Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Sarah Palin's Brutal Education
CBSNews.com Exclusive: An Excerpt from "Sarah From Alaska" -- a New Book Telling the Inside Story of Palin's Campaign for VP
(CBS) In "Sarah From Alaska," Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe draw on their experiences as embedded campaign reporters, the many weeks they spent reporting in Alaska during Palin's last days as governor, and exclusive interviews with almost 200 former McCain/Palin staffers, top political minds, friends, and foes in Alaska to tell the remarkable behind-the-scenes story of Palin's political career and the events leading to her surprising resignation.
The authors share new insights and bring to light illuminating stories from Palin's governorship and vice presidential campaign. Read the excerpt below, which includes a prescient remark that Palin made to senior campaign aides after her debate with Joe Biden and revealing emails that demonstrate how she worked behind the scenes to try to convince the campaign's top strategists not to give up on winning the state of Michigan, much to their annoyance.
Scott Conroy is a digital journalist for CBS News, and Shushannah Walshe was formerly a reporter and producer with Fox News. "Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar" is available now in bookstores.
THE OVERPOWERING SMELL OF cheeseburgers and French fries saturated the candidate's suite at the Philadelphia Westin Hotel. About a dozen staffers shuffled around the table set up in the middle of the room where hundreds upon hundreds of five-by-seven-inch note cards were spread out in two-foot-high stacks. Palin had been locked in there for hours, cramming for her debate against Joe Biden. The biggest test of the campaign was less than a week away.
On the heels of the first round of Katie Couric interviews, her margin for error was nonexistent. Joe Lieberman, a veteran of a previous vice presidential debate, had been brought in to give Palin an idea of what to expect. The stifling air shortened everyone's patience, and tensions were running especially high between debate prep coordinator Mark Wallace and foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann. It was the note cards that had first led to the longstanding feud between Wallace and Scheunemann a couple of weeks earlier. One of the aides wanted Palin to memorize them, while the other thought it better for her to learn conceptually. The spat made it all the way up the chain to Steve Schmidt, who told Scheunemann in no uncertain terms that he did not have the time for bickering between staffers and that they needed to sort it out. But the two men were still fuming at one another, and negative vibes permeated the room along with the smell of greasy food.
At the end of one cram session, Palin asked her advisers to run through the various trade agreements, including "who's in NAFTA, who's in CAFTA," and so forth. It seemed an unremarkable request at the time. The advisers knew that the governor was, in fact, aware that the NAFTA treaty included the United States, Canada, and Mexico. But someone in the room with a penchant for whispering to reporters was taking mental notes. Come November, the anonymous source would pass Palin's words along as part of a concerted effort to advance the exaggerated narrative that her handlers had been stymied in their heroic, yet futile, efforts to educate an ignoramus.
Steve Schmidt, Rick Davis, and domestic policy adviser Becky Tallent arrived in Philadelphia by train on Sunday, September 28. It was clear by the time they set foot in the suffocating hotel suite on the third full day of debate prep that a dramatic change was needed. Schmidt and Davis had already spoken to John McCain, who agreed to offer up his sprawling Sedona ranch. It did not take much persuasion to convince Palin of the benefits of moving the operation to the desert compound, where she could work in her shorts and T-shirt with her family by her side. Schmidt realized that the candidate would benefit from having a more condensed circle of aides to brief her, so he sent some of the staffers who had been with her in Philadelphia ahead to the debate site at St. Louis. Others who did travel to Sedona were barred from McCain's compound and had to remain at the hotel.
Palin and her downsized contingent of advisers arrived in Arizona the next afternoon. On the first evening of their stay, one of her aides spoke privately to the governor about the importance of speaking in her own voice, rather than regurgitating talking points handed down from the Washington insiders who ran the campaign, all of whom were white males. It was one piece of advice that Palin took to heart.
The preparations were kept informal except for two timed reenactments in which debate conditions were replicated, including the exact distance between the podiums. Randy Scheunemann had flown in to play Joe Biden, an acting role that the archconservative seemed born to play. Scheunemann had sat through years of Biden's speeches during his time working for two Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he knew the Delaware senator's mannerisms well. Palin struggled to keep a straight face as Scheunemann peppered his performance with "God love ya"s and "literally"s and shifted between long-winded discourses on everything from the war in Iraq to his own mother. A former National Rifle Association lobbyist, Scheunemann as Biden delivered a passionate screed on banning assault rifles. When he waxed poetic on the issue of gay marriage, some of the aides looking on from the sidelines gave up on trying to maintain decorum and burst out laughing. At the end of the ninety-minute session, they broke out into spontaneous applause. Palin's keen memory for detail had manifested itself in her very first formal rehearsal, and she had done even better than they had hoped she would.
