|The end of summer makes one nostalgic, and this Labor Day weekend has reminded me of an extraordinary series of events from around this weekend some 14 years earlier. Back then, I was driving home from the Berkshires with my now-wife and parents, when a newsreader broke into NPR and explained that John McCain had just defied all logic and announced the selection of an unknown Alaskan governor named Sarah Palin to be his running mate. McCain had reportedly been toying with the idea of nominating Joe Lieberman, who had been moving ever rightward since running on Al Gore’s ticket four years earlier. Instead, McCain’s advisers cynically calculated that they needed an even kookier maneuver to turn around his sagging campaign—not merely an end-around buried in the depths of their political playbook but a “game change” as Heilemann and Halperin would later, and historically, document the decision in their book of the same name.
These days, there is no such thing as a true surprise. News always leaks out early onto the internet, theories are fostered and fomented on Twitter and within sub-Reddits and the true bowels of the web. In fact, by the time the news happens, it’s often pre-ordained. We’re more informed than we’ve ever been, alas, pleasant or unpleasant as it may be.
Back in 2008, however, it was another story. Facebook was in its infancy. Twitter was only two years old. The New York Times was very much a print product with an afterthought of a digital operation and The Washington Post was a once-great paper in retreat. CNN was airport TV and MSNBC was finding its footing in the Scarborough/Maddow era. And Palin, herself, was a complete and total unknown: a self-professed hockey mom from the sticks of Wasilla, a former pageant queen, and grandmother-to-be at 44. As McCain told a crowd of 15,000 in Dayton, in what would turn out to be a series of famous last words, “She’s not from these parts, and she’s not from Washington, but when you get to know her, you’re going to be as impressed as I am.”
Over the ensuing months, of course, the Palin act would unravel in fantastical, almost ripped-from-the-writers-room-of-SNL fashion: the department store shopping romp, the botched Katie Couric interview, the infamous Henry Kissinger meeting, that thin maritime border with Russia. McCain, who had relented to the beseeching of campaign manager Steve Schmidt, would soon enough see what he’d unleashed into the culture. And, in many ways, he served the final decade-plus of his life in the Senate with a pronounced dignity that, at least partly, attempted to erase from the public’s consciousness the last couple months of his presidential campaign, peppering over a rough patch in a heroic life.
|Months after Barack Obama’s historic victory, I had my own bizarre and fascinating brush with the Palinverse. As a young editor at Vanity Fair, I’d been assigned to track down Levi Johnston, Palin’s not-quite son-in-law, who had fathered a child, Tripp, with her daughter, Bristol. The conceit of the story was simple: What was Palin really like, privately, when the cameras weren’t rolling? By then, we’d heard the stories of her mortifying Nicolle Wallace, then a top McCain adviser, with her various fashion and beauty demands and increasingly egomaniacal behavior. Presumably there was more there. Johnston and Bristol Palin had recently split, too, so maybe he had something on his mind that he wanted to share.
In order to get in touch with Levi, however, one first needed to go through a character named Rex (his lawyer) and then Tank (it was unclear what Tank did, but he was friends with Rex). From my very first interaction with these guys—a very late night phone call, as I remember it, during Anchorage afternoon business hours—I loved them immediately. It was ostensibly clear that their job was to protect Levi, but also to seek out their cut of any professional opportunities that came his way. And if there was nothing to extract, hell, they just wanted to be along for the ride. Being the entourage for a fleetingly famous almost vice-son-in-law sure beat whatever was going down in Anchorage.
When I made clear my intentions to interview Levi many times over a period of days, for a piece that I would help craft in his voice—under his byline, with his collaboration—they expressed interest in doing it in person. Of course, I said, I wanted to do it in person. I was happy to fly to Alaska, a beautiful state I’d never visited. No, they retorted, they wanted to be there, too. And they instead offered to come down to New York. I booked their plane tickets and individual rooms at The Royalton, and got us a banquette at The Monkey Bar on 54th Street. If I recall correctly, we were eventually seated in Table 6, the best seat in the house, which was normally bestowed on Graydon Carter, my then-boss and the co-proprietor, along with Jeremy King and Jeff Klein. Ronald Perelman, the restaurant’s top patron, usually sat there too, and even had his office install a Wi-Fi booster under the table so he could receive calls there. Anway, Rex and Tank would get their taste.
