“You know, she definitely knows,” Bristol Palin said when asked if her mother had made up her mind about running for the highest office in the U.S. “We’ve talked about it before. Some things just need to stay in the family.” The daughter of Sarah Palin, former Alaska governor and possible U.S. presidential candidate, said this on Fox News, as part of a countrywide media tour to promote her book, Not Afraid of Life. It seemed appropriate somehow that she would say that only the decision to run for president was private and off-limits. Everything else with the Palin family is open to the public in a way we haven’t seen since English aristocratic families allowed tours of their houses. We’ve seen the Palins on reality shows, and in tabloids fluffy and ferocious alike, and soon they’ll be starring in the upcoming documentary The Undefeated, a film director Stephen K. Bannon created to defend Palin against her enemies. The Palin blitz even involves a case of duelling books: Bristol’s just-published memoir, in which she trashes her child’s father, Levi Johnston, will be followed in September by Johnston’s own book, Deer In the Headlights: My Life in Sarah Palin’s Crosshairs. Sarah Palin is famous for her dislike of what she calls the “lamestream media,” meaning every news outlet except Fox News. But when it comes to other types of media, she and her whole family have built up an empire that most political families can’t compete with.
No one knows if this kind of media attention will translate into a presidential campaign, particularly with recent polls showing President Barack Obama beating Palin even in her home state. It might not even matter. Sarah Palin is considered popular enough with ordinary Republican voters that she can still be a formidable presence in the nomination race if she chooses to enter. Still, some of her thunder has recently been stolen by Michele Bachmann, another former beauty contestant with ties to the Christian right. Though the Palin family seems to consider her an upstart (“I think she dresses a lot like my mom,” Bristol told Popeater.com), Bachmann is more popular with journalists, holds a full-time political job, and can recite political talking points more fluently. That loss of the spotlight may have made it harder for the Palins to sell books, the tool a political dynasty uses to promote itself. Jessica Lussenhop of Minneapolis City Pages reported that when Sarah and Bristol showed up in the heart of Bachmann’s native Minnesota to promote Bristol’s book, “one estimate put the number of autograph seekers at about 300 people,” and the autograph signing session ended “at least a half-hour early.”
But while others might beat the Palins at book sales, personal appearances, and other relics of a pre-Internet age, nobody seems to match them when it comes to popularity in the tabloids, and the tabloids’ beloved cousins, reality television. Other families, even more successful ones, don’t make news as often; George W. Bush’s daughters had some minor cult fame for alleged wild antics, but they weren’t covered very often, and tended to stay out of the media spotlight. But in the last year, it’s become almost impossible to escape the Palins. Magazines, websites and newspapers flog any mildly interesting Bristol quote as though she were someone of world consequence, like Kate Gosselin. The most popular excerpt had her describing the loss of her virginity to Levi Johnston, saying that he plied her with wine and that when she woke up the next morning, “I wondered why it was called ‘losing your virginity,’ because it felt more like it had been stolen.” Opponents of the Palins often focus on politics: after Johnston broke up with Bristol, he spent much of 2010 pitching a reality show where he would run for Sarah’s old job as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. But the actual Palins focus on sex and the travails of young women. And that’s what the tabloids like best.
Before Bristol entered the book market, she was also a part of her mother’s most aggressive attempt to enter the market for cheaply produced cable reality shows. Premiering in November, Sarah Palin’s Alaska looked at the Palin family hunting and fishing and otherwise being Alaskan. The show, which made Palin a reported $2 million according to Newsweek, was not only a glorification of Sarah Palin but of her husband, Todd, portraying him as an old-fashioned sort of manly man who would appeal to red-state viewers. (In a podcast for the show’s website, Palin’s father told the world that Todd is “the sort of son-in-law all men should have.”) It was part of an ongoing attempt to make Todd, as the head of the family, almost as important a figure as his wife, and it worked: Todd was reportedly ABC’s first choice for Dancing With the Stars (“I think that would have been a cool idea, too,” CNN reported Palin as saying) before they had to settle for Bristol.
Tabloids have made Todd Palin almost as important a character as his wife; the National Enquirer tried to claim that he had had an affair, and later made him the focal point of reports on the first screening of The Undefeated: “He hopes he never comes face to face with the stars who ripped her to shreds,” a source told the Enquirer. Newsweek, in a long and positive piece on Palin, got into the act by showing that both Todd’s wife and children defer to him: “You need to tell her that,” Sarah tells him about forbidding their daughter Piper to get a haircut, “she’ll obey you.”
All this has led conservative Palin fans to see supermarket magazines and reality shows as the family’s last refuge. In Primetime Propaganda, his recent lament about the liberalism of U.S. TV, the pundit Ben Shapiro makes a partial exception for reality as one of television’s more “conservative subsets.” Shapiro told Maclean’s that “it’s clear that reality TV has been kinder to Sarah Palin” than scripted TV, pointing out that the producer of Sarah Palin’s Alaska was reality mogul “Mark Burnett, the creator of Survivor.” The audience for shows like Alaska and Dancing With the Stars is older, on average, than those for most hit shows, and older people in the U.S. are often the most politically conservative. No wonder the Palin family is more comfortable with that format than with Sarah’s appearances on The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live.
The Palin expansion into TV is likely to continue, to the point that commentators have wondered if the political ambitions are a way to promote a TV career. According to People magazine, Bristol will team up with one of her Dancing With the Stars opponents, Kyle Massey, for a sort of spinoff: A&E has ordered 10 episodes of a show about Bristol and Kyle living in a house together. And just like The Undefeated and Sarah Palin’s Alaska, this show will go out of its way to be a hagiography; the episodes would also follow Bristol “as she works at a small charity” in Los Angeles. Other reality and tabloid stars are happy to be seen as monsters, like Jon & Kate or the Hills. The Palin family’s reality-show gimmick is that they’re always portrayed in the best possible light.
Even the outcasts from the Palin family seem to play into the family’s chosen self-image as salt-of-the-earth types. Johnston inadvertently did a service for the family when he denounced them to Vanity Fair, saying, “There wasn’t much parenting in that house. Sarah doesn’t cook, Todd doesn’t cook—the kids would do it all themselves.” Fans can look at these criticisms and conclude that they represent old-fashioned values, like forcing the kids to be self-reliant. Whether it’s true or not, the public reaction might be like that of Bryony Gordon in the Daily Telegraph who, after reading Bristol’s book, concluded that she is “refreshingly blunt and resolutely unimpressed by the flashy world of American politics.” Even Johnston got into the act when he was trying to sell his reality show, telling Variety that it would show him as “the real country boy that I am.”
There may be limits to how far the Palin media expansion can go, even among audiences that like down-home country people. As Claude Brodesser-Akner pointed out in New York magazine, The Undefeated (or a competing anti-Palin documentary being prepared by liberal filmmaker Nick Broomfield) may not do particularly well at the box office, because the audience for documentaries tends to be liberals. Trevor Drinkwater, the distributor, told Brodesser-Akner that he won’t even be sending the film to liberal cities and states, where moviegoers hate Palin so much “they might be reluctant to even spend money near her.” Even if that happens, though, the family is working on other ways to increase its commercial value. Late last month, both Sarah and Bristol Palin filed official applications to trademark their names, for the purpose of “motivational speaking services.” Sarah Palin may or may not become president, but she could become a guru. They’re much more popular than presidents anyway.