The next day, the group decided to move the debate operation outdoors so that they could take full advantage of the beautiful Sedona weather. The new environment continued to have a calming effect on Palin and everyone around her. Gone were the endless stacks of note cards and claustrophobic atmosphere that plagued the operation in Philadelphia. Palin looked refreshed as she stood behind her podium in a baseball cap and T-shirt. As evening shadows crept across the well-manicured grass, Cindy McCain came out from the house to address the group. She insisted that all toil must end at an appointed hour of 5 P.M., when everyone was to convene for wine and cheese. There were no arguments.
When Palin nailed a second ninety-minute mock debate, everyone was optimistic about the real thing, which was coming up the next day. By the time she and her aides left the ranch for St. Louis, their confidence was high enough that the hottest topic under discussion was whether the governor should wear blue or black. In the end, she went with black. The background, after all, would be blue.
Just minutes before the candidates shook hands on stage in St. Louis, Palin collected her thoughts in a room as she was joined by three top McCain advisers and her longtime Alaska aide Kris Perry. "Be still in the presence of the Lord!" Perry called out, as Palin bowed her head and prayed.
Palin would give her own version of this event several months later in a speech at a Republican Party dinner in Alaska. "So, I'm looking around for somebody to pray with. I just need maybe a little help, maybe a little extra," she said. "And the McCain campaign, love 'em, you know-there are a lot of people around me, but nobody I could find that I wanted to hold hands with and pray."
The remark drew laughter at the dinner but consternation among some former campaign aides, especially the ones who recalled that she had, in fact, deemed them worthy enough companions with whom to pray. On the surface, Palin's remark seemed like a harmless, humorous aside. But to some of the staffers who had spent two months of their lives working around the clock to try to get her elected, it was hurtful. The comment marked a turning point for several campaign operatives who had defended her up to that point but began to wonder about her willingness to exploit their relationship for political gain. "I was initially upset. I think a lot of people were," said one former senior aide who still speaks frequently to other staffers who continued to support Palin through difficult times. "I think that somebody in the group spoke up and said, 'It's not directed at us.'" Still, the aide wondered how the comment could have been allowed to run wild in the news cycle without any clarification from Palin. "Why are people letting her go out and give speeches like this? And why are people not getting ahead of this when she says something like this?"
But all of that was much further down the road. In St. Louis on the night of October 2, the governor's aides looked on approvingly as Palin took the stage and made it immediately clear that she intended to showcase her confidence and personality instead of sparring with Biden over specific details of policy-a fight she could not possibly be expected to win. "I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear," she declared with a bright smile. "But I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record, also."
There were a few moments that came perilously close to flashbacks of the Katie Couric interviews, such as Palin's response to moderator Gwen Ifill's question about whether any trigger would justify the use of nuclear weapons. "Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be-all, end-all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet," she said (mostly the end-all, as Palin-bashing columnist Maureen Dowd gleefully pointed out in a postdebate column).
All in all, however, Palin performed competently and avoided major gaffes. The Republican candidate winked and "darn righted" her way through the debate, delighting her admirers and infuriating her detractors in a predictable way. She was particularly effective in using her methodically unaffected speaking style to break down into simple terms the lessons the country could learn from the economic crisis. "Let's commit ourselves, just everyday American people, Joe Six Pack, hockey moms across the nation, I think we need to band together and say, 'Never again,'" she said. "Never will we be exploited and taken advantage of again by those who are managing our money and loaning us these dollars. We need to make sure that we demand from the federal government strict oversight of those entities in charge of our investments and our savings and we need also to not get ourselves in debt."
Though Biden restrained himself from delivering any of the over-the-top diatribes for which Randy Scheunemann had prepared her, Palin told a confidante after the debate that she'd had a hard time reigning in her smile because the real candidate sounded so much like Scheunemann. Surprisingly, it was the Democrat who struck the most poignant note of the evening when he choked up recalling the death of his first wife and daughter in a car accident that also nearly took the lives of his two sons.
