It was a lovefest.
Former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin descended on Billings and left no book unsigned Tuesday during a 21/2-hour blitz of Borders bookstore.
The conservative celeb did not address the crowd of several hundred people and did not take media questions, but she signed copies of her new memoir, “Going Rogue,” with a blistering proficiency that would have left Henry Ford breathless.
“So nice to meet you. Thanks for coming,” said Palin, shaking the hand of a young father with a toddler on his hip, followed by a petite older woman dressed as if she were headed to Christmas Mass, followed by a barrel-chested man in Carhartt bib overalls. The fans kept coming two books at a time. Palin kept signing.
She looked each person in the eye, flashed her supercharged smile and almost simultaneously penned a big, loopy signature with a red Sharpie on the inside cover of each book before passing the customers on to her husband, Todd. Each transaction lasted three to four seconds. Borders officials said that for security reasons they couldn’t reveal how many people were given access to Palin.
Baby Trig was in the house, and word quickly spread that Palin’s parents, Chuck and Sally Heath, would be working the waiting line, which snaked through almost every section of the store before disappearing behind a maroon curtain in the literature section, where Palin worked her blue-collar magic.
“I just told her that she was an inspiration for many of the women in my family,” said Gary Drake, director of the Montana Rescue Mission. In his hand, he held an autographed copy of “Going Rogue” for his wife.
Drake was contacted before the event by a local businessman who was lining up people to greet Palin as she walked off the bus. She knew enough about him when they met to thank him for providing shelter, hot meals, basic clothing and spiritual guidance to people in need.
Another VIP, John Etchart of Helena, emerged from the signing sanctum with a stack of Palin’s bestseller, one for each member of his immediate family.
“Our daughter, Jeannie Etchart, worked for Gov. Palin throughout the campaign,” Etchart said.
Palin was even kind enough to include a mention of the Helena woman in her book, for which John Etchart gave her a little friendly ribbing Tuesday. Page 248 of “Going Rogue” identifies Jeannie Etchart as a campaign worker from Minnesota, not Montana. Etchart’s parents and grandparents emerged from the book signing elated nonetheless.
The former vice presidential candidate couldn’t have asked for a friendlier venue. Yellowstone County voters turned out strong for John McCain and Sarah Palin in the last presidential election, giving the Republicans 51.2 percent of the local vote, compared to Obama’s 45 percent. Other than a brief refueling stop in Great Falls during the 2008 election, Tuesday’s visit was Palin’s first to the state. She didn’t leave the plane in Great Falls last year.
A Gallup poll released Monday placed Palin’s national approval rating at 46 percent, much better than the 39 percent rating she received in July after resigning her post as Alaska governor in midterm.
No one balked at surrendering their cameras, cellular phones and other belongings to young Borders staff members who stuffed everything from clothing to baby car seats into cardboard boxes. For security and publicity reasons, there was a long list of items not allowed into the signing area. No one walked out the other end of the curtain with a surprise memento, just signed books and coat checks.
The chance to shake Palin’s hand and get her autograph was worth risking frostbite for fans like Peggy and Tiffany Lebrun, who waited outside Borders all night in subzero temperatures with hundreds of others for an admission wristband.
“They said I was person No. 25,” said Peggy Lebrun, who arrived at Borders at 10 p.m. Monday. Standing near the front of the entrance to the Palin signing area shortly before noon, Lebrun still wore her insulated overalls from the night before.
Tiffany Lebrun said they made it through the night with the help of employees from World Market who catered free hot coffee and cookies to the ticket line. The International House of Pancakes also worked the line through the night selling beverages.
The Lebruns took turns sitting in their warm truck, which was parked nearby. Also in line were people from as far away as Bismarck, N.D., Malta and Wyoming.
More than 13 hours later, they were standing at the front of the line as a small group of women standing in the travel books section began softly singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The people around them quickly joined and soon the chorus was several hundred bystanders strong.
Out came the cell phone cameras and point-and-shoots, with lenses aimed at the store’s back exit where, based on the concentration of security, it was a safe bet Palin would appear. But it was a false alarm.
The crowd then launched into “God Bless America.” But the slow songs of the Republic were quickly replaced by up-tempo store Christmas music as the author arrived and got down to business.
Signing-event organizers handed out overflow wristbands to people who didn’t get to the event soon enough for guaranteed access. Borders guaranteed latecomers at least a large sticker signed by an autograph machine loaded with the celebrity’s signature.
Billings wasn’t Palin’s only stop of the day. She left the store around 2:30 p.m. to travel by private jet to Colorado Springs, Colo., where 1,000 people were expected for a 7 p.m. book signing at a Borders Books there.
According to the Colorado Springs Gazette, a red-coated Palin impersonator entertained people there lined up for wristbands while Billings got the real thing.