‘The Sarah Palin I Know’

For more on Ziegler’s Palin-related experiences and to read his pre-emptive rebuttal of his critics, go to: www.TheSarahPalinIKnow.com

For many reasons, the first week of January 2009 was clearly the longest and most difficult of my life. By late Sunday morning, exhausted and now preparing to cross the country for my grandfather’s funeral, I staggered out of the shower and my then fiancée told me someone had called.

“Hi, John Ziegler, this is Governor Sarah Palin,” said the familiar voice on my phone message. There was a pause. “From Alaska,” she added. It’s typical of Sarah’s underappreciated sense of humor to pretend this needed to be clarified. “I just sat down and watched your movie about 9/11,” she went on, “and it’s unflippin’ believable”—”flippin'” is one of her favorite expressions—”I would like to talk with you about this next documentary. Could you give me a call?”

At this point, Sarah and I had met only once, but we were already developing a bizarre relationship. Over the almost three years that followed, we would often act like friends—while at other times she would act like she barely knew me.

However you’d describe our dealings with each other, though, one thing is undeniable: the most controversial figure in American politics ended up dominating my life in ways I could have never imagined, until I finally reached my breaking point, days before she made her way up the east coast on a bus, stopping along the way to have public pizza with Donald Trump. The whole strange spectacle made pretty much the entire planet conclude that she’s probably running for president.

Now, with Sarah’s bus tour of historic sites seemingly completed, and the biggest decision of her life directly in front of her, I wish her the best—I genuinely do. Without a doubt, she’s been subjected to the most biased media coverage in modern political history; enough to leave even the most thick-skinned of candidates shivering in the fetal position on the side of the road. Instead, she’s survived and, in many ways, prospered. For that, I will always respect and admire her. Everyone should.

However, what she appears to be currently doing is almost certainly destructive to her cause and her country. I say this as the guy who risked $300,000 of his life savings to produce the very first pro-Sarah documentary back in 2009 (and the only one with her participation), while putting everything on the line to fight countless battles on her behalf—such as demonstrating outside David Letterman’s studios in New York after the late night talk show host made a joke about 14-year-old Willow Palin getting “knocked up,” being dragged away in handcuffs from a laughable awards ceremony for the liberal ‘news’ anchor Katie Couric, getting regularly attacked as a guest by liberal hosts on MSNBC, and responding with $100,000 offers to charity to debate them on her behalf.

I’ve fought so hard for Sarah, I’m almost unemployable.

But in spite of being approached by Sarah’s husband Todd only a month ago and specifically discussing the possibility, I won’t be working on any Palin presidential campaign. Why? Well, first of all, contrary to what geniuses like Andrew Sullivan and Howard Dean may want you to believe, there is absolutely no way that she can be elected. I’ve told this to her directly; more than once. While many pundits mistakenly think what she is doing is some Trump-like PR stunt, I’m pretty convinced she is running and in doing so will damage the prospects of any conservative defeating Barack Obama in 2012.

These aren’t my only concerns.

There’s also the fact that Sarah’s entire operation is increasingly managed like a CIA field office; that she’s adopted a bunker mentality; that she’s trusting the wrong people, some of whom I know are simply exploiting her. As a result, even those most loyal to her get tossed under the bus, with little or no effort to avoid the collateral damage. Which raises the question: if people like me who would once have taken a bullet for Sarah (and at least figuratively I did many times) can’t get behind her any more, what the hell happened?

I first got to know Sarah one morning at her frozen lakeside home in the tiny, blue collar town of Wasilla, Alaska. This was January 2009, right after she and John McCain had lost the election to the most under-vetted and media-aided candidate in modern American history .

To me, as a political junkie, former talk-radio host, and film-maker (my documentaries include Blocking The Path to 9/11 about the infamously censored TV miniseries The Path to 9/11), the treatment she’d been given by the press bordered on a crime. Admittedly, Palin’s performance in the 2008 presidential campaign wasn’t perfect but it was far better than almost anyone else would have done under the circumstances. The almost comically negative image the media created for her was truly just that—a media creation. And while the major news networks goaded her and ridiculed her, Obama was praised and hyped and given a pass on nearly every issue. It drove me almost literally crazy. That’s why I decided to make a film to set the record straight: Media Malpractice: How Obama Got Elected and Palin Was Targeted.

Naturally, I asked Sarah if she wanted to appear, even though I knew it was more than a long shot. After the election, she was one of the most famous and fascinating people in the world, and every news outlet in the country wanted the historic post-result interview. Incredibly, though, her Alaskan state office said ‘yes’ only to my request. I was just beginning to recover from the shock when, two days later, her political staff shot down a separate request with a one-line e-mail, leaving me in an excruciating limbo of not knowing whether to believe the “yes” or the “no.” This would become all-too familiar feeling over the coming years. In the end, because she rightly felt so strongly about the subject matter, Sarah overruled advisers and personally intervened to save the interview. This was an act which bought her enormous loyalty from me and which over the past two and a half years was repaid to her with compound interest.

Our meeting was set for January 5, which meant only one possible obstacle stood in my way: the due date of Sarah’s pregnant teenage daughter, Bristol. In the end, baby Tripp arrived a week before my flight, so I went ahead and made my journey in a massive snow storm to what felt like the end of the earth, checking into my hotel in Wasilla at 3.30am. Two hours of sleep later—and with a debilitating head cold—I gathered my film crew, put on my boots and arctic jacket, and trudged over to the governor’s residence.

The entire Palin property was practically a block of ice. First thing I see: moose antlers hanging from a tree, with a sign nailed to the trunk saying, ‘The Palins.’ I felt like I’d walked into a Norman Rockwell painting. Bristol opens the door wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt, looking totally uninterested in what I’m doing there, as one would expect from an 18-year-old with a newborn. Little Trip is crying. The ‘First Dude’, Todd—a man of very few words, but a good guy, even though he looks like he could kick your ass—was in another room somewhere, looking after Trig, who famously suffers from Down Syndrome.

Then Sarah walks in to welcome us, like she’s late for a date—boots, jacket, black skirt, no make-up yet. She’s a beautiful woman, but frankly, I almost didn’t recognize her. Maybe it was the nerves.

The interview was spectacular. I defy anyone who buys into the conventional narrative that Sarah is stupid to listen to it and not change their mind. She was engaging, smart, honest, revealing, vulnerable, funny, and charismatic. When I showed her election footage that she’d never seen before and asked for her comments, she not once asked to pause the tape, and nailed every answer. At one point she came close to tears while watching Tina Fey mocking Bristol’s pregnancy. It remains the only in-depth interview she’s ever given on the subject of the 2008 election.

Perhaps the most revealing moments came when we were talking for quite awhile after the cameras stopped rolling. I’d noticed that Piper, the Palins’ second youngest, was a huge fan of the Disney show Hannah Montana. I happen to know the head writer on the show (a die-hard Democrat, incidentally), so I offered to get Piper some signed memorabilia—and I was floored by Sarah’s response.

“Oh my gosh,” she said, her face lighting up. “Y’know, all of this will have been worthwhile, if Piper can just get one good thing out of it.” It was heartbreaking for me, because it was obvious Sarah knew what she’d put her family through, and you could tell that she wanted desperately to make up for it. Later, Sarah told me that Piper had been a hit at her cousin’s birthday party thanks to the stuff I sent her, though thankfully that I am sure that small gesture has long ago been dwarfed by all the cool things that have happened for her since.