Sarah Palin still exists.
I know. I was beginning to have my doubts, too. Once upon a time, Palin was everywhere. On Fox News. On reality TV. On the cover of Time. And Newsweek. And Time. And Newsweek. And Time, and Newsweek, and Newsweek again.
Now Palin is none of those places. For most of us, she is but a receding image in the rearview mirror of human history — a bit of trivia to be trotted out on a future episode of "Who Remembers the Aughties?" That meticulous chestnut coif. Those glinting, frameless glasses. That chirpy "you betcha" accent. The Mama Grizzly herself.
And yet, as I recently discovered — the hard way — Palin is still with us. By "with" I mean starring in a steady stream of shoestring videos on her own Internet television station. And by "us" I mean "anyone who is willing to send Sarah Palin $9.95 a month or $99.95 a year for the privilege of watching said videos." (Palin's fellow yesteryear conservative Glenn Beck also relies on a subscription-based channel to maintain — and monetize — his political celebrity.)
Curious? Of course you are. (You clicked on this story, didn't you?) The sad truth, however, is that in these tough economic times, many Americans don’t have as much money to spend on Sarah Palin videos as they once did.
So I've decided to help out.
Earlier this month, I subscribed to the Sarah Palin Channel. I entered my credit card info. I said au revoir to my $9.95. And then, in an effort to Understand What the Heck Is Going On With Sarah Palin Circa 2014, I proceeded to binge-watch every single video that America's Hockey Mom-in-Chief has posted since launching her site five weeks ago. All 77 of them.
It was an illuminating experience.
It's worth noting, before we dive in, that the Sarah Palin Channel — produced in partnership with Tapp, the Web TV venture headed by Jeff Gaspin, former chairman of NBCUniversal television, and Jon Klein, former president of CNN U.S. — is more than just videos. There's also a national debt ticker; a clock that counts down the seconds until Barack Obama leaves office; links to Palin's books; links to Bristol Palin's blog; an Image of the Day (an "Obamacare Death Panel" cartoon: "Let's start with jobs"); a Quote of the Day (Ronald Reagan: "The problem is not that people are taxed too little, the problem is that government spends too much"); and, finally, a Word of the Day selected by Palin's mother, Sally Heath ("perfunctory adj. Done routinely and with little interest or care").
But the videos, of course, are where the action is. Each clip features Palin responding to fans, giving viewers a "behind the scenes" look at her life, or holding forth on one subject or another: Labor Day, Mo'ne Davis, Mike Ditka, Richard Dawkins, James Foley, Rick Perry, World War I, Elizabeth Warren, Richard Nixon, "Duck Dynasty," and so on. The production is amateurish: handheld camera, reverberating audio, iMovie edits. The setting rarely strays from Palin's lakefront McMansion in Wasilla. The star relocates from her kitchen to her den to her living room, from her deck to her yard. Her outfits — pink fleece, furry white vest, red blazer, green Oscar the Grouch tee — cycle in and out. Her hair is up, then down, then up again. Sometimes she calls out to her husband, Todd, who responds from another room; sometimes her children can be seen watching Nick Jr. in the background. All in all, Palin seems less like a former GOP vice presidential nominee in the middle of making a television show than like a bored, slightly desperate housewife in the middle of making a vlog.
Lest anyone think that's a bad thing, however, let me be clear: It's not. It is, in fact, the most interesting thing about the Sarah Palin Channel. The more I watched, the more I began to realize that the real drama on display wasn't the clash between, say, Palin's bold frontier conservatism and Obama's so-called crypto-Muslim plot to fundamentally transform America. It was the battle taking place inside of Sarah Palin herself.
Call it the Tale of Two Palins. The first is the Palin that Palin thinks she's supposed to be. The Conservative Leader. The Christian Role Model. The Constitutional Scholar. The woman who once campaigned for the White House and feels compelled to weigh in on the Islamic State militants and Ukraine and the NSA because, who knows, she might run again someday. "I never believe in closing any doors," Palin declares when a subscriber asks about 2016. "I don't know what the future holds." This is who Palin's posse tells her she is — and who her fans want her to be.
And then there's the other Palin: the one Palin actually, you know, is. The one who isn't all that curious about world affairs. The one who's more interested in what's happening in Alaska than in the lower 48. The one who was propelled to political superstardom, before she was ready, by forces largely beyond her control. And the one who, deep down, in spite of all her bravado and bluster, still doesn't quite think she deserves all the attention.
The first Palin is the one the Sarah Palin Channel is designed to promote; the second Palin is the Palin who keeps peeking through, regardless.
When Palin tries to be the first Palin — especially in the early videos, before her handlers start scripting her remarks — she seems like a C student bluffing her way through an oral exam.
Here she is, for example, explaining why Billy Graham was such a pivotal figure in the history of American Christianity: "He could spread the world about" — wiggling a black Bible — "how important this is and how truuuuue this is. Simple message. And so, so passionate. He's great because he's passionate about what it is he does."
Here she is explaining how Obama has weakened America's standing in the world: "Now our enemies chide us, laugh at us, say they're going to come over and get us and kill our allies like Israel because we backtracked on that road that America had been known for and that was an appropriate superpower role that we had on the globe."
