In general, whenever Sarah Palin arrives anywhere, people know her. That hair, that voice, those glasses. She is instantly recognizable and instantly polarizing. People say that she is their hero or that they detest her.
Except this morning, at the Statue of Liberty.
"There was a bit of a controversy around her, I think," says Gill Badger, visiting with her husband and son from Stratford-on-Avon in England. "Can't remember what it was."
"Who's Sarah Palin?" asks her son, Tom, 23.
"We'll tell you later," says Gill's husband, Terry.
"I've heard of Michael Palin," Tom says.
Of all the places where Sarah Palin—former governor of Alaska, former Republican vice-presidential nominee, possible presidential hopeful—might find a natural constituency, New York City's Liberty Island is not one. It is filled with tourists from other countries—Italians who don't speak English, people in weird clothes who must surely be German—many of whom bought their ferry tickets long before Palin's current bus tour got under way.
That tour, which Palin is calling a family vacation (although it looks unmistakably like a campaign swing), has thus far taken her to historical sites along the East Coast where actual voters might be. But this stop, perhaps more than any of the other sites the Palins have hit so far, calls into particularly sharp relief the weirdness of this whole exercise. Unlike, say, the nation's capital, which Palin visited over the weekend, or New Hampshire, where she may head later, not even the Americans at Liberty Island were necessarily interested in politics, let alone in Sarah Palin.
You know, Sarah Palin. She ran with John McCain, on the presidential ticket? "Oh, that's who that is," says a fellow who does maintenance for the National Park Service who was sitting around holding a broom in the wake of Palin's entourage.
"I watched that one show of hers," says Dena Leech, 18, who is visiting from Worthington, Minn., on a senior year trip.
But the reporters care. They have been showing up at her various stops in droves, despite the fact that to do so, they've had to scramble at the last minute, since Palin's noncampaign won't put out a schedule, and despite the fact that a few of them might just have the tiniest misgivings about whether this is really news, and about whether they should allow themselves to be played so masterfully by Palin's you-can't-catch-me media strategy. But never mind that. The reporters cluster around Palin as soon as she steps off the ferry onto the island, accompanied by her parents, her 10-year-old daughter, Piper, and some staffers. She wears a black suit jacket, an American flag bracelet, and a chunky Star of David around her neck. She takes questions as she walks toward the Statue of Liberty.
She is asked about her dinner last night with Donald Trump and whether it influenced her thoughts on running. "You know, we didn't talk too much about ourselves," she says. She is asked about the bus tour so far and whether it has influenced her thoughts on running. "Oh, man, it makes me want to get out all across the U.S.," she says. This reporter asks whether she expected all the publicity around her trip. "No! No, no. And I do have to apologize to other tourists," she says. "We show up and kinda create some chaos."
And not just chaos, but bewilderment, particularly for the international tourists. "What actual position does she hold?" asks Kim Carpenter, 48, of Surrey, England. "Is she vice president?"
Of course, most people don't announce their family vacations on the websites of their political action committees or use said vacations to raise political funds. Nor do they have Sarah's most curious habit of dropping hints to reporters about where she's headed next. (Coming up: Boston and the Freedom Trail.) Certainly, a whole bunch of reporters know about her trip to Liberty Island in advance. Perhaps it's not so much that she doesn't want media attention as that she likes to see the press really hustle for it.
"It's like a scavenger hunt," one reporter says.
Palin goes up the Statue of Liberty. She comes back down.
The entourage proceeds back to the ferry, again surrounded by reporters. Perhaps because this is ostensibly a family vacation, a tour of the nation's important historical sights, Palin bristles when someone asks her how much her bus tour has cost so far. "I wonder why in the world you would ask a question like that for," Palin says, "when we're out here talking about America and our foundation and our freedoms and our opportunity?"
A high-school band visiting from Illinois starts playing the national anthem and Palin freezes, her hand on her heart, her face in a smile.
The song ends. She walks on.
"What did you think, Piper, what did you take away from that?" Palin asks. Piper wears a Snoopy T-shirt and pink running shorts. There are cameras in her face. She says nothing, or at least nothing audible.
Palin leans in, coaxing her: "What does it represent? Freedom, friendship between countries …"
By now, a crowd has gathered near the ferry, and they definitely know who Sarah Palin is. "You're my hero!" someone screams. Someone else shouts, "Go home to Alaska!"
Maybe it doesn't matter what the crowd thinks of Sarah Palin. They aren't the intended audience, any more than the English tourists are. All that matters is the image of Palin that will run on TV, smiling, with her hand over her heart.