LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Sam's Club – the Walmart-owned megastore that sells almost everything in bulk – is hardly the epitome of glamour.
So where does a superstar like Sarah Palin set up shop to sign books here? Amid the pallets of canned green beans? Behind the sea of poinsettias? Near the crates of toilet paper? Palin's choice: In the back of the store behind the frozen-food freezers.
But her reception in Clinton – and Mike Huckabee – country was anything but chilly.
More than 500 people lined up on a cold night here to meet Palin, who signed her new book, "America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag,
" earlier in the day at a stop in Baton Rouge, La. Some arrived before 5 a.m. to get in line for one of the 500 coveted purple wristbands entitling the wearer to get two books signed and to meet Sarah. That's what her fans call her: "Sarah." Simply Sarah, as if she is a best friend.
Members of the media were scooped up, identified and herded away immediately upon their arrival to a spot near the throngs of Palinites, whose ages ranged from 5 to 85, with some in wheelchairs and many with canes. A media escort spilled to me that Tuesday's crowd was considerably smaller than Palin's previous one last December, when more than 1,500 people showed up in northwest Arkansas to brave frigid weather for a brush with Palin and a copy of "Going Rogue
Near the front door of Sam's Club, hundreds of copies of "America by Heart" were neatly stacked and adorned with $15.88 stickers. Before I could pick up a book, a media wrangler had corralled me into the snack area with other reporters. Polite but jittery, she repeatedly informed us that absolutely no questions could be asked of Palin. If anyone dared ask, they would be escorted out by security. She was adamant.
An elderly man wearing a purple wristband sat down with the media and handed the wrangler two copies each of "Blue Collar Christianity" and "Actions of the Early Church" by James F. Holmes
to give to Palin. The wrangler then escorted the first team of photographers back to Palin.
Ten minutes later, they emerged frustrated.
"You have to shoot through people standing in front of her," one photographer said, describing the area as the size of a phone booth behind black curtains.
The wrangler gathered up my group and escorted us past electronics, gigantic gun safes and boxes of enormous Christmas balls. "No questions," she reminded us, as if we could have forgotten. "Ten minutes is all you get. No questions."
In a line against a wall, fans waited with anticipation. They obediently shed coats and hoodies and placed them alongside their cameras and cell phones in rubber bins for security men who acted more like TSA agents than Sam's Club employees. No photos, no recordings of any kind. Period.
It was a vastly different scene than the one my WomanUp colleague, Joann Weiner, wrote about earlier in the day about former President Jimmy Carter's book signing in Washington
We entered through a small tunnel of black curtains and stood behind a red rope line. There was Palin -- sitting at a long table with a stack of books -- and her youngest daughter, Piper, standing next to her. An American flag hung behind her. The Christian books from the elderly man sat on a tall table in the corner. An oversized poster of Palin's book jacket leaned against it.
Palin wore a shiny black jacket with sleeves edged in sequins and a rhinestone American flag pin on the lapel. The former vice-presidential candidate smiled like a star as she scribbled "Sarah" -- no personal inscriptions -- in books. She wore her hair in her trademark upsweep, and a rose lipstick glossed her lips. Her nails sported a perfect French manicure.
In contrast, Piper's nails were bright red as she fanned a stack of bookmarks, which she never passed out. She wore a black coat and her hair was combed back in a ponytail. A man behind the media pen informed a fan that Willow, another Palin daughter
, was in the back.
A woman standing at the end of the table quickly stormed over and informed us that reporters were not supposed to be there. But the wrangler said it was fine. "No questions," the woman said. A few minutes later, she told us she was with HarperCollins, Palin's publishing company, and not Sam's Club.
Palin shook hands with each person and asked their names. She quickly kept the line moving with small talk and no mention of North Korea
or Barbara Bush
. Piper leaned in at one point and told her mother something in a bossy tone and pointed toward the back of the store. The little girl looked angry as Palin smiled at her.
A woman and her young daughter approached Palin and discussed home schooling. A little boy then shook Palin's hand.
"Study hard and read a lot of history," she told him.
Two 20-something women tried to contain their glee when they entered the small area. Smiles radiated across their faces. They shook Palin's hand, and she asked the one wearing scrubs if she were a nurse.
Before she could answer, reporters had to exit the area. The nurse, Susie Parkes, quickly followed with her sister, Katie, also a nurse.
"We're her No. 1 fans," Susie Parkes said, clutching her signed book. "We love her values and what she stands for and what she has done for our country."
Katie Parkes echoed her sister. "She is bringing back values we need in this country that we have somehow lost. She stands for family and working-class America."
"She said we had good hearts because we're nurses and thanked us for doing the jobs we're doing," Susie Parkes said.
On Wednesday, the sisters were upgrading their cable system for the sole reason of watching "Sarah Palin's Alaska
" on The Learning Channel. They said they would "absolutely" vote for her if she ran for president in 2012
As I left, people were still standing in the cold and dark to meet Palin. At a busy intersection near Sam's Club, one lonely protester stood holding a homemade sign that called Palin a quitter for resigning her Alaskan governor's position. Palin's handlers likely made sure she never saw the man.