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Crashing Palinpalooza

How the Republicans' newest star is putting the "party" back in GOP.

It occurred to me as I slouched out of bed at 5:30 Wednesday morning that somewhere in the darkness, at a park in Northern Virginia, satellite trucks and camera crews were already setting up their equipment for the McCain-Palin event. The rally itself wouldn’t start for another four and a half hours, and the candidates themselves weren’t scheduled to appear until 11:00 a.m. But with the GOP’s newest star blowing through towns with all the force of a tropical storm, the media had been instructed to arrive early in preparation for the Fairfax stop of Palinpalooza ’08.

Sadly, my plan to arrive at 8:30--half an hour after the gates opened to the public--hit a snag when, a mile and a half out, the road leading to the event became a parking lot. Drivers trapped in the backup along Old Lee Highway watched in frustration as red-shirted pedestrians trudged past on both sides of the road, weighted down with umbrellas, bags, cups of coffee, and collapsible chairs. I inched along with the herd for 30 minutes, then turned down a side street in search of a back route. Finally, with a half-mile yet to go, I abandoned my minivan on some leafy residential block and began hoofing it. I was far from alone. On the sidewalk beside me, a line of people was forming. The line stretched up the street, around the corner, and on and on toward the park. I stopped to ask a young couple how long they had been waiting. “We’ve moved one driveway in the past 20 minutes,” the guy told me. But he didn’t look especially concerned or perturbed. No one did. It was 8:40. The candidates would not arrive for another two-and-a-half hours. The breeze was cool. The clouds were starting to clear. And the crowd was sprinkled with homemade signs bearing saucy slogans such as “2 Pitbulls, 1 with Lipstick,” “Sarah You Rock!” and, my favorite of the day, “Real Men Like Women Who Wear Lipstick.” Oh, sure, some people had come armed with more pointed slogans like “Drill, Baby, Drill” and “Cling to Guns and Religion.” But clearly far more folks were on hand to offer a warm embrace to McCain’s rabble-rousing new lieutenant. “Palin Power” was the message of the day

Inside the park, the Republican faithful were feeling feisty--especially the women. Rosemary Schulz, a 40-something brunette in a denim shorts-and-jacket ensemble, had spread a blanket on a grassy slope opposite the stage and was busy dishing out breakfast to her two tween sons. The wife of a retired Navy man and a committed Bush cheerleader even now (well, except for his lax immigration stance), Schulz would have voted Republican under any circumstances. But with Palin on board, she is flat-out fired up. “Sarah Palin put the buzz on the party ticket!” she cheered. Any of the other guys being talked about--even Lieberman, who she has a certain affection for--would have meant more of the same. But Palin, now she’s got sizzle. “Without her, we would not be having the kind of event we’re having here today,” said Schulz, gesturing around at the still growing throng. And it’s not just good news for this cycle, insisted her pal Jeannie Couch, seated comfortably in her folding chair at the edge of Schulz’s blanket. Palin will make a great top of the ticket in the future, she said. “She’d have no problem coming up against Hillary in 2012,” agreed Schulz with obvious relish. Couch could not have agreed more: “Sarah will show people what a real woman can do!”

As evidence of how Palin is inspiring the younger generation, Couch and Schulz pointed me down the hill toward a trio of 12-year-old girls who were standing in that self-conscious tween way, looking like freshly scrubbed refugees from a Jonas Brothers concert. That is, until you look closely at the girls’ black t-shirts, self-customized with a rainbow of neon puff paint: “McCain is Beast” read the front of each, with a helpful parenthetical explaining to the unhip that “beast” is slang for “awesome.” And across the back: “Palin is Tight.” The three friends had all taken the morning off from their 7th grade studies at Liberty Middle School to come cheer their new hero. Sophia Lee, the tallest of the group, with a brilliant, brace-clad smile, and long honey-colored tresses, proclaimed herself “so excited” to have a “really strong,” “fresh,” “pro-life” voice on the ticket. And, of course, as field hockey and lacrosse players themselves, the gal pals loved Palin’s whole hockey-mom shtick.

