They know just what they’re doing.”
Sarah Palin’s withering regard for the media co-exists with the fact that Sarah Palin is a media sensation. Throughout this year’s midterm cycle, no one commanded as much free time on the air as Palin, who of course wasn’t running for office herself. Her mere presence or nonpresence at various campaign events — or the distance that wary Republican candidates kept from her — routinely eclipsed whatever else took place at the events themselves. Concurrently, Palin’s denunciations of the Obama White House via Twitter garnered substantial attention not because the opinions were especially novel but because they were expressed with the brashness of a wily headline-grabber. All of this in addition to the fact that Palin, a former journalism major and sportscaster, happens to be a member of the media herself: a salaried Fox News contributor, the star of her own television series and a best-selling author whose second book, “America by Heart,” will be released by HarperCollins this week with a first printing of 1 million copies and her pick of promotional slots offered up by her adversaries in the press.
Almost everything about Palin is fresh, including her wounds. “She gives as good as she gets,” says the admiring former Republican strategist Mary Matalin. “But I don’t know her well enough to know if she’s developed the thick skin you need to be endlessly resilient, the way Reagan could take things for decades and let them roll off his back.” Like many Republicans, Palin hails Reagan as her political guiding light. But she has yet to channel the Gipper’s soothing sunniness, instead she seems haloed in static electricity — “a walking wedge issue,” as one leading conservative commentator recently described her. The road to a presidential candidacy traditionally involves a carefully sequenced gathering of tribes and marking of territory. Palin has ignored this playbook. Her only-dead-fish-go-with-the-flow improvisatory ethic is certifiably anti-Beltway and confers on Palin an aura of authenticity. It is also erratic and short on self-discipline, reminding us that Sarah Palin’s ascendency is recent and she remains a work in progress — all the while casting a very long shadow over the Republican Party, shaped like a question mark.
One afternoon in June 2009, Gov. Sarah Palin was sitting in the Washington office of her friend Fred Malek, whom she met through McCain during the 2008 campaign. She was listening to the former White House aide to Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford map out logical next steps to her political career. Focus on amassing a good record as governor, he advised her. Run for a second term. Develop some policy expertise. Do some extensive overseas travel. Generate some good will by campaigning for fellow Republicans.
Malek told me that he could tell that this wasn’t what Palin wanted to hear. Here’s the problem, she replied impatiently: I’ve got a long commute from my house to my office. I don’t have the funds to pay for my family to travel with me, and the state won’t pay for it, either. I can’t afford to have security at my home — anybody can come up to my door, and they do. Under the laws of Alaska, anybody can file suit or an ethics charge against me, and I have to defend it on my own. I’m going into debt.
Nothing in her former world as a small-town mayor and the governor of a sparsely populated state prepared Palin for the perverse celebrity that would engulf her after being selected as McCain’s vice-presidential candidate. For better and for worse, she was now a household name, beloved or ridiculed by strangers all across America. The caricature of Palin as a vapid, winking, press-averse clotheshorse proved irresistible to late-night entertainers. Less well known was the Palin who agitated for more access to the media (other than Katie Couric), who was seen more than once passed out on her hotel bed half-buried in briefing books and index cards and whose thriftiness when it came to her wardrobe was so obvious that one senior strategist clucked of the Palins, “These people shop at Dillards!”
The advisers who strenuously advocated for McCain to select Palin seemed as unprepared for her as they would later claim she was for the national stage. They had planned on deploying Palin like a conventional vice-presidential candidate — fund-raisers, secondary markets — but otherwise stowing her away for heavy debate prep. Instead, “because she was a much bigger draw at rallies than McCain himself,” a former adviser says, the budget for her side of the campaign “quadrupled from what they’d anticipated; the amount of personnel had to be ratcheted up, and dealing with the Palin phenomenon came to consume much of [senior strategist Steve] Schmidt’s time.” Adoring fans screamed “Sarah! Sarah!” and wept as she greeted them on rope lines, but away from the crowds she felt increasingly isolated from her Alaska clan and distrustful of the staff members who would soon be anonymously criticizing her in the media. During Palin’s debate prep sessions in Philadelphia, Senator Joe Lieberman was summoned to offer support to the overwhelmed and demoralized candidate. “Schmidt says to me, ‘You’ve got something in common with her that we don’t have: you’re both religious,’ ” Lieberman told me. “He actually said, ‘Why don’t you go in and pray with her? She was on the phone yesterday with [former Gov. Kay Orr of Nebraska], and they’d prayed at the end, and it seemed to make her feel better. ’ ”
Upon losing the election, Palin hoped to return to an Alaska where, as she put it to me, “people were thankful that I was in the governor’s office.” It therefore chagrined her when she learned that Democratic legislators like Hollis French and Beth Kerttula were no longer her allies. McCain’s staff, meanwhile, reneged on a promise to cover the costs for any legal inquiry that arose during the campaign, Palin told me.
A few friends from the Beltway rushed to her defense. In December 2008, John Coale, a lawyer and a Democrat whose wife is the Fox News host Greta Van Susteren, offered to set up a political action committee and a legal-defense fund for her. Fred Malek, meanwhile, began connecting Palin to his Beltway cohort. At Malek’s home in McLean, Va., the night before the clubby annual Washington gala known as the Alfalfa Club dinner, he introduced her to Alan Greenspan, Madeleine Albright, Dianne Feinstein, Andrea Mitchell, Mitch McConnell, Walter Isaacson and Dick and Liz Cheney, among others. (To Liz she exclaimed, “It’s so great to meet another mother of five!”) Later Malek hosted a foreign-policy lunch discussion with Palin; Frank Carlucci, a former secretary of defense under Reagan; Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution; and Gregory Newbold, a retired three-star general. Talbott received an appreciative grin from Palin when he told her that he himself had seen Russia from an island off the coast of Alaska — “I defended you on that.”
Three weeks after telling Malek that her life was difficult, Palin abruptly resigned as governor. Determined to reclaim her narrative and settle a few scores along the way, she enlisted the services of the Washington lawyer Robert Barnett, who negotiated lucrative book deals for both Clintons as well as George W. Bush. Palin surprised him with a packet of more than 20,000 words that she had already written about her childhood in Alaska. Palin spent the summer of 2009 hunkered down in a Del Mar, Calif., condominium working on her memoir with her communications director, Meghan Stapleton, and a book collaborator named Lynn Vincent. During the day, Palin took her laptop out by the condo complex’s swimming pool and sat there writing in her sun visor and flip-flops, apparently unrecognized by the other residents. And she would stay up writing until 5 in the morning.
A few months later, while touring to promote her book, “Going Rogue,” Palin’s bus pulled into Roanoke, Va., one Sunday in November, the night before an appearance at a bookstore. The author was astonished to see more than 500 people encamped outside the store, many of them in sleeping bags. “Oh, my God, it’s so cold!” Palin exclaimed as she bounded out of the bus to greet her ecstatic fans. “I can’t believe you’re waiting for me!”
But they had waited, and now she had arrived.
His voice dripping with exasperation, the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said to me one July afternoon in his office: “If I would have told you that I could open up a Facebook account or a Twitter account, simply post quotes, and have the White House asked about those, and to have the entire White House press corps focused on your quote of the day on Facebook — that’s Sarah Palin. She tweets one thing, and all of a sudden you’ve got a room full of people that want to know. . . .”
Gibbs shook his head and continued: “Now, I could say, ‘You know what? I’m not going to deal with that.’ And big headline: Palin Accuses Obama of X. The White House Had No Comment.”
“I just tweet; that’s just the way I roll,” Palin told me. “Just expressing my feelings via Twitter and Facebook. I choose them because they’re convenient for me, especially from Wasilla.” She continued: “The only thing I do consider is when I think of what’s going on in the East Coast, with the difference in time zones. I can tweet before going to bed at midnight or 1 and know that they’re up and at ’em, and they’re going to have to respond.” In this compressed, no-nuance cyberzone, Palin can land a hard punch without ever setting foot in the ring — calling the then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel “as shallow/narrowminded/political/irresponsible as they come” and saying the Politico writer Jonathan Martin is “full of crap.” In July, Palin’s BlackBerry spewed out a much-publicized volley of tweets calling on peaceful Muslims to “refudiate” the “ground zero mosque” and in the process suckering Obama into taking a position for which he was attacked by all sides. Palin wrote these without consulting anyone, her lawyer Thomas Van Flein told me: “I found out like everyone else did. This is her political instinct in action.”
Van Flein said this as we met for coffee one morning in Anchorage a week before the midterm elections. It’s a curious feature of Palin World that none of its charter members knew her before 2008. (Her two longtime Alaska aides, Kris Perry and Meghan Stapleton, left amicably but wearied by the demands involved with working for an overnight celebrity.) Van Flein met Palin in the summer of 2008, recruited by Todd Palin to give legal advice on the Troopergate controversy. He now divides his time between his Anchorage legal practice and his position as one of Palin’s four lieutenants. The others are Andrew Davis, the political director who resides in Sacramento; Tim Crawford, the group’s elder statesman at 58, whose political experience extends back to Goldwater and who in early 2009 was forced out as the R.N.C.’s interim finance director, by which time John Coale had already recruited him to be the treasurer of SarahPAC; and Palin’s 36-year-old Los Angeles-based cybermessenger, Rebecca Mansour. Palin’s broader circle also includes Jason Recher and Doug McMarlin, who handle her travel logistics from, respectively, New Orleans and Columbus, Ohio; Pam Pryor, who works with Crawford at SarahPAC as the liaison to the evangelical and Christian community; and Randy Scheunemann, a prominent neoconservative and former McCain foreign-policy adviser. Crawford, Pryor, Scheunemann and two occasional speechwriters, Chriss Winston and Lindsay Hayes, all live in or around Washington. Among the D.C. consultants, however, only Crawford interacts with Palin on a regular basis. More than once in our discussions, Van Flein referred to “those people who are of the Beltway and those who aren’t” — a binary worldview to which Palin obviously adheres. (Press reports variously name Fred Malek; Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard; and Kim Daniels, a conservative lawyer, as key advisers, when in fact Daniels has not worked for Palin for several months and Malek and Kristol are seldom in contact with her. “It’s nearly every single day we learn a lesson about a person who claims to speak for us or work for us,” Palin told me. “Seems 9 times out of 10, Todd and I look at each other and say, ‘Who is this speaking for us?’ ”)
Along with Recher, McMarlin, Pryor and Scheunemann, the four lieutenants engage in regular conference calls, sans Palin, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 2 p.m. Eastern time. (There’s no set agenda for these calls nor anyone leading them, and they can get “raucous at times,” Davis says.) Palin herself is never far from the loop, Van Flein told me: “Think of it as a tape recorder that’s on all the time. There’s a constant exchange of information between the governor and her team — who’s on top of this, lots of back and forth — and I think I’m not exaggerating to say it’s 24/7. Sometime she’s up e-mailing at 3 in the morning.”
Van Flein, a boyish-looking 46-year-old employment-law specialist who majored in political science at the University of Alaska, receives a $10,000 monthly retainer from SarahPAC. In return, he dispenses more than just legal advice. Van Flein contributes research to some of Palin’s Facebook posts and speeches and is a staunch political advocate. (“Regardless of whoever else does or doesn’t say it, I’m saying that Obamacare is now in jeopardy of repeal because of her,” Van Flein proclaimed to me.)
But it is Rebecca Mansour who especially personifies the amorphous yet fervid network of Palin World. Mansour said to me with undisguised relish, “I majored in English and history and minored in philosophy, but I’ve never been a Beltway person, so that does confuse people.” A graduate of the American Film Institute, Mansour was writing screenplays in L.A. when, following the 2008 election, her disgust over “what I perceived as unfair treatment” of Palin inspired her to start the blog Conservatives4Palin. Mansour’s knowledge of Palin became so encyclopedic that in the summer of 2009, Meghan Stapleton asked her if she would come to Del Mar to help with Palin’s biography. The blogger had never met her subject before. She showed up with binders full of research, and when she was introduced to Palin, “the first thing she did was hug me — I was like, ‘O.K.,’ ” Mansour said with a laugh. “She is the most ordinary person. She’s shorter than I am.” At the same time, Mansour was impressed with Palin’s nimble mind. “I remember sitting with her while she was working on the book; she would be typing furiously, and I’d ask her, ‘Governor, when was the year you did such and such,’ and she’d say, ‘That was the year we did the budget.’ And then she’d be reading the chyron at the bottom of the TV screen while typing and talking to me. And then would read to me what she just wrote, and it was brilliant.”
