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The First Palinologist?

Sarah Palin isn’t the only person cashing in on her ill-fated bid for the vice-presidency. A whole slew of authors, fashion designers, movie producers, pornographers, cartoonists, and opticians are riding the Palin gravy train. So I was not surprised when a press release landed in my inbox plugging what seemed to be the latest category of Palin profiteer: Academics.

The University of Alaska Southeast is now touting one of their political science professors, Clive Thomas, as a one-stop Sarah Palin expert. He has been hitting the speaking circuit, with recent stops ranging from Utah to Brazil, and upcoming gigs in San Francisco and Chicago. His talks, according to the university, touch on numerous aspects of the "Palin Phenomenon," including "the enigmatic fascination with Palin, the contrast between those who like her and those who do not, and what she tells us about American politics." He also "introduces audiences to 'Alaska in myth and reality' including some Alaska political traits-populism, anti-tax and anti-government, especially anti-federal government and how Palin fits in Alaska." At least happy customer, Oregon State Political Science Chair Bill Lunch, reports: "I will now watch her future career moves with an insight I didn't have before this lecture." Is Thomas the world's first professional Palinologist?

Not if he has anything to do with it. “I study Sarah Palin by default,” says the affable, British-accented professor who has been teaching for nearly three decades. Despite the apparent publicity-mongering of his university, Thomas, who has a Ph.D. in political science from the London School of Economics and has been awarded four Fulbright fellowships, seems to be standing in the limelight very reluctantly. He explains to me, with a sigh, that while he has written several books on Alaska politics and has taught the subject for decades, he actually specializes in Latin America. (His recent trip to Brazil, Uruguay, and Chile was for research, not just lecturing.) And--surprise, surprise--he seems to be just as sick of Palin as we are.

It all began on August 29, when he was at a political science conference in DC. While Palin was being prepped for her first parade on stage, he was prepping for a panel in his hotel room. And then he got the call--the first asking for comment about the little-known hockey-mom governor. “It was the dividing day," Thomas tells me. "I had talked about her in class before, she was our governor, the most popular governor in Alaska history.” But while she galloped onto the national stage, and requests for his comment only multiplied, Thomas stayed mostly silent. After all, the purse strings at a public university are pulled by the governor--and at that, one that has been known to have quite a vindictive streak. (Thomas was also finishing two books at the time--both unrelated to Palin--that took up a lot of his time.)

But once Palin traded her governorship for a seat on Oprah's couch, Thomas felt a little more room to breathe (and talk). When a friend asked him to speak at Oregon State, he obliged--one of the first invitations that would be rolling in. Even before the university started marketing his "expertise," the dearth of specialists on Alaskan politics made him a hot commodity. Since August of last year, his phone has been at a constant ring. By early October of that year, he said he had over 100 calls and requests from all around the world to talk about the Caribou Mom. And the interest only seems to be growing; the day I called, he had already gotten three requests.

He tries to keep the talks neutral, or as neutral as a talk can be about such a polarizing figure. One reason? “My talk may be about Sarah Palin, but I don’t understand her,” Thomas told me. (Welcome to the club.) I asked if he considered himself to be a pioneer of this new branch of study, Palinology. After an endearing British chuckle, he just asked what in the world that was.

With the Going Rogue tour just kicking off, it is unlikely Thomas’ phone will stop ringing anytime soon. For now, Thomas will have to learn the skill of the polite decline (unlike the subject of his talks), and we’ll have to continue our search for the first Palinologist.