Two of the leading conservatives of our times were in the forefront of the news this past week. One was the man for all seasons, conservative crusader and new media mogul Andrew Breitbart who, at 43, passed from this world much too soon. The other is the conservative political star Sarah Palin, who is featured in an awful and completely manipulated new liberal hit piece focused on her Vice Presidential campaign. Both are larger than life figures whom I do not claim to know but have had the pleasure of hanging around with for a brief, shining moment in time.
This past summer, I went to Pella, Iowa to assist in the premiere event for the Palin documentary, “The Undefeated.” The small, Midwest Dutch-German town and its old historic opera house had been chosen as an ideal spot to launch the acclaimed documentary film because it was just that: small and Midwestern. Some forty miles east of Des Moines, Pella is also over 1,000 miles from Washington, D.C. and New York and even farther from L.A. and San Francisco. When you visit Pella, words like heartland, friendly, homespun, simple, clean and safe come to mind, making it an ideal and comfortable setting for this uncomplicated, small-town girl to view a film about her own personal accomplishments – not such a comfortable prospect itself.
The event went off as scheduled, and the large and polite Iowa crowds gathered along the ropes to see the hope of a generation. As only Palin would, the former Governor did not just sign shirts and hats and smile for photos. Sarah from Alaska engaged each and every person who had stood patiently and politely for hours just to get a glimpse of her. She was not “working the crowd” for the photographers or as a cursory obligation; she was getting to know each and every person like they were her neighbors. I think that is how she feels when she is with a crowd of folks. She has known them all her life, and just because she is just now meeting them for the first time, that is no reason to be standoffish or in a hurry. Sarah Palin, the mom, the wife, the neighbor and the small-town girl, talked to each and every one in a real and personal way. She talked to the kids and would address the group, not just one representative. She would point out how she liked something they had on or the way they did their hair or a sign they had made for the day. She did the same with the adults, especially the women who obviously worshipped her. She was THEIR girl and she was just like them – cut from the same working-class cloth that is the fabric of our nation. They shared her spunk and tenacity as well as her good heart and motherly concern. She was their high school buddy, a pretty tomboy turned beautiful, a loving mom and wife turned warrior, an organic local activist turned political giant.
One pretty young girl along the ropes started crying when Palin approached her. Upon seeing her state, Palin said, “Are you okay?” The girl looked at Palin and said, “You changed my life.” Palin queried how, and the young college student began a story. “I was in my teens and I got pregnant and I was not going to keep the baby. I had nothing going for me, and then I saw you and how you handled Bristol and how you handled your Trig. It just made me realize it was going to be okay.” With the crowds tugging at her, Palin engaged woman-to-woman, mom-to-mom, friend-to-friend. At that point, Palin could have moved on, but she did not. She asked the young mom another most important, personal question, “How are you doing?” The girl said she was great and so proud that she was now in college and raising her baby and doing fine, and she was so proud of her accomplishments. Palin told her how great that was and there is nothing you can’t do, and they hugged and only then did a satisfied Sarah Palin move on.
I am sure it was not the first time any political figure had gotten in the weeds in a crowd, but as I stood close by for the three-hour marathon, I was impressed by how incredibly genuine and hopeful she was. Even when her body man, Todd, would whisper in her ear, “Honey, we have to move on,” Sarah would quietly turn and say, “I think we have a little more time,” and with that he would look at me and smile. It was not the first or last time he would hear this. And she would continue on until the sun set and every person who came to Pella that day got their moment with their friend who was running for nothing and asking for less.
Later that evening, after the crowd had dispersed, the national press folks still in town gathered with some of the film’s staff and a small group of conservative disciples in the hotel restaurant for a bite. A table of six turned to eight and twelve, as folks staggered in individually to find a family-like gathering that seemed a welcome sight to these homeless road warriors. The unlikely mix sat and ate and argued and laughed.
There was a major electronic media reporter, a young star correspondent, a political writer, radio host Tammy Bruce, and the grand master himself, Andrew Breitbart, to name a few. I sat back from the table a few feet and just listened to the discussions which were fast, furious, brilliant, broad, and deep. It was an amazing thing to be a part of, even if I was just an uninformed passer-by. The discussion went on for hours and with great engagement by all until the Palins joined us. Then, the conversation shifted entirely towards Palin and her political plans and importance. A great night had gotten better, if that was possible. Breitbart pontificated and jousted with Bruce and the press and the handlers. Palin would listen and weigh-in as all sat on edge hoping for THE declaration or even a wink and a nod, but it did not come. So without it, everyone would sound off again, Breitbart would go off in style, and round and round the conversation would go, to everyone’s delight.
After several hours (2:00 AM), the Palins decided it was time to retire, and the group began to dissipate. I turned to the young hotshot journalist and asked him, “Does this happen all the time on the campaign trail?” And he looked at me and said, “Does what happen all the time?” I said, “The politician you are covering and her disciples come down, hang out and just casually engage with you all?” He looked at me through his beer goggles and said, “This never happens… I have never seen this ever happen and you were just treated to a unique event that most of us will go a lifetime without being a part of.” I was stunned; it seemed so casual and fun and interesting that I just assumed it was how it always played out.
As we dispersed, Breitbart was still a man in full. We gathered his belongings and I gave him a three-minute ride to the roadside hotel while his stream of consciousness continued. We sat in the parking lot at 3:00 AM, as he continued until he either ran out of thoughts or had mercy on me. As we rode the elevator to our floor, he turned to me and said, “We should just get in the car and go to the airport now. I have an early flight and plenty of work to do between now and then.” That, I guess, is Andrew – a guy who has just one speed all the time: fast. I gently and desperately responded, “Andrew, go freshen up and lay down for a couple of hours and you will be glad you did.” He reluctantly agreed but mumbled something like, “I will just get some work done,” as he exited the compartment. As he powered down the hall, he yelled back, “Thanks and it was great to meet you; I love your brother,” as his motor began to rev up and tasks undone started to fill his mind. I just watched and smiled as he lumbered, reluctantly, into his cage. What a character and what a heck of a nice guy, I thought to myself, not really knowing that much about him. The next morning, I grabbed another film operative and headed for the Des Moines airport and a return to my incredibly regular life, not really understanding what exactly I had just been privy to.
Now, less than a year later as the Ides of March is upon us, I return to that amazing day last summer. I think back to that short moment in time that came and went so quickly but now with a very different perspective. It seemed so normal and unimportant at the time yet now, as the world has turned, I realize that it may have been much more than that. Was I an observer of the last supper of the conservative crusade? It all seemed so predetermined then in the summer of 2011. Palin would run and fight with Breitbart with the Knights of the Pella table charging boldly alongside. There was no doubt in my or anyone else’s mind, at that moment, that the fight was on. But, as we now know, it was not to be. But it was a beautiful thing to witness, and it gave me great hope for a nation I love and the country our kids deserve.
That night, in a little place known for windows and windmills, I witnessed two giants of a great American movement meet and ponder the fate and direction of a nation. The two brightest shooting stars of this generation who will never again be in the same room. And as that long summer night ended, and they said their kind goodbyes, they went their separate ways; but I knew they and we were all heading down the same path. A beautiful and rugged path that leads to a “Shining City on a Hill” that a wise old man spoke of not so long ago.
Godspeed, Andrew Breitbart, and God bless you, Sarah Palin.