For her volunteer work on “Going Rogue,” Mansour would soon be rewarded with both a salary and a weighty portfolio. Mansour is Palin’s primary speechwriter, researcher, online communications coordinator and all-purpose adviser. Because Palin often works 20-hour days, so does Mansour, because “the governor reads, checks and approves everything that’s under her name.” Mansour regularly spars with the media on her private Twitter account for perceived inaccuracies about Palin. At the same time, she acknowledged, “I love it when they underestimate her.”
In truth, few are underestimating Sarah Palin anymore. In that endearing manner of the Beltway echo chamber, the prevailing narrative of Palin in 2009 was that that she was an incompetent ditz. This year’s story line is that she is a social-media visionary who purposefully circumnavigated the power-alley gasbags and thereby constructed a new campaigning template for the ages. The reality is that Palin’s direction is determined almost entirely by her instincts — or, as Fred Malek puts it, “There is no über-strategy.” She did not game out a path forward when agreeing to two book deals with HarperCollins and then signing on with the Washington Speakers Bureau, Fox and then her television series. That same mind-set explains the lack of cohesion to Palin’s virtual organization. As Crawford, Van Flein, Davis and Mansour concur, the inhabitants of Palin World have loosely defined duties and thus invariably play outside their lanes. “It’s kind of like if you reach out and for whatever reason someone’s not responding, then someone else jumps in,” Crawford says — adding of his own job as the PAC’s fund-raising guru, “I never thought it would be a full-time gig.” (One exception to the fuzzy lines of authority: Barnett, her lawyer, handles all of her business dealings but, being a Democrat, participates in none of her policy and political discussions.) There is no chief of staff — though “there’s been discussion,” Van Flein says, “because the logistics are overwhelming and the demand is phenomenal.” Nor, since Stapleton departed in February, does Palin have a press person — with the result that up to eight or nine of her functionaries will find themselves fielding (and usually pocket-vetoing) media requests at any one time. Just as Palin heavily edits or at times completely writes most of her own speeches and insists on reviewing any statement issued by SarahPAC, she also must approve all media contact by her subordinates, Van Flein told me. With epic understatement he added, “Because she may be busy, [an interview request] might languish for a few days.”
Palin’s guerrilla organization can be maddening for those on the outside who are trying to divine a way in. “I’ve never had so many phone calls in my life,” Davis says. “And the hard part is the answer’s not ‘No’; the answer’s ‘I don’t know.’ But it’s a pure process. These decisions are hers.” Though Palin has obviously done quite well for herself without Karl Rove’s strategic seal of approval, the inefficiency of her network has allowed numerous opportunities to slip through the cracks. Several influential Republican legislators reached out to her in late 2008 and early 2009 but never heard back. Among them, Roy Blunt and Orrin Hatch requested that she attend particular functions and were rebuffed. George W. Bush’s former media strategist, Mark McKinnon, offered to chat. The Beltway doyenne Juleanna Glover volunteered a “low-key media luncheon.” The National Review’s editorial board sent word that Palin should swing by for a get-together during one of her trips to New York. Which of these proposed encounters ever came to Palin’s attention is unclear. But for other possible 2012 Republican candidates — say, Senator John Thune of South Dakota or Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota — most of these opportunities would be worth planning an entire day around.
Then again, Palin confessed to me a tendency to avoid longtime political operatives — “these unprincipled people who are in it for power, money and job titles.” Her wariness extends even to her top lieutenants, who have thus far been excluded from her 2012 considerations. Instead, she relies on Todd — “the one person she trusts,” according to Rick Halford, a longtime friend and a former Alaska state senator. “Todd is somebody that I think really grew and took on the job of being her support system, way beyond his education and where he came from.”
There are few spouses in politics as hard-working as 46-year-old Todd Mitchell Palin — a native of Dillingham, Alaska, who married his Wasilla High School sweetheart and dropped out of college and eventually found work in the North Slope oil fields. He handles her travel. He is at times her sole accompaniment to events. He is — with apologies to the mama grizzly — the family’s chief protector, who has been known to nix interview requests from publications that have previously, in his view, made fun of his children. It has fallen to Todd to mollify alienated aides, interview potential speechwriters and help prep his wife for an interview by Googling subject matter on his BlackBerry. Referring to the ongoing communications in Palin World, Thomas Van Flein told me, “Todd is always part of the information chain.” In the external world it is widely understood that when sending Sarah Palin an e-mail “the best idea is to copy Todd on it,” according to Malek.
As one adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign told me: “It occurred to me on Day 1 that Todd was a very key adviser to her. I quite aggressively developed a relationship with Todd.” Stephen Broden, a Congressional candidate from Dallas, told me that his endorsement by Palin this summer arose after a perfunctory meet-and-greet with the couple. “I pulled Todd aside as the entourage was pulling her away,” Broden recalled, “and I said, ‘Hey, look, man, it’s gonna be hard to get ahold of her.’ And he gave me his number. I talked to him.”
Broden, a conservative African-American pastor and a three-time guest on Glenn Beck’s TV show, was running a quixotic campaign against the nine-term Dallas congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson. Palin became highly enamored of Broden, endorsed him and kept a close eye on the race all the way through election night. (Johnson won, 76 percent to 22.) Nearly all of her 90 or so endorsed candidates were selected in a manner that was vintage Sarah Palin. As her staff members explained it to me, all potential endorsees were vetted by Andrew Davis to ascertain whether they met certain base-line standards (like being anti-abortion, pro-A.N.W.R. drilling and anti-stimulus). Palin, however, would always make the final call, often after doing research herself, as in the case of Broden. As a result, some endorsements took months to be consummated. Besieged by requests to appear with candidates, Palin could accommodate only a few of them. Much of her summer was consumed by her television filming schedule in Alaska, and her contract with the Washington Speakers Bureau forbade her to do any free event at a locale where another paid event was scheduled. Her frenetic schedule meant that Palin could commit only to making an in-person appearance at the 11th hour — which, given the large crowds she tended to attract, would often prove impossible for a small campaign staff to throw together. “She loves the retail stuff — make some phone calls, go to a small event and shake hands,” Davis told me. “Retail is very difficult at this point.”
Idiosyncratic as her in-house endorsement operation may have been, Palin was not above wielding her influence in the manner of a seasoned politician. She rewarded allies (McCain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Carly Fiorina), punished a foe (Lisa Murkowski) by endorsing Joe Miller and gave the nod to a family friend (Vaughan Ward of Idaho). And in the early presidential-primary states, some of Palin’s choices seemed conspicuously strategic. In June, for example, she endorsed Terry Branstad for governor of Iowa, who at that point had never met Palin, had not sought her imprimatur and didn’t particularly need it, being 15 points ahead of his primary opponent, Bob Vander Plaats. Vander Plaats was far more conservative than Branstad but also an ally of the likely 2012 candidate Mike Huckabee. In the New Hampshire Senate race, Palin threw her support behind the establishment candidate Kelly Ayotte rather than a Tea Party favorite who tried to endear himself to Palin by sending her a photograph of himself alongside the carcass of a deer he had just shot. When I asked Andy Smith, the University of New Hampshire Survey Center’s director and pollster, to explain why Palin had chosen Ayotte, he promptly answered: “I think she wanted to back a winner. Like Branstad in Iowa. I think she wanted people who would be in positions to help her out.”
These actions bespeak a calculating shrewdness on Palin’s part. But then what to make of her inactions? Three months after endorsing Branstad, Palin visited Iowa for the first time since 2008 to deliver a speech but then left without scheduling any other events. And since 2008, Palin has yet to travel to New Hampshire, having turned down a triumphalist Tea Party Express rally in Concord the evening before Election Day. In both cases, her aides told me, Palin was overscheduled. But since Sarah Palin is the keeper of her own itinerary, we are left to wonder whether these omissions suggest disorganization, lack of foresight, ambivalence, distrust of politicos or some combination of the above.
One evening in late October, I sat in the Anchorage apartment of Palin’s onetime communications director Bill McAllister, watching old TV footage of his ex-boss during her campaign for governor in 2006. McAllister, a former reporter with the Anchorage NBC affiliate who worked for Palin in 2008 and 2009, wanted me to see with my own eyes the Sarah Palin he knew — bright and easygoing, exceedingly popular with the local press — before the national media had grossly mischaracterized her in a way he found “frustrating and maddening.”
