Boy, am I wrong! As I pull into the parking lot at dawn, women are already wrapped single file around the drab cement storefront; there’s a police car parked nearby to manage the crowd and, later, the handful of protesters. In line are women of all ages—great-grandmothers through tweens—most wearing red Cornhuskers sweatshirts under their coats and clutching Palin’s hardcover book to their chests. Some have come from as far away as Colorado and South Dakota and have camped out all night, huddling in lawn chairs under blankets that do little to guard against 20-degree temperatures. The only bathroom is at the Sonic Drive-In at the other end of the parking lot.
The scene reminds me of those days toward the end of my senior year in high school when my friends and I ditched class to camp out overnight three times for the re-release of the Star Wars series. Like our ridiculously long wait for Han Solo, this one seems sort of, well, fun. The women have called it Sarah Saturday on their Facebook status updates. Teenage employees of the store bark instructions to the yawning devotees: “Make sure the jacket is adjusted so the book opens to the title page.” This will speed things up for Palin, who has to hop along to Iowa later.
No one argues or complains that the store won’t let anyone in early. Instead, people are laughing and singing—Christmas carols, “The Star-Spangled Banner” and sometimes Shania Twain. The mood is like that of the voters who swarmed the Obama rallies I covered in 2008: jubilant. Many say they have never cared much about politics but have driven hundreds of miles, some with grandchildren in tow, just to be part of history. People bond as they compare methods of keeping warm and try to decide absolutely for certain who got there first—a prize that goes to Christine Boone, a 44-year-old homemaker from Plainview who made the local news by arriving at 9:30 the night before. When we talk, Boone emphasizes her belief that Palin relates to her struggle as a homemaker with an 11-year-old son. “She knows what we are going through,” Boone says as she collects hugs and the names of new Facebook friends. With hours of waiting still ahead of her, Boone tells me she plans to create a shadow box to display the new signed book, along with her ticket (which indicates her spot at the front of the line) and her well-thumbed -copy of Palin’s first book.
A few hundred people back stands Bernice Archer, a convenience store owner who passes the time by gabbing with her husband and friends. I ask her about Palin’s place in the Republican Party, and Archer cheerfully lifts her pink hooded sweatshirt to reveal a PALIN 2012 T-shirt. Archer says she bought two of them, the one she’s wearing and one for her husband’s father, “a huge Palin fan” who died recently. “It’s in his casket,” she says. Palin inspired her to start listening closely to what politicians say, and when Glenn Beck held his rally on the National Mall in September 2009, Archer felt it was time to “get off the couch and do something.”
Palin is touching down for only three hours, but the local paper has been hyping the event for more than a week, saying she “might just be more popular than Santa.” Palin is “like us,” women in the crowd tell me, an “everywoman,” “down-to-earth,” “relatable” and, most often, “real.” As one woman puts it, Palin has become the “validator-in-chief” for women with Republican leanings, spurring them to get excited about politics.
Mary Ann Herian, standing -midway in the line, is alone but making friends; she’s a great-grandmother, breast--cancer survivor and lifelong Democrat who thinks the rich should pay higher taxes. For her, Palin serves as a “light in the darkness” who can guide other women to power. “I can only hope that she will lead the way to get more women in politics,” Herian says, adding that showing up at this signing is her way to defy friends and family who mock her appreciation for Palin. “I would stand beside her to show them I can vote for who I want in America.”