Watching Sarah Palin's new reality show Alaska is like listening to Sgt. Pepper. You want to play it again, slow it down and then try it backwards to find the "hidden" messages. For example, while attempting to flee a real mama-grizzly bear by boat, she says, "Of all times, we're snagged on a rock." Or did she say, "We're snagged on Iraq?"
As a broadcast journalist for three decades, I’ve been steeped in both raw politics and the image making that enhances it. I’ve produced countless interviews with presidents, their running mates, first ladies and political opponents. So I speak with some experience when I say last night's premiere of Palin’s TLC reality show was so full of subliminal communiques, you’d need a seance with Marshall McLuhan to decipher them all. But if I’m right that this medium is Sarah Palin’s message, it is truly a flash of political brilliance.
The brains behind Sarah Palin’s Alaska is not a Karl Rove or Roger Ailes, but the man about to become the new kingmaker in politics, reality-show mogul Mark Burnett. By combining all his greatest hits in one—Survivor, The Apprentice, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?—he is trying to quickly rebrand, reposition, even revise what you might think you know about Sarah.
For example, while flying in a private bush plane over some of the 600,000 glorious
square miles her state, Palin tells us “If you were to explore 1,000 acres every day, it would take you more than 900 years.” Ding, ding, ding: Sarah Palin is smarter than a fifth grader. It’s often that simple, especially since Palin was also smart enough to get final approval over everything that airs. Here are the top seven secret political messages in Alaska:
1. My campaign commercial is ready (and so is my close-up).
The three-minute introduction to the show already blows out Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” ad. You just need to add a catchy new line of track or two and shorten each shot as Sarah shoots a rifle, fishes with bears, kayaks, rock climbs on a mountain and makes cupcakes at home with her 9-year-old daughter, Piper. While driving a dog sled across the wilderness, her fur-trimmed parka so perfectly frames her face, she evokes Audrey Hepburn.
2. I have found the perfect running mate—Alaska.
Why not? If Time Magazine can have “the computer” as Person of the Year, why can’t Palin have her home state on the ticket, at least for now? Alaska, as seen through Burnett’s lens, is no longer a political stepchild, but now rather a magnificently chiseled, dignified, and welcome member of the family. When Palin stands atop a glacier and looks below at a bottomless crevasse, she signals that all who don’t respect her running mate could be destined for an eternity in an unmarked frozen grave.
3. Katie Couric can eat my reindeer meat!
“Having every word scrutinized, in some cases mocked ... we can handle this,” Palin assures us early on. After watching two bears fight over the salmon territory where the Palin family is fishing (for their dinner), we learn that 98 percent America’s grizzly population is in Alaska. The mama bear, coming uncomfortably close to Sarah and her little cubs, is a "brown bear, really," she says, self-correcting with ease. This time, Palin thwarts any "gotchas" from journalists.
4. I will never make the same mistake twice, and I have a gate in front of my daughter's bedroom to prove it.
Once the poster child for enabling teen pregnancy, Palin now personally chases a boy out of the bedroom of Bristol’s younger sister, Willow. First she warns the boy not to cross a gate at the foot of the stairs that is really in place to prevent little Trig from having an accident. But when she catches the teen sneaking upstairs, she phones her daughter and orders the boy out (firmly, but warm and without retribution).
5. I am motivated by all the right stuff.
As the extended “ordinary American” Palin family hits the road (in an RV worthy of Aerosmith), one is fascinated by the conversation she has with her father. “Dad, how come you didn’t ever climb Mount McKinley?” He tells his famous daughter how it’s one of his biggest regrets. His hidden message to Sarah: don’t ever pass up the chance to climb the biggest mountains in your life while you still can.
6. I am ready for Ahmadinejad.
Palin looks brave but measured, like the kind of commander in chief who could tackle the world's most dangerous leaders with her bare hands. In a rock climbing lesson, we learn her upper body strength come from from “doin’ boys push-ups.”
7. I have repented for my sins in politics.
We see Palin balancing her work and family, and we learn the little things, like how Piper gets her attention by calling her "Sarah"—not mom. But it is in the great outdoors where we witness a real confession. Sarah has just crossed Ruth Glacier, which totals 9,400 square miles, (200 square miles more than the state of New Hampshire), and she's immediately humbled by the majesty of Mount McKinley. As she begins her climb, tethered vertically to her guide at about 5,000 feet up, she exclaims, “I was so cocky. I’m being punished for it.”
As Sarah Palin continues her climb, her knees feel trapped, she doesn’t know how to maneuver. Somehow, she musters the strength to climb higher, helped by the coaching from her guide who acknowledges her “Alaska-girl grit.” He adds, “Good job, Sarah.” And great job, Mark Burnett, who mines one more nugget from his newest reality star who says it was tough, but, “It’s fun when you reach the goal.”
Seven more episodes to go! Will Sarah move from Alaska to Washington, D.C.? Will Mark Burnett feel torn if his Apprentice star throws his hat in the ring for president first? Will we viewers ever see a walrus? Goo goo g' joob. Stay tuned.
Ross is an award-winning broadcast journalist and author of “Fall From Grace: the History of Sex, Scandal and Corruption in American Politics from 1702 to the Present."