Still, the aides who prepared Palin for the debate were uniformly pleased with her performance. Before a local late-night rally scheduled to keep the momentum going, Palin's inner circle opened a bottle of champagne and toasted the candidate. Feeding off the adrenaline, Palin approached a small group of aides and made a pitch to start bringing up on the campaign trail Barack Obama's ties to his controversial former preacher, Jeremiah Wright. John McCain wanted desperately to become the nation's next president, but not at the expense of facing the inevitable accusations of racial exploitation if he made Wright an issue. She knew quite well about the decree that he had months earlier laid out to everyone involved in the campaign: no one was to touch the controversy. Still, Palin could not understand why she should be held to the rule.
"I just don't want to go back to Alaska," she said in an offhanded comment that would later seem prescient.
Several polls showed that both the general electorate and undecided voters thought Biden had won the debate, although most pundits declared that Palin had exceeded expectations. But with McCain unable to gain any traction against Obama in the presidential debates, the campaign had needed Palin to do more than that. Her performance did nothing to change the complexion of the race, the way her stirring convention speech had done a month earlier.
The day after the debate, Palin caused more headaches when she told Fox News's Carl Cameron that she disagreed with the campaign's decision to pull resources out of Michigan, effectively ceding the state to Obama. She had not been consulted on that critical move in the chess game, which leaked out in a report penned by the Politico's Jonathan Martin the previous afternoon. "I fired off a quick e-mail and said, 'Oh, come on. You know, do we have to? Do we have to call it there?'" she told Cameron. "I want to get back to Michigan, and I want to try."
The e-mail that Palin sent was, in fact, essentially how she described it to Cameron. She wrote to her traveling staff and top McCain advisers, "If there's any time, Todd and I would love a quick return to Michigan-we'd tour the plants, etc. . . . If it does McC any good. I know you have a plan, but I hate to see us leave Michigan. We'll do whatever we had [sic] to do there to give it a 2nd effort."
A senior aide replied, "Michigan is out of reach unless something drastic happens. We must win oh and hopefully pa."
Palin replied that she "got it," but her subsequent interview with Cameron had shown that she hadn't. She acknowledged as much in a postinterview e-mail to senior staff, writing, "Oops-I mentioned something about that to Carl Cameron and it's now recorded that I'd love to give Michigan the ol' college try." Later in the day, she tried once more. "It's a cheap 4hr drive from WI. I'll pay for the gas," she wrote.
Though senior aides had firmly rejected her request, Palin continued to press them on it in the coming days and weeks. A natural optimist but a novice when it came to national campaign strategy, she was inclined not to give up anywhere, much less on a state that had been a prime target for months. She remembered the massive crowds that had greeted her and McCain in Macomb County the day after the convention ended and in Grand Rapids a couple of weeks later. They were good, God-fearing, salt-of-the-earth people. She figured that she could introduce them to her husband, who liked to ride snowmobiles and hunt, just like Michiganders did. Her instincts told her that if she just had a chance to talk to some laid-off automobile workers face-to-face, she could convince them to vote Republican.
"I know what I know what I know." She repeated that mantra to the people around her throughout the campaign. Sometimes she was right, but her growing determination to do things her own way became a continuing headache for the campaign's strategists, who were more interested in polling data and documented fact than they were in the vice presidential candidate's instincts.
Palin sat in her hotel suite in Costa Mesa, California, on the night after the Cameron interview and began to muse with traveling staffers about what she could do to win back Michigan, despite top aides' firm decree that it was out of reach. She was the candidate after all, and it was time for her to take more control over her own destiny. What if they descended upon the state unannounced in the middle of the night and brought Jay Leno or David Letterman along to cover the triumphant surprise visit? Several of her traveling aides loved the idea, as unorthodox as it sounded. There was a growing consensus on the plane that the powers that be at headquarters were holding her back unwisely. The late-night comedian idea was probably pushing it, but maybe they could wait until the next time they were in Ohio and commandeer the campaign bus at the end of the day's events. They could drive it across the border into Michigan, hold a dramatic public appearance to draw in local media, then drive back to Ohio overnight in time for the next day's rallies.
Though many of her aides were on board with her sentiment, other campaign staffers were becoming irritated by how often she brought up her ideas for campaigning in Michigan. There was a growing sense that the vice presidential plane was becoming a renegade operation, increasingly comfortable with acting on its own. Rick Davis was so concerned about the possibility that the governor would ignore orders and travel to Michigan on her own that he attempted to order Secret Service agents to prevent it. Of course, agents would have been obliged to follow the candidate wherever she decided to go.