“Give Me Your Heart, make it real or else forget about it…”

Festooned with “Fire Pelosi” and “Listen To Me” posters and banners, and the phat sounds of a good old boys band — This Magic Moment, Smooth (Give Me Your Heart, Make It Real) — bouncing off the walls, the Cypress Room of the Marriott World Centre, Orlando, was on fire. Before a stage filling with Florida dignitaries and candidates glad-handing each other, a crowd of 500 or so were milling around, admiring each others’ gloriously whacky get-up.

Mere patriotism didn’t make the grade here. A stars and stripes shirt was par for the course. Stars and stripes and a screaming eagle across your left nipple, that was getting there. But to stand out, you really needed the full get-up — screaming eagle shirt, shoulder bag with the Declaration of Independence dyed in, foam statue of liberty halo, with a flag stuck out the back of it.

A slogan helped. “Jesus, if you’re coming back could you bring Ronald Reagan?” was my favourite. Everyone I could see was white, oldish and sprawling, except the liveried staff darting about, young and thin and brown. There were going to be speeches soon, from every local gomer, but the crowd was here for one reason only. Palin, the divine Sarah, making her final appearance of the campaign, a week out from the vote, preserving her mystery to the last. In true Republican style, this was somewhere between a rally and a fundraiser.

Everyone here in the bullpen had paid twenty bucks to get in. Those sitting in a roped-off area to one side had shelled out a coupla hundred. Somewhere at the front, there were a dozen or so people who’d paid nine hundred and fifty dollars, for the privilege of a photo with the woman herself afterwards. They waved balloons and flags and ate ice-cream. They looked like they were having a pretty good time. The band wound up Old Time Rock n Roll with a flourish.

“Now here’s something you’re going to love,” the lead guitarist said, the drummer began a cymbal wash, and the singer leant in to start: “I see trees of green….”, he croaked, in pure satchmo imitation. Yeah, they loved that. A cheer went up. None of that Give Me Your Heart punk shit. Real music, and a white guy imitating a black guy, and nothing anyone can say about it. Doesn’t get any better than that. Where’s that ice-cream?

Palin’s appearance here was capping off the penultimate week of the campaign, and she had nothing further scheduled. Despite all the hoopla, to use one of her favourite words, her appearances have to be carefully managed to give the impression that she’s a national phenomenon, when she’s not. Obama can fill stadiums. Palin can’t even fill a ballroom at this vast conference centre in the heart of Florida’s Disney country. Wandering out to avoid the remainder of the band’s minstrel show, I look down corridor after corridor of function rooms. Next door has an investment seminar, there’s a realtors meeting down the hall in the Anaheim room, and in the atrium, there’s no one, save for a blind man tuning a grand piano.

The place feels like an arcade of private obsessions, discreet and entire of themselves, all scheduled for four to six, before the next wedding reception. When you open the door to re-enter the Palin rally, the energy and enthusiasm spills out, but only for a metre or so. The band’s already wrapped it up, someone’s speaking. Sounds like they’re halfway through the candidate roster already. “Most people think agricultural commissioner doesn’t matter…” Good god, it’s the same speech. Everywhere. The mood in the room was even more impatient, like kids queuing for a ride. Where’s Sarah? “Now someone who needs no introduction…” finally, and the band strike up, and there’s that flash of red jacket as she comes out to huge cheering, people really losing it.

“We’re here for the hard-working god-fearing small-town down-home time-tested truths that can be applied for all time…”

My god she is something, Palin. Always the flame red outfit, the hair piled, high, the glasses. She’s a walking logo. The jaw line is spare and thin, either from sheer energy, or bulimia (‘Hetherrr’). More likely the former. She goes up like a rocket, and keeps on going. We’d already had Senate candidate Marco Rubio, the Tea Party favourite who’d beaten governor Charlie Crist to the Republican nomination, rallying the crowd with the plaintive cry “Is America just going to be like any other nation?” “No! We’re unique in history!” But nothing got them going like Palin.

