Jim Palin met both me and calamari for the first time at lunch last month at Evangelo’s, the best Italian restaurant in Wasilla, Alaska. Jim Palin, Todd’s father, has been hunting and fishing in his state for almost 50 years, but somehow he had never crossed paths with a squid, alive or fried. As for reporters from the “lamestream media,” he had met a few, but had never actually sat down to break bread with one before.
I had come to lunch hoping to learn a little about Jim’s elusive son, Todd—a figure of enduring fascination who just might, if Sarah Palin decides to make a presidential run, become the country’s first first husband.
Jim Palin, retired general manager of the local electric company and a Phil Donahue look-alike, talks about how Todd won Alaska’s Iron Dog snowmobile race four times—making him a legendary local badass. We talk about his son’s basketball prowess—Todd was a star on the boys’ varsity in Wasilla, and played for Missouri Valley College—and how he would fare in a one-on-one matchup with the president. “Up against Obama?” Jim’s blue eyes sparkled behind his bifocals. “Interesting question. Let’s just say that Todd would handle himself pretty well.” What Jim doesn’t much want to discuss is Sarah’s political career. He says that he will, of course, support Sarah if she runs. But I got the distinct impression he believes she won’t. Todd’s close friends are hoping, for his sake, that she doesn’t.
When Sarah was tapped as John McCain’s running mate, Todd dutifully hit the campaign trail on her behalf, but he was so out of his element that he asked his friend Martin Buser to join him. Buser is another legendary Alaskan racer, a four-time winner of the Iditarod, which is the Iron Dog with real dogs. “Todd wanted somebody around who’s had a blister before,” Buser told me. “We met a lot of important people, but it takes somebody real accomplished to impress a guy like Todd, an athlete at the top of his game who has won so often on his own terms.”
Buser has known both Palins for years. “Todd is Sarah’s chief of staff and her entourage,” he said. And her gatekeeper. “People who live remote are trained watchers and listeners. You have to know who you are dealing with because survival may depend on it.”
Buser is a Palin supporter, but he isn’t sure the White House would be a good domicile for his friend Todd. “He’s secure enough to have a successful woman; he’d be fine with the limelight Sarah would get as president. But would he suffer, shut up indoors at the White House? Absolutely he would.”
As we were walking out of Evangelo’s, Jim Palin suddenly said, “How would you like to see Todd and Sarah’s place?” It took us about five minutes to drive the length of Wasilla to the Palin compound on Lake Lucille. On the way we passed several posters reading, “Dance, Bristol, Dance.”
We turned off the main highway onto a dirt road and came to an electric gate and an unoccupied sentry box. Jim walked around the gate onto the property, which is unfenced. “All this is to keep folks from driving up to the front door,” he explained.
The Palins’ yard is strewn with five snowmobiles, half a dozen dusty trucks, several small aluminum boats, a couple of airplane floats, a trampoline, and a little plastic basketball hoop. For 18 years, Todd Palin worked as a “wrench” on two-week shifts for BP on the North Slope. He spent six weeks every summer pulling salmon out of nets in Dillingham. That, along with his racing purses and endorsements, and Sarah’s salary as mayor and then governor, made the Palins relatively prosperous. But since 2008, they have become plain rich from Sarah’s books, lectures, TV series, and Fox News contract.
Jim called out, but there was no one home. (Both Todd and Sarah had made it clear they didn’t want to talk to me.) The simple five-bedroom house Todd built is a now a two-building compound—one for him, one for her, reflecting their differing tastes and ambitions. We opened the door to Todd’s annex, revealing a hangar as big as a professional basketball court. “Todd’s plane isn’t here,” Jim said. “He must be out flying it somewhere.” We walked upstairs to Sarah’s domain, a luxe office/studio with a podium framed by a view of Lake Lucille and a professional television camera aimed in its direction. “Sarah makes her broadcasts from here,” Jim said. “That big satellite dish you saw in the yard was installed by Fox News.”
“Does Todd help Sarah prepare her speeches and critique her performances?” I asked Jim later in an email. “He helps her prepare,” he replied, “but he doesn’t critique.”