About 700 people showed up at the first stop on Sarah Palin's tour promoting her new book about the War on Christmas. Or: 701, including me.
If you're Palin, there's only one place better than Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, to launch a book about Christmas: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, only about 70 miles west of New York City, where she had spent Tuesday giving interviews (to mixed reviews). Except that Bethlehem doesn't have a Barnes & Noble, so the event was actually in Easton — just a smidge east of Bethlehem, but distinctly less symbolic.
Palin's tour was announced on her prodigious and popular Facebook page, which lists a slew of events between now and Thanksgiving in service to Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. The wreath-fronted book is a 256-page tribute to Jesus being the reason for the season and combatting seasonal homogeneity, to fighting the commercialization of Christmas by selling books at $16 a pop. Tuesday was the first day it was available for sale, so I decided to follow the Republican star to Bethlehem to see a Christmas book be born.
Not primarily because I was interested in Sarah Palin, but because I wanted to meet the people that were similarly inspired to come. It's a good thing that the plan wasn't to ambush Palin for an interview. Perhaps given past problems, there is only one way to actually get to meet Sarah Palin. There is also only one way to get a picture of Sarah Palin. And there is only one thing you can get Sarah Palin to write in your book. In order:
To meet her: Get a bracelet marking your place in a long line snaking through the store and out onto the sidewalk. (Savvier attendees showed up first thing in the morning to get low-numbered bracelets.) Your ticket, of course, is the book, which you must buy and cannot buy more than four of.
For a picture: Get an officially sanctioned photo taken by Palin's photographer which you can then access online.
What you can get signed: "S. Palin," in green ink on the book's title page.
That's the complete menu. If you are a reporter who drove from New York who wants a picture of Palin signing books, there are barricades to prevent you from getting your picture. There are burly staffers who, no, won't make an exception for reporters who would like to get a picture and, no, won't take the reporter's camera and take a picture for them. To talk to Palin or even get a glimpse of Palin, you have to be willing to invest time and money in Palin. It is as efficient as a slaughterhouse: people are tagged and wend their way in, vanish from sight, and then reemerge — albeit in one piece and very happy.
The refrain from those who met Palin (who the Associated Press reports was wearing a custom sweatshirt telling readers that said "It's OK to wish me a Merry Christmas!") was this: She was so nice. She was so nice, Rob from Bethlehem told me. She was so nice, Dick and Mary Kay from a small town two-and-a-half hours away said. She was so nice, insisted a group of four women from Wyomissing (Ashley, Melissa, Courtney, and Debbie). "We were expecting her to be nice," one of them said, "but you just never know." Another: "I just didn't know she'd take so much time, because there were so many people." The first (maybe? I lost track): "Wanted to know our names." Another, talking over both: "Really personable." Two high school students in field hockey jackets said Palin was "very nice," and that the experience was "really neat." "She made it seem like it was an honor to meet you."
When people came out with their signed books, passing the line of people waiting outside on the cold sidewalk, the refrain shifted slightly: It's worth it. Dick and Mary Kay were telling me how they 1) were pleased that Todd Palin was there, too, 2) felt an "instant bond" with the former governor, and 3) told the Palins that they were taking a trip to Alaska on the strength of Sarah's TLC reality show. A man came walking out past us and the line. "It's worth it!," he yelled, and again, "It's worth it!" The line nodded appreciatively.
No one I spoke would have needed to be convinced. There was no indifference among those who turned up for the book-signing, which, of course not, why wait in line to meet Sarah Palin if you don't care about her. But this wasn't just fandom. It was respect and admiration. Multiple people told me that they wanted to meet Palin because she was an historical figure. "Who knows if you'll ever get to meet someone that made a run for the VP, this close and personal," one mother told me, explaining why she brought her 12- and 15-year-old daughters to the store. (Asked if they were excited to be there, the teens seemed sorrrrt of excited.) Everyone in line I spoke with was a Sarah Palin fan; everyone I spoke with had voted for her in 2008. What they appreciated most about the former governor varied: her faith, her conservative values, both. That she decided to come to Eastern Pennsylvania was not an opportunity to be missed. One family, a young mother and father and their toddler trumped us all for symbolism: they'd come to Bethlehem from nearby Nazareth.
The crowd was almost entirely white, which probably isn't much of a surprise, but otherwise fairly diverse. A broad range of ages, a broad range of (conservative) philosophies. Well-coiffed older women and their middle-aged daughters and guys in Giants gear. Kids in school clothes and Tea Partiers (like Dick and Mary Kay) wearing souvenirs from past rallies. Two men in ties that I spoke with had driven up from Philadelphia straight from work. Two older men told me that they were Reagan Democrats, lured into the Republican fold in 1980; others noted that they'd been Republicans their entire lives.
Not everyone in the store was there for the Palin event, though most clearly were. A store employee, who told me she wasn't supposed to be talking to me, said that the number of people buying non-Palin books was lower than normal, especially given the season. One family I ran into in the parking lot had come to the store to buy a book and for the kids to study. That wasn't possible.