“And you know it’s that exceptionalism that Ronald Reagan talked about and people ask us why we keep referring back to Reagan and not you know Alinsky or Ayres and you know you gotta put in the hours cos it’s that exceptionalism that Reagan talked about…”

There’s no way to transcribe or notate a Sarah Palin speech that in any way captures its effect or appeal. The voice has the tenor of an electric sander and the rhythmic discipline of the Sun Ra orchestra. She hits a note that takes the top of your ear off, and then she goes up in thirds. Her prose evokes Whitman at times, but more often monster truck rallies, clauses smashing in until one rides over the other and prevails.

“Our country is at a tipping point talk about a do-over needed hit the re-set button…”

And then there’s the sarcasm.

“There’s something about this lady that drives the liberal press wild,” the MC had said and he was spot on. There’s always a middle part of every Palin stump speech when she starts to lay it on thick beyond thick, with a toxic turbocharged mix of sarcasm, irony and contempt. There’s nothing real witty about it, but it pins you screaming to the wall.

“You know they talk about the stimulus but ykkknnnnnnow, let’s just look at some of the things they were stimulating you betcha like a let’s see two million dollar study to see the effects of drunkenness on mice…oh my he deception…please don’t anyone tell Obama what number comes above a trillion yknnnoww yknnowwwww…”

What can you say to that? Nothing, nothing at all, because there’s nothing to reply to — and in any case, the next four clauses have already arrived. The mind can’t regroup, and two, three, four punches and you’re down, wondering, “what happened? What happened?” By now, everyone who’s heard Palin’s spiel has remarked on it, with no real hope of getting it out of their head.

You love it if you’re behind it, watching your enemies squirm, but what makes it so remarkable? It’s high school stuff of course, and most of the pain comes from regression — for guys, it’s being outwitted by girls, for girls, it’s being outwitted by cooler girls. Two sentences of Palin, and you’re back in the year 11 locker room, getting a free personality analysis from Stacey, who goes out with a footballer.

One suspects that this schtick is deadly because it is so new to political discourse. Since women began entering mainstream politics in significant numbers two decades ago they have in general, adopted one of three rhetorical modes — either mature and rising above the boys games, or hyper-aggressive and playing it better than the men, or occasionally, a la Thatcher, adopting a terrifying matronly tone. The one thing they’ve steered clear of is girlishness, and bitchiness. It’s that note that Palin has made her own.

In her mid-forties, she hasn’t come through the second-wave women’s movement like Hillary Clinton, or the corporate world like Carly Fiorina. Having floated through five universities — the one and only thing she has in common with George Steiner, apart of course from writing essays on Holderlin — following her galpals, before landing a job in Alaskan sportscasting, her whole life has been spent in the Breakfast Club, sizing up the competition.

Though she may have been played for a dupe during the McCain campaign, that’s over. Others are writing her words, but the style is all her own, a political invention. Marshalled against the portentous, and sometimes vacuous, appeal to depth made by Obama, she deploys the same tone of high-school, the idea that none of this study stuff matters, that it is all illusion. Depthlessness alone is real.

Orlando is the ideal place for her to spell all that out. The area — it is by no stretch of the term a city — was a centre of “crops and pro-doose” until Disney opened their second and largest theme park here in 1971. Now there’s a dozen theme parks, from the original Disneyworld to Seaworld to Disney Hollywood Orlando. They all needed workers, and so the fantasy parks led a boom in real estate, which then became a boom of its own. Along the freeways subdivisions rear up from from the brilliant green of the scrub pine, some of them completed but empty. Seeing all this housing flare up, it was only a matter of time before Disney got into the act too; the result was Celebration.

