The XX Factor

Thank You, Sarah Palin

You have to love the Where’s Waldo coverage of Sarah Palin’s non-campaign bus tour, which has thus far taken her from Washington, D.C. to Virginia to Maryland to Pennsylvania, and is now heading toward New York, maybe, and then north …somewhere. Since Palin and her press shop won’t announce where she’s going in advance – her aides have suggested even they don’t know – we are treated to a rolling, tweeted adventure, filled with pictures of the back of Palin’s bus (there it goes!) and tales of reporters having to ” run across a boiling field to catch her.” This morning, says the New York Times , reporters and supporters surrounded Palin’s bus in a parking lot at her hotel in Gettysburg, after aides pulled it up to the back of the hotel as if to wait for her. Then the non-candidate snuck out the front to head for the Gettysburg battlefield.

“Palin just stopped 4 coffee in tiny Dillsburg, PA,” tweeted Time ’s Jay Newton-Small sometime later. “When asked why she snuck away this AM she said it’s not sneaking 2 just get in car & go.”

“Are you enjoying messing with our heads a little?” one reporter asked the former Alaska governor during an impromptu Q&A on Monday when reporters managed to catch her coming out of her hotel. Not at all, Palin replied. But in an interview with Fox’s Greta Van Susteren, to whom she did grant an actual interview, Palin said she wanted the media to “have to do a little bit of work,” and that sure, they might be “going crazy trying to figure out what we’re doing here,” but this would not, after all, be a traditional (non-) campaign. She would not tell the media “to come along and we’ll orchestrate this, we’ll script this and we’ll basically write a story for you.”

And for that, perhaps we should thank Sarah Palin. The funny thing is, the unconventional atmosphere of this bus tour, with its official lack of access and official lack of purpose , has yielded some interesting unscripted moments. We have little Piper Palin tugging on her mom’s arm during that impromptu Q&A, saying, “Mom, let’s go.” We have Todd, surrounded by reporters at that coffee shop in Dillsburg, calling the presidential race “a long ways away” (not really), and saying that he thinks the family has been tested and is ready, if his wife gives the go-ahead. It isn’t up to him, he says. We have Sarah’s mom Sally offering a reporter a taste of her strawberry milkshake. We have Palin actually talking policy, a little, saying she’s against energy subsidies. And we have yet another glimpse of how the former Republican vice-presidential nominee might run a campaign, on her terms this time – embracing spontaneity, making last-minute decisions herself, keeping all but those closest to her in the dark.

A constant refrain of modern presidential coverage is that everything is too tightly controlled these days, that schedules are managed and planned to the hilt, that reporters know precisely whose hands the candidate will shake, or what words the candidate will say, before any hands are shook or speech is made. To be sure, Palin’s tour isn’t thus far bringing us any terribly intimate glimpses of the woman. But she is returning an element of real surprise to the modern presidential campaign tour.

That is, if this were an actual campaign.