The Palin I watched on McAllister’s DVD lived up to his billing. She cut a competent, reasoned, disciplined figure, not taking the bait when one of her opponents dismissed her during a debate as “a bright smile.” There was another characteristic that McAllister hadn’t pointed out. In the footage, Palin declared, “We deserve leaders that aren’t just going to take a partisan approach.” Bemoaning the “gridlock down there in Juneau,” Palin reminded Alaskans, “I have good relationships with these legislators.” An undisputed social conservative who backed a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, Palin nonetheless told an interviewer, “I don’t wear my faith on my sleeve.” And she promised not to let her religious beliefs “bleed into policy — that is my commitment.”
This Sarah Palin began to recede from view in 2008 as she was thrust into the traditional running mate’s role of partisan flamethrower. Nonetheless, while editing a speech she was about to give, the vice-presidential candidate crossed out a disparaging reference to liberals, telling an aide, “We want liberals to vote for us, too.”
I brought up her past efforts at bipartisanship to Palin. “I was so innocent and naïve to believe that I would be able to govern for four years and if I ever moved on beyond the governorship I could carry that with me nationally,” Palin said. “And it was proven when John McCain chose me for the nomination for vice president; what it showed me about the left: they go home. It doesn’t matter what you do. It was the left that came out attacking me. They showed me their hypocrisy; they showed me they weren’t willing to work in a bipartisan way. I learned my lesson. Once bitten, twice shy. I will never trust that they are not hypocrites until they show me they’re sincere.”
Since that time, Palin has gravitated to where the love is. On April 7 of this year, she spoke at a campaign rally in Minneapolis for Michele Bachmann. With a silver cross around her neck and a flag pin on her lapel, Palin spoke approvingly of those who are “proudly clinging to your guns and religion.” Condemning the recently passed health care legislation as “socialized medicine” that “breaks the bank and really violates the U.S. Constitution,” she applauded her party’s stout opposition, declaring, “What’s wrong with being the party of ‘No’?”
The cheering section directly behind Palin was packed with white conservative middle-aged women, a demographic that especially reveres her. Palin’s relationship to women generally is more complicated. On the one hand, her appreciation of pioneers like Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton is unambiguous. On the other, she tends to poll five or more points better among men, and feminists are loath to embrace her.
Palin is of course aware that her sex affords her an opportunity among a crowded, all-male Republican field for 2012. Her Minneapolis rally provided much of the content for her acclaimed “mama grizzly” call-to-arms Web ad released in June. In August, Palin posted a Facebook endorsement of seven women to coincide with the 90th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Though several of her male endorsees also wound up defeating women, Palin has nonetheless emerged from the midterm cycle as America’s most visible advocate of female candidates not named Murkowski.
Whether Palin has what it takes to close the Republican Party’s longstanding gender gap is a question that has loomed since John McCain introduced her to the nation on Aug. 29, 2008. That same afternoon, McCain reached out to Geraldine Ferraro — the first female vice-presidential candidate and a Hillary Clinton supporter — and put her on the phone with his new running mate. The two traded brief, complimentary words. “Every time a woman runs, women win,” Ferraro told me a couple of days after Palin debated Joe Biden.
She felt reluctant to second-guess Palin’s performance against Biden. As Walter Mondale’s running mate, the three-term New York congresswoman possessed more experience with national issues than the Alaska governor — and because of the differing schedules, she was afforded nearly eight weeks more prep time than Palin received. It also helped, Ferraro pointed out, that the Mondale campaign paired her with a young Georgetown professor named Madeleine Albright, who “was attached to my hip from July 12 to the election.” Nevertheless, Ferraro concluded in a lamenting tone, “when you get down to the substance, it wasn’t there.”
“Look, everyone has an opinion about Sarah Palin,” her friend John Coale says. “But suppose when she starts doing the debates during the primaries, she knocks it out of the park. That would cause an entirely different view of things, wouldn’t it?”