Celebration, the town that Disney made — and then sold off — sits close to the original theme park and takes its spirit from it. Famously, it is a recreation of small-town Americana – wooden houses with verandahs and doric columns, vines climbing up the trellis, a functioning main street, a tiny fountain in the main square, a lake and small waterfront. The lake featured in The Truman Show, in which Celebration played the home town Truman was programmed never to leave. That makes it a weird enough place, but even a film set in a simulacra does not prepare you for the strangeness of Celebration, its eerie exactitude.

For Celebration is more than a housing development made to imitate a certain period of American life. Amid the flag-swept lawns, and white paling fences, there’s an old-style grain tower housing the Bank of America. There’s a post-office with a circular entrance hall, in the style of the deco post offices built during the New Deal and after. There’s a red-brick city hall, with a high narrow-timbered portico, after the Lloyd-Wright/Scandinavian fad of the 60s, still recent enough to be ugly. But of course it’s all evocative of the sort of places folks here grew up in, and that is Celebration’s weirdest effect – it is an instantaneous evocation of a layered, historied, less than perfect American small town.

To see Celebration before returning to the airport, I’d lit out of the Palin thing early, hoping nothing would happen that I missed, not being able to think of anything that possibly could. Rolling into Market Street in a yellow cab felt like being Clint in the opening scenes of High Plains Drifter, coming into town without a name. The row of shops beside the lake had a couple of bistros and bars. People were sitting out eating yet more ice-cream. In the midst of Americana, it was the most European place I had seen.

“Yeah it’s a nice place,” said Gracie, who runs a bar there. “We lived outside for ten years, moved in last year. Before that we were in Baton Rouge.” She smiled. “That’s not like Celebration.”

Outside of another bistro, two kitchen hands who wouldn’t give their names, even false ones, laughed when I asked whether they lived here. “We commute.”

The place was impossible to assimilate. Real people taking their kids for a day out looked like expert actors. A pumpkin patch being run by the local Presbyterian Church was a patch of orange against the sky, impossibly orange, a meta-orange. I picked up a local paper from a rack. It was called ‘Community’. Beside it was Brad, a buff guy in a Lakers shirt. And beside Brad was his Segway, the only civilian one I’ve ever seen, being held like a faithful pony.

“Yeah I love it here,” he said, the lakelight flashing off his shades.”They’ve really kept it nice.”

But I understood that there were a lot of building controls, very tight planning laws.

“Oh yeah you can’t do a thing here, can’t paint your door without permission. But you gotta do that.”

And what, if he didn’t mind me asking, were his politics?

“Oh I’m a conservative. I really believe we’ve got to let the free market restart the recovery.”

The driver honked, as prearranged. The airport was the other side of Orlando, which was like being in another state.

“Can’t stand that place,” he said as we hit the open road.

At ‘Maingate East’, the entrance to Celebration, where the staff come in to work at community, the highway was littered with the usual fast food and big box outlets out the edge of every town. They may have been drawn there by the growing population, but they could have been meticulously planned by Disney to mimic post-urban planning. It was impossible to tell.

“How long have you been in Orlando?”

“Twenty years. I was a building contractor until a year ago before you ask. I folded the company up and paid out my staff last year rather than go under.”

“The place seems a little quiet.”

“It’s shut down. Shut down. This has the second worst new home foreclosure rate in the country. If you don’t live by the beach, you’re paying off a home worth a third of its value. Everyone’s walked out on their mortgages.”

“Has anyone stayed?”

“Only schmucks.”

At Orlando airport, Palin’s triumphant appearance was being broadcast on every screen. The airport had a hotel in its centre atrium. You could go on holiday here, and never leave departure/arrivals. This I plan to do at some point in my life, a tiny celebration. Gales of children were being herded by adults towards the exit. Some of them were in wheelchairs or coloured beanies, make-a-wish kids. In the parking bay, they all queued at a sign that said ‘Magic Kingdom Shuttle’, and, more calmly than one would have expected, waited for the bus. Come back Ronald, come back Truman, come back Jesus. Forget about it, make it real, give me your heart.

Peter Fray

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