Squeezed up against the press pen were Lori Conklin (requisite red shirt, khakis, shoulder-length brown bob with bangs) and her daughter, a Kindergarten-aged pixie in a pink-and-green tiered skirt. The Conklin gals had gotten up at 4:30 to drive up from Charlottesville for the event, and Lori’s eyes looked a little tired behind her gold wire-rimmed glasses. Of all the people I spoke with, Conklin had the story that should perhaps most worry Democrats. Make no mistake: A native Texan, Conklin is a loyal Republican. She backed Bush in 2000 and has never much cared for McCain, though she would have held her nose and voted for him. But in the wake of the Palin pick, she is committed to actively fighting for the cause and had just signed up to volunteer for the campaign. She doesn’t agree with Palin on all the issues. (For instance, Conklin supports stem-cell research.) But she sees Palin as someone like her, someone who understands her life and her struggles. “She’s a mother of five,” marveled Conklin, herself a single mom working as an anesthesiologist and researcher at the University of Virginia. “I only have one, and I know how tired I am at the end of the day.” (Conklin adopted her daughter from the Republic of Georgia and is in the processing of adopting a second child from Armenia.) Also like Palin, Conklin hails from a tiny town in West Texas. (“We didn’t even have a McDonald’s,” she recalled.) And she admires that Palin “started small” and succeeded without riding anyone else’s coattails. “She is the epitome of the American success story in politics,” said Conklin.

And so it went. Woman after woman, girl after girl shared their excitement about Sarah Palin. Kristina Schnack Aotlus, director of children’s ministries for Del Ray United Methodist in Woodbridge, had gotten up at 6:30 to drop off her four- and two-year old sons before the event. “But I wanted to bring my daughter with me,” she explained, reaching to stroke the duck-fuzzy blonde head of the six-month-old harnessed snugly against mom’s pink t-shirt. “My husband is a Democrat, so talk around our dinner table has been exciting,” joked Aotlus. But even he’s excited by the Palin pick, she says. “And he thinks it was a good strategic pick to help get some of the straggling Hillary voters.”

Of course, it’s impossible to tell at an event such as this how successful Palin will be at wooing women beyond the base. The one Hillary-loyalist-turned-Palin-devotee on the program didn’t much impress the deep-red crowd. As she spoke of women’s rights and political sexism, a small clique of rallygoers stationed behind me turned nasty, screaming for the woman to “go home” and for someone to “get the hook” and yank her off the stage. It was not exactly a moment of bipartisan healing.

Then again, the Republican base wasn’t really in the market for bipartisanship. What it desperately needed was hope that the party has a shot at winning this thing. Palin has provided this in spades, and the base adores her for it. Now, as far as these people are concerned, McCain need not do anything else to prove himself. As good ol’ Fred Thompson told the crowd (in between cracking wise about Democrats’ penchant for “brie and Chablis”), “The selection of Sarah Palin says as much about John McCain as it does about Sarah Palin.”

Indeed, whatever Palin’s shortcomings, she seems to have achieved a fascinating political alchemy. With her quirky kin and her spirited tales of life lived on America’s last frontier, Palin has not simply energized her party, she has transformed its nominee from just another boring old white guy into a shining champion of women. As the rally’s first speaker, a small businesswoman from Richmond, told the crowd: “Both Obama and McCain had the chance to [inspire] our daughters and honor our mothers by asking a woman to serve as vice president of the United States. Once again, only John McCain delivered.” Similarly, Fred Thompson gushed about how John McCain stands for real change--“the kind of change personified in Sarah Palin, for example.” Then, pursuing a slightly darker path, Thompson bemoaned Palin’s man-handling by the other side: “This woman is undergoing the most vicious assault anyone has ever undergone in public life.” And, of course, the Hillary devotee was full of angry tales about how she had pleaded with the Obama people to put a woman on the ticket and been repeatedly, insultingly shot down. (Someone, she recalled, had laughed at her. Someone else had dismissed her ideas as “stupid.”) Forget what she’s done to/for McCain; Palin (with a little help from Hillary Clinton) has managed to get her entire party publicly obsessing about the mistreatment and unrealized potential of America’s women.

Cynical or not, the display is a sight to behold. And the passions being stirred among the GOP’s female groundtroops are certainly genuine. Now, win or lose, the big question going forward is whether the party is prepared to handle the genie that Palin has released.

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic.