How Sarah Palin Was Picked
By the end of February, 2008, the refrain of conservative pundits for Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin was loud enough for the mainstream media to take note. Chris Cillizza, reporting for the Web site of the Washington Post, interviewed Sarah Palin and asked Palin if she’d accept an offer to be McCain’s running mate. Though she dismissed the notion as a virtual “impossibility this go-round,” Palin, who had been in office for only fourteen months, said, “Is it generally something that I would want to consider? Yes.”
By the spring, the Republican cCain campaign had reportedly sent scouts to Alaska to start vetting Sarah Palin as a possible running mate. A week or so before McCain named her, however, sources close to the campaign say, McCain was intent on naming his fellow-senator Joe Lieberman, an independent, who left the Democratic Party in 2006. David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, who is close to a number of McCain’s top aides, told me that “McCain and Lindsey Graham”—the South Carolina senator, who has been McCain’s closest campaign companion—“really wanted Joe.” But Keene believed that “McCain was scared off” in the final days, after warnings from his advisers that choosing Lieberman would ignite a contentious floor fight at the Convention, as social conservatives revolted against Lieberman for being, among other things, pro-choice.
“They took it away from him,” a longtime friend of McCain—who asked not to be identified, since the campaign has declined to discuss its selection process—said of the advisers. “He was furious. He was pissed. It wasn’t what he wanted.” Another friend disputed this, characterizing McCain’s mood as one of “understanding resignation.”
With just days to go before the Convention, the choices were slim. Karl Rove favored McCain’s former rival Mitt Romney, but enough animus lingered from the primaries that McCain rejected the pairing. “I told Romney not to wait by the phone, because ‘he doesn’t like you,’ ” Keene, who favored the choice, said. “With John McCain, all politics is personal.” Other possible choices—such as former Representative Rob Portman, of Ohio, or Governor Tim Pawlenty, of Minnesota—seemed too conventional. They did not transmit McCain’s core message that he was a “maverick.” Finally, McCain’s top aides, including Steve Schmidt and Rick Davis, converged on Palin. Ed Rogers, the chairman of B.G.R., a well-connected, largely Republican lobbying firm, said, “Her criteria kept popping out. She was a governor—that’s good. The shorter the Washington résumé the better. A female is better still. And then there was her story.” He admitted, “There was concern that she was a novice.” In addition to Schmidt and Davis, Charles R. Black, Jr., the lobbyist and political operative who is McCain’s chief campaign adviser, reportedly favored Palin. Keene said, “I’m told that Charlie Black told McCain, ‘If you pick anyone else, you’re going to lose. But if you pick Palin you may win.’ ” (Black did not return calls for comment.) Meanwhile, McCain’s longtime friend said, “Kristol was out there shaking the pom-poms.”
McCain had met Palin once, but their conversation—at a reception during a meeting of the National Governors Association, six months earlier—had lasted only fifteen minutes. “It wasn’t a real conversation,” said the longtime friend, who called the choice of Palin “the fucking most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” Aides arranged a phone call between McCain and Palin, and scrutinized her answers to some seventy items on a questionnaire that she had filled out. But McCain didn’t talk with Palin in person again until the morning of Thursday, August 28th. Palin was flown down to his retreat in Sedona, Arizona, and they spoke for an hour or two. By the time he announced her as his choice, the next day, he had spent less than three hours in her company.
“It certainly was a risk—a risk a lot of people wouldn’t take,” Dan Coats, a former Indiana senator and now a volunteer with the McCain campaign, said. “But that’s what I like about John. There’s a boldness there.”
The thoroughness of the campaign’s vetting process, overseen by the Washington lawyer and former White House counsel Arthur B. Culvahouse, Jr., remains in dispute. The campaign insists that Palin’s record and personal history were carefully examined. (Culvahouse declined to comment for this story.) The Los Angeles Times, however, reported that the campaign never contacted several obvious sources of information on Palin, including Lyda Green—a Republican state senator in Alaska, and a former ally turned opponent. Also in dispute is whether Palin disclosed to the campaign, as she and officials have said, that her unwed teen-age daughter was pregnant. “I am a hundred per cent sure they didn’t know,” McCain’s longtime friend said. Another campaign source, however, insisted that McCain’s team knew about the pregnancy.
The selection of Palin thrilled the Republican base, and the pundits who met with her in Juneau have remained unflagging in their support. But a surprising number of conservative thinkers have declared her unfit for the Vice-Presidency. Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal columnist, recently wrote, “The Palin candidacy is a symptom and expression of a new vulgarization in American politics. It’s no good, not for conservatism and not for the country. And yes, it is a mark against John McCain.” David Brooks, the Times columnist, has called Palin “a fatal cancer to the Republican Party.” Christopher Buckley, the son of National Review’s late founder, defected to the Obama camp two weeks ago, in part because of his dismay over Palin. Matthew Dowd, the former Bush campaign strategist turned critic of the President, said recently that McCain “knows in his gut” that Palin isn’t qualified for the job, “and when this race is over, that is something he will have to live with. . . . He put the country at risk.”