Palin has taken steps to close the substance gap. As Davis put it to me, “She works very hard to get things right, because she understands the margin for error — and because it’s the right thing to do.” In Hong Kong 14 months ago, Palin delivered a dense world-affairs speech that she co-drafted with Randy Scheunemann and Rebecca Mansour. This past June in Norfolk, Va., Palin ripped Obama’s “enemy-centric” foreign policy in a spicy but detailed address. (In that speech and elsewhere, she has cited the wisdom of Joe Lieberman — though not on the matter of human-induced climate change, a concept she derides as a “snow job” and this “global warming Goregate stuff.” Lieberman told me, “Well of course I disagree with her and have been disappointed by it.” Lieberman also said: “My impression is that she and Todd are the kind of people I’d like to have as my next-door neighbors. That’s a separate question from whether she’s capable of being president.”) Earlier this month, Palin gave a speech on monetary policy, criticizing the Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke, which, according to Mansour, was written entirely by Palin and herself. Every morning, Palin reads a briefing consisting of a few bullet points prepared by Davis and Mansour. (“I wouldn’t make too much of it,” Davis cautioned me. “It’s like [Politico’s] Playbook, only without the birthdays. Sometimes I throw in a sports score.”) Her public remarks and Facebook posts have been increasingly littered with facts from biographies of Reagan, Thatcher and Lincoln that she has recently digested.
Palin became testy when I asked her about the books I heard she had been reading. “I’ve been reading since I was a little girl,” she snapped. “And my mom is standing 15 feet away from me, and I should put her on the phone with you right now so she can tell you. That’s what happens when you grow up in a house full of teachers — you read; and I always have. Just because — and,” she continued, though in a less blistering tone, “I don’t want to come across sounding caustic or annoyed by this issue: because of one roll-of-the-eye answer to a question I gave, I’m still dealing with this,” she said, referring to her interview with Katie Couric. “There’s nothing different today than there was in the last 43 years of my life since I first started reading. I continue to read all that I can get my hands on — and reading biographies of, yes, Thatcher for instance, and of course Reagan and the John Adams letters, and I’m just thinking of a couple that are on my bedside, I go back to C.S. Lewis for inspiration, there’s such a variety, because books have always been important in my life.” She went on: “I’m reading [the conservative radio host] Mark Levin’s book; I’ll get ahold of Glenn Beck’s new book — and now because I’m opening up,” she finished warily, “I’m afraid I’m going to get reporters saying, Oh, she only reads books by Glenn Beck.”
I explained to Palin that in my view, at least, this line of inquiry wasn’t gratuitous — that questions did in fact linger about her “gravitas gap.” Didn’t she think, for example, that the Republican kingmakers who were now supposedly scheming to kneecap her were mainly just concerned about how voters viewed her? “If that were the case, then they need to be courageous enough to put their names behind their criticisms,” she said, referring to anonymous quotations attacking her. “As I replied to Politico, these fellows want to be trusted to tend to our nation’s economic woes? They want to be trusted to take on the likes of Ahmadinejad, but they won’t take on a hockey mom from Wasilla? Until they do that, I dismiss them.”
But, I reiterated, didn’t she believe that the Republican establishment’s predominant worry was that she would lose to Obama? “Then perhaps they should vent some of their paranoia toward all of the potential G.O.P. candidates,” she said. “Because obviously there’s no guarantee that any one of us would win. But I do believe that much of this is a threat to their hierarchy, because I’ve never shied away from a battle and because I’ll put principle before politics.”
In a sense, Palin views Beltway Republicans as she does the Obama administration: aloof, self-interested and vulnerable to the populist power that she believes she wields. “They’re in an isolated bubble — Barack Obama mentioned that in his press conference, and I agree with him, he is isolated from what average Americans are talking about,” she said, referring to the president’s words after the midterm elections. “But what he was meaning, of course, was that he’s not in touch with average Americans. I am — because that’s who I am. That’s who surrounds me, common-sense Americans who just want government on their side, not riding their backs. And I tweet to reach out to them.”
At the end of our talk, she made note of my Southern accent and urged me, “Don’t lose that.” Then she went back to her world, somewhere in Alaska, where she was winding down the filming of her TV show — where apparently Internet reception was sufficient for her to send out three more Twitter posts that afternoon, joining herself to the rest of America and then leaving it at that, for the moment.