Rex and Tank were notable, among other reasons, for their incredible size. They were absolute physical specimens, truly gargantuan, almost like Marvel superheroes. I got that gist when both men asked for two seats apiece on the inbound Delta flight. And it was confirmed when we met for breakfast at 44, in the Royalton lobby. When Rex walked in, I believed I had just made contact with the largest human I’d ever seen, a veritable Super Bowl nose tackle or Sumo star. Then Tank walked in, a seeming foot taller, and looking as though he’d just dipped an 8th grader in mayonnaise and eaten him in one bite.
That morning, we chatted about ground rules and then I spent the better part of two days interviewing Johnston about his experience. I found Levi to be a nice, earnest guy, both overwhelmed and annoyed by his brush with stardom, and frankly stunned that anyone might choose this sort of life for themselves. Part of his resentment toward Sarah Palin, it seemed, was that she ostensibly loved being famous. It had been obvious to Levi back in Alaska, where she was a big fish in a small pond, but he was transfixed to see her occupy head space in a national conversation. Levi, himself almost a frontiersman Holden Caulfield, just seemed aghast at that sort of Kardashian-like ambition, deeming it the ultimate sellout.
The last thing Levi wanted was to be recognized. And yet there he was, being whistled at in midtown as we left the Royalton to head to Mark Seliger’s studio for a photo shoot. (This being the magazine industry in its halcyon days, there was actually a second photo shoot, which necessitated a second transcontinental trip for Levi, Rex, and Tank, but that’s a story for another Backstory.) Rex and Tank loved the attention, too, and Mark snapped some shots of the three of them that I FedExed back to Anchorage. During dinner that night at The Monkey Bar, they noshed on the meatloaf (Norah Ephron’s recipe) and enjoyed the specter of the well-heeled Upper East Side types giving our table a double-take as they spotted Levi eating a hamburger, fearful that he would be carded if he ordered a beer. They tried to keep Levi upbeat, but it always seemed to me that he was a homesick young man who hadn’t asked for any of this.
After multiple drafts, we eventually published Me and Mrs. Palin in the October 2009 issue of Vanity Fair, some three months after Palin announced her latest shocker: that she was resigning as governor with some 18 months left on her term. Levi assumed the sole byline as I worked the editor’s invisible craft, coaching him through the process.
The piece made a great deal of news at the time for a number of disclosures, namely his assertion that Sarah Palin had considered adopting Tripp to prevent Bristol and Levi from the burden of caring for him as mere teenagers, and potentially from pouring an embarrassment upon her. (Notably, as you may recall, Palin had given birth to her fifth child, Piper, not long before McCain picked her.) He also noted what by then had become patently obvious: that her stint on the national stage had made her starstruck and avaricious. “I had assumed she was going to go back to her job as governor,” Levi wrote, “but a week or two after she got back she started talking about how nice it would be to quit and write a book or do a show and make ‘triple the money.’ It was, to her, ‘not as hard.’ She would blatantly say, ‘I want to just take this money and quit being governor.’”
In many ways, it was Palin who truly introduced our era of berzerk reality television politics into the culture—a Pandora’s Box that we are still sorting through. For those among us who thought it couldn’t get nuttier than Palin, there was the Tea Party. For those who thought they were holding the republic hostage, there was Trump. And for those who thought that was the absolute pits, well, I’d like to refer you to Tara Palmeri’s latest masterpiece, Kevin McCarthy’s Political REDRUM Moment, which documents the putative future House Speaker’s attempt to tame a caucus that might soon include members who have championed Hitler and advocated lynching. We are living in scary times.
Amid this Boschian backdrop, Palin now seems out of place with the G.O.P.—a relatively quaint carny act from a comparatively gentler era. As Tina Nguyen reports in her spectacular piece, Appointment in Wasilla, all these years later Palin has fallen out of touch with the brand of Republicanism that she ushered into the spotlight. It explains, in part, why she lost her election this week to finish the term of the late Alaska congressman Don Young. And it may also preordain why she will lose the looming rematch in just a few short months. It’s a complex, fascinating story about political orientation, re-orientation, fame mongering, the shifts in power and insatiable ego. And it’s precisely the sort of story that you can only find at Puck.
Happy Labor Day Weekend,
P.S. - Tina’s story on Sarah Palin was featured in her private email earlier this week. Stay ahead of the curve by signing up for her newsletter here.