And here she is explaining how Congress should punish the president's misdeeds. "How do we send the message to Obama? We begin the process of impeachment, and once that message is sent that's a clear message to be received by his predecessors so that any future president will know that we're not going to put up with it."
In Palin's world, the 100th anniversary of World War I is called a "sentinel." Adolescence is described as a child's "formidable" years. After losing the 1960 presidential contest to John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon chose to "run again in '67 and '72." And even a scripted video, such as Palin's Conservative Response to Elizabeth Warren's Progressive Commandments, can dissipate into some pretty surreal word salad the second that Palin decides to ad-lib.
"We believe that fast-food workers deserve a livable wage," Warren says in a news clip.
Cut to Palin. "We believe ... wait, I thought ... fast-food joints?" she replies, veering off-script. "Don't you guys think they're of the devil or somethin'? That's why, liberals, you want to send those evil employees who work at a fast-food joint that you don't believe in ... thought you wanted to, I don't know, send 'em to purgatory or somethin', so they all go vegan. And wages and picket lines ... I don't know, they're not often discussed in purgatory, are they? I don't know. Why are you even worried about fast-food wages?"
Simplistic (or even nonsensical) policy pronouncements are nothing new for Palin. But the surprising thing about the Sarah Palin Channel is that it's not live TV; her people could've edited the unflattering stuff out. That they didn't is borderline self-sabotage, politically speaking.
And yet from a personal perspective it actually makes for pretty revealing viewing. In video after video, Palin comes off as insecure and even vulnerable — the opposite of the tough Mama Grizzly image she strives in public to maintain. Ultimately, this is a much more compelling Sarah Palin — the exposed, uncertain Palin that Palin can't help but be.
Recalling her famous 2008 convention speech, she admits that's she's never reviewed the tape. "I don't want to watch myself," she says, lowering her eyes. "I'm as annoyed with my shrilly voice as you guys are, believe me."
Later, Palin describes what has changed in her life in the last six years. "At the time, I carried three cellphones: two for work and one for personal," she says. "Now I only carry one." A glimmer of sadness — a dim awareness, perhaps, of how far she's drifted from the center of the political universe — flashes across her face.
When Palin paraphrases Nixon's farewell address — "The haters are gonna hate," as she puts it — she quickly apologizes for botching the language. Nixon "said it much more articulately," Palin adds. "Much more gracefully. Graciously."
"My garden is kind of pathetic," Palin confesses at one point. "Which is par for the course."
Complimenting Joan Rivers for her outspoken support of Israel, Palin can't help but self-deprecate. "No doubt [Rivers] is appalled by my style," she mutters. "Or lack thereof."
Gazing wistfully at a framed White House photo with Todd, President George W. Bush, and first lady Laura Bush, Palin begins to fantasize. Her ambitions aren't particularly lofty. "Someday, we may be back there," she whispers — "having dinner with another president."
Palin chokes up when she finds a letter that her son Track sent her before he shipped off to Iraq. "I don't care what the 'politicos' say," she insists, bucking herself up, "because I'm the mother of a combat vet."
Palin starts to cry when an admirer writes about a special-needs school in Wisconsin that might be "a future prospect" for her other son, Trig, who was born with Down syndrome. "He still doesn't eat a lot of solid food," she admits, sounding momentarily defeated. "He's the only kid in the world who hasn't had a Cheerio yet."
And in my favorite video, "Mom-in-Chief," Palin tries to interest Trig in "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish"; he slaps the book away and watches "SpongeBob" instead. Palin tries to convince her son to count and to identify the color of her fleece; he'd rather tap at his DVD player. This goes on for seven uneventful minutes: Palin tries to show us that she can mother the boy; Trig only occasionally responds.
No one can prove in a quick Web video that he or she is a good parent. But what's clear in the clip is that Palin really wants to prove it — just as any mom in her shoes would. I'm not cynical enough to scoff at that. In fact, I think it's pretty touching.
All politics is about acting, in a way: Every politician is playing a part. But the secret of Sarah Palin's appeal has never been the seamlessness of her public performances. The secret is that we could always see the seams; that we could always sense the person inside, struggling to fulfill the demands of a role she wasn't quite ready (or right) for. That's why certain voters identified so strongly with her even after she blew her big interviews with Katie Couric in 2008. "That would have happened to me, too," they told themselves. Or as one fan puts in on the Sarah Palin Channel, "She's all of us. She started out like anybody — and she turned herself into somebody."
And that's the strange magic of Palin's online video network. It's not that she has invented a new way to "shake it up and go around the mainstream media lapdogs," as she describes it, or even that we should now "expect to see future channels behind every major political figure (past, present and future) and major cause," which is media executive Howard Homonoff's take. The format works better for someone who's out of office than for someone who's aspiring to win office; I doubt that any rising stars will follow in Palin's footsteps. Still, it's a relief to see a former vice presidential candidate showing that she's as human as the rest of us (even when she thinks she's doing the opposite). Would I vote for Palin in a GOP primary? Probably not. But at least I know that she really exists — which is more than I can say for most politicians.