Palin’s bus tour filled with short glimpses of history

June 1, 2011

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin’s bus tour of national historic sites this week has been more of a whirlwind of photo-ops than a deep dive into American history.

Palin skipped the slave quarters during a 45-minute tour of Mount Vernon, George Washington’s pastoral estate on the Potomac River. She spent 30 minutes studying the nation’s founding documents at the National Archives, less than an hour touring Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and only 20 minutes at Fort McHenry — not enough time even to enter the five-sided redoubt at the mouth of Baltimore Harbor.

Palin has billed her “One Nation” trip — on a bus festooned with images such as the Liberty Bell and the Constitution — as nothing more than a family vacation complete with kids, grandparents and many hours on Interstate 95.

But there has been nothing typical about this vacation, which has attracted endless national attention and ignited widespread speculation about whether the popular conservative is testing the waters for a presidential campaign. The trip is being paid for by the former vice presidential nominee’s political action committee, SarahPAC.

The bus tour has also required some planning and preparation by the historic sites that received her. Left as much in the dark about her itinerary as were the public and the media, officials with the National Park Service began preparing for a possible Palin visit when they began reading news reports about her planned bus tour.

“The side of her bus says ‘One Nation,’ and the ‘A’ in nation is the Liberty Bell, so that was a clue that we might be involved,” said David Barna, chief spokesman for the National Park Service. “We understood that she’s a private citizen and not a candidate for public office, but certainly she brings a crowd, and we didn’t know if she was going to put up a podium and do an event. And we couldn’t figure out how to get a hold of her.”

In the end, one of Barna’s colleagues called a reporter in search of a contact for Palin, to inquire as to where she might go and whether she planned to speak or required a permit. Palin’s folks explained that it was strictly a family tour and provided a list of possible stops, but some of them were not confirmed until just an hour or two before the bus rolled in.

For example, Palin aide Jason Recher showed up at Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia at about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday and promptly told spokeswoman Jane Cowley: “Well, you’ll be surprised to know that she’s going to be here in an hour and a half or two hours.” Cowley had already been warned by colleagues in Washington that such a call might come. She said Recher walked through the park with her to identify the sites she should see and the route that would give her the most privacy.

Although they haven’t asked for it, Palin and her family have received VIP treatment just about everywhere they’ve gone: a private guided tour of Mount Vernon, early admission into the National Archives, and private tours at all the federally managed National Park Service properties they’ve visited but one: the Statue of Liberty. They bypassed long lines and avoided crowded exhibit rooms.

Such treatment is not unusual when celebrities drop in on high-traffic tourist sites, officials at several of the attractions on Palin’s itinerary said.

“There were no special favors,” Barna said. “However, if Brad Pitt is coming to your park, it’s not unusual for us to set up an off-hours tour because a celebrity in the park disrupts the visits for the typical visitors who are there, brings a crowd, brings a lot of press. And although a lot of people find that fascinating and fun, we also get the feedback that, ‘Gee, the traffic was all held up because of that person.’ ”

Melissa Wood, a spokeswoman for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, said the Palins parked their bus in an administrative parking lot to avoid creating a scene, and they received a private tour of the house at a time when other time slots were intentionally left blank — so that the family could avoid the large crowds typical of the estate.

Wood said the Palins were not charged the usual fee — $15 for adult admission — because they essentially came in through the back door. But Palin spokesman Tim Crawford, who is the treasurer of her political action committee, said they did pay. “We are not asking for any special treatment,” Crawford said.

Jim Ireland, superintendent at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, said Palin’s Memorial Day visit caused minimal disruption, and most of that was caused by the swarm of media who came along to chronicle her trip. Ireland arranged for a ranger to give the Palins a private tour to keep the flow of visitors moving smoothly on one of the busiest holidays of the year.

“She pulled in a little after 2,” Ireland said. “She walked up to the fort. She stood outside the fort. She attracted a little attention from whoever was around. She got a few minutes of history on the War of 1812. Then she and her family walked down, went through the visitor’s center and back to the bus.”

That rapid-fire pace was repeated at many of the attractions the Palin family visited — another distinction from more typical family visits to historic sites that often recommend a full day or more to fully appreciate the offerings. Cowley at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, said two hours is the minimum she recommends, and only for tight schedules. “There are so many things to see,” she said. “There are different itineraries, for a few hours, a half a day, a day, a few days.” Palin’s 45-minute stop, she said, was a “brief” visit.

Palin took longer at two other stops — she walked Liberty Island on her own for more than two hours Wednesday and spent about three hours at Gettysburg on Tuesday.

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