On Saturday, Sept. 6, Drew Griffin, a correspondent for CNN, arrived with his camera crew at the home of Chuck Heath, the father of Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin.
Mr. Griffin was there for an interview. He had landed in Wasilla, Alaska, three days earlier, fresh off the Hurricane Gustav story, and was now charged with reporting on the life of the charismatic Alaska governor for a CNN documentary to be called Sarah Palin Revealed. There, alongside the driveway of Alaska’s first dad, Mr. Griffin saw something he’d never seen before: A 15-foot tower of stacked moose antlers. Holy Alaska!
Ms. Palin’s father turned out to be a gracious host (offering his guests caribou sausage) and entertaining interview subject. Eventually, the former science teacher and track coach took Mr. Griffin on a tour. At one point, they stood gazing at the found-antler installation in the yard as Mr. Heath explained how you differentiate between antlers from a moose killed by wolves versus antlers from a moose killed by an avalanche. “It was like being on a tour of a natural history museum,” Mr. Griffin recently recalled to The Observer.
The hourlong documentary about Ms. Palin’s life debuted on CNN on the night of Saturday, Sept. 13, along with Joe Biden Revealed, about the life of the Democrat’s vice presidential candidate. Ultimately both documentaries put up big numbers for CNN on Saturday night. But according to Mark Nelson, CNN’s documentary chief, it was Mr. McCain’s choice of Ms. Palin as his running mate that had thrown the twin biographies into fast-forward production.
“Details are everything,” Mr. Nelson said. In the end, the Palin pic was rich with them. There was footage of Ms. Palin’s high-school basketball heroics; interviews with her friends at a gun range; chilling voice-overs (“Sarah bagged her first rabbit at age 10”); a candid interview with one of Ms. Palin’s vanquished political rivals in Wasilla; a sit-down interview with the bad-boy ex-brother-in-law at the heart of the so-called Trooper Gate scandal; and a memorable shot of a crib resting near the governor’s desk.
Somewhere along the way, the leaning tower of moose antlers lost out in the avalanche of vivid imagery. “There was no shortage of color,” said Mr. Griffin.
That’s an understatement. Typically, the translation of politics onto television is visually pedestrian. (1) Buy table. (2) Hire talking heads. If you happen to come across anything vaguely resembling outsider antler art, you use it. After all, the lives of politicians—from the backroom deal-making to the vetting of candidates to the tending of constituent services—do not always make for the most aesthetically riveting TV.
Since the dawn of television, however, some campaigns have done vastly better than others at mastering the all-important art of creating entertaining small-screen versions of their candidates. For much of this year, Senator Barack Obama has played the game at a high level, seen alternately energizing stadium crowds and burying three-pointers on the basketball court. His opponent Senator John McCain, on the other hand, has struggled, rivaling at times Michael Dukakis’ ill-fated tank-and-helmet moment for imagery ineptitude (see, Mr. McCain and George H. W. Bush in a golf cart in Kennebunkport).
But to judge by her first two weeks on the national stage, Ms. Palin’s TV-ready story line trumps all. Her clan of snowmobile-straddling kinfolk seem straight from central casting—their lives an aesthetic mix that is one part National Geographic, one part Hallmark Channel and one part those ads you see during football season, in which crews of hard-hat wearing dudes test their pickup trucks with over-the-top experiments carried out on the edges of cliffs.
Michael Rovito, a reporter with the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, has watched downtown Wasilla turn into a scene straight out of State and Main in recent weeks. Camera crews from all over the world—France and Italy, Norway and Spain—have reportedly descended on the town. Mr. Rovito watched Ms. Palin’s big coming-out speech at the Republican National Convention from Tailgaters, a bar in downtown Wasilla. “There were almost as many cameras there as people,” Mr. Rovito told the Observer.
On the morning of Sept. 14, during a Sunday morning Palin-palooza, George Will sized up the made-for-TV story line thusly: “We had the tech bubble. The housing bubble. Now we have the Palin bubble. Sooner or later bubbles do what bubbles do. But not yet. This is still going strong.” And for the time being, it remains a seller’s market. (A few days after Mr. Will’s assessment, CBS News announced that Katie Couric had landed the second broadcast-news interview with the in-demand governor.).
Follow Felix Gillette via RSS.