Given that the event was held in a relatively small city in Pennsylvania that had been losing its population since the steel industry collapsed, there was an impressive representation of the governor's home state. Connor, a 13-year-old who was far less shy than his mother, was wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with "Alaska," which he got in Alaska on a trip. Connor is a "really big fan" of Sarah Palin, though he was only eight when she ran in 2008. Connor goes to "Corncob High," his middle school's nickname since it's located "right in the middle of a corn field" near Allentown. Connor's bracelet identified him as number 548, meaning he still had a wait in front of him before he got his book signed.
Ashleigh Strange was sitting by the coffee bar wearing a bright green Alaska T-shirt and no book-line bracelet. Ashleigh was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, and moved to Bethlehem only about four months ago. She voted in the 2008 election (for a third party) and happened to be present at the park where Palin resigned her governorship in 2009. When she saw a notice in the store last week about Palin's upcoming appearance, Ashleigh decided to swing by, since it's "been four months since I've seen another Alaskan."
Ashleigh, unlike the others there, wasn't in line with Palin's message. "You have a 'war on Christmas' almost the way you'd have a 'war on birthdays.' Everyone celebrates a different way." And she wasn't very excited about the re-born, post-governorship Palin. "She kind of dropped off the face of the Earth," Ashleigh said, "and I kind of stopped hearing about her." Palin "was a good governor when she was in Alaska — and then she left," Ashleigh said. "And now the public perception of her, through her own actions and SNL and that kind of thing kind of swayed public opinion and made her into a different person." (One couple in line joked that the person waiting to sign their books was actually Tina Fey. "It's a fake-out!")
Others had a different reaction to the media's treatment of Palin. One of the men in the ties suggested that Palin is "very polarized at this point," but that "in spite of the number of attacks against her, she keeps plugging away." I overheard another man, wearing a minister's collar, loudly telling a nearby group that the media "attacked her and not McCain."
(I also overheard a little girl who walked by a table covered with books and pointed one out to her mother. "Oh! Malala!," she said. "She was on TV. She got shot in the head or something, but she's okay.")
Near the help kiosk in the center of the store stood Lillian and Vince. Lillian is a tall African-American women with dreadlocks; Vince, slightly shorter and a bit gruff. The two hadn't seen each other in about a decade, after becoming friends as customers at the same Chinese take-out joint. But there they were, fake-fighting about politics in the Barnes and Noble.
Lillian is not a Palin fan. She was there out of curiosity, she told me. But, "like her or love her, she's still an historical political figure." Vince is a bigger fan — he planned to tell Palin that she "has beautiful eyes" — and identified himself as "more or less" a Tea Party supporter, because Tea Partiers are those who support the Constitution of the United States. This prompted a side argument between the two, in which Lillian pointed out that the Constitution itself took a little wrangling to ensure equal rights and Vince responded that it was Southern Democrats that opposed the Civil Rights Act.
Vince "supported Sarah but not McCain" in 2008 — though the pair got his vote. Lillian, though, voted for Barack Obama. "I had to vote for Barack," she said. "For the historical impact? My grandmother. I had to do it. You can say: Oh, you just voted for him because he's black? Yes! I did! You know why? Because history was flawed. And I had to make it right."
As I was talking to one couple, a man drove by in a pick-up truck. "I hope she runs again!" he yelled out the window. Some of those I spoke with shared that sentiment, adamantly offering their eternal support to Palin in any future political campaigns. But here's the thing: Most didn't. Some gave tepid support to the idea of backing Palin in 2016; as the mother of the two semi-excited teens told me, it would depend on her "values and viewpoint" having not changed. Connor, the kid in the Alaska sweatshirt, said he wasn't sure if he'd support Palin when he could vote someday, nor did the field hockey players. Some thought the toll from 2008 and ensuing critique made a Palin candidacy impossible. Dick and Mary Kay — the most stereotypically Tea Party types, who drove the six hours to D.C. for the "Restoring Honor" rally — said that they wouldn't back Palin against, say, Ted Cruz. "We gotta get the old farts out of there," Mary Kay said, taking care to point out that I could quote her on that. Palin didn't seem to be included in that descriptor, but the point was: fresh blood.
For the people I spoke with, Palin was no longer a politician. She was a communicator, a symbol of conservatism and Christian forthrightness and traditional values. Of the three or four people I asked, none could remember who they'd voted for in the 2012 Republican primary. Politics, for most of us most of the time, is a clunky, complex irrelevance. For many, it seemed, Palin had moved outside of that sphere into the realm of symbolism. They showed up to buy a book that hadn't been widely reviewed, that, for all they knew, contained nothing but blank pages. But its message and the name on the front were good enough. Buying the book and meeting Sarah Palin were reinforcements of a world view — central to who they are and what they believe.
When I said above that Palin didn't offer personalized signatures, that turned out not to be entirely true. As I stood outside of the bookstore talking to Rob ("I told her she's a young, female Reagan") a woman with him jumped in. "She personalized a book for my 90-year-old Aunt Marge," she said, "and that was very nice of her." Marge loves Sarah Palin, but didn't want to come because it was "too late" and there were "too many people." I asked if the woman was going to give the book to Marge now or wait for Christmas. "I was going to save it for Christmas," the woman responded, "but I'm going to get in my car and take it over to her now because ..." She took a breath. "She's 90. She's going to love it."
Inside, behind ad hoc walls emblazoned with the Barnes & Noble logo, out of the sight of everyone but those willing to commit to the relationship, Palin kept signing books. Or so I assume.