Michael Joseph Gross's profile of Sarah Palin, published in the October 2010 issue of Vanity Fair, is a jaw-dropper. From the machinations of her network of supporters to the way she has effectively muzzled nearly everyone around her, Gross's comprehensive analysis of Palin is impressive.

Gross told the MSNBC "Morning Joe" hosts: "I started this story with a prejudice in her favor...But everybody close to her tells the same story."

After visiting Alaska and following "Palin’s road show through four Midwestern states, speaking with whomever [he] could induce to talk under whatever conditions of anonymity they imposed," Gross tells that story in the Vanity Fair profile.

Some of his revelations aren't that surprising. For example, Sarah Palin's got a wicked temper. She doesn't hunt or fish. She's getting paid big bucks for her appearances across the lower 48, where she essentially recycles speeches -- interchanging city names and substituting the word "Bible" for "Constitution" depending on her audience.

But my curiosity was piqued by a few of Gross's points. First, there's a complicated web of links between her staffers, pro-Palin blogs, and the organizations and political action committees surrounding her. One woman quoted by Gross commented, “We would literally walk across hot broken glass for this woman…She’s our family, and you protect your family; it’s like the mafia." Based on Gross's descriptions of her followers' devotion to her, the control exerted by Palin over them, and the apparent "promotions" they receive -- from proving themselves as loyalists at pro-Palin blogs not officially connected with Palin, to working for Palin as staffers -- the hierarchy is certainly reminiscent of La Cosa Nostra.

Likewise, Palin exerts control over everyone around her. I was struck by the fear expressed by those quoted anonymously in the profile and those who refused to speak: "They don’t want her to find out they have talked with a reporter, because of a suspicion that bad things will happen to them if she does." Such as sleeping with the fishes?

But unlike the Mafia, Palin labors under the belief that she is leading a holy war. She laces her speeches "with code phrases expressing solidarity with fundamentalist Christians." She has adopted the North Star as a symbol of herself, also known to Alaskans "as a reference to God." During the presidential campaign, when she was supposed to be boning up on her knowledge of history and current events, Palin was reading email from "prayer warriors" who were "calling on angels to shield her from demonic attacks."

Much as I'd like to see both Sarah Palin and the Mafia go away, I think it's the same sort of personality cult that drives our collective fascination with both of them. We wonder how they can get away with what they do, and as much light as we try to shine on them, they still remain shrouded in dark secrecy.

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