How Palin Got Picked
The maverick candidate decided he wanted a maverick veep.
Sep 8, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 48 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
At 5:20 A.M. Friday, August 29th, Bill McAllister awoke to the ringing of his home phone. McAllister had turned his BlackBerry off before heading to bed. He usually leaves it on, but "It was a slow news day here," he says with a laugh.
McAllister, a former television news reporter in Anchorage, had become Alaska governor Sarah Palin's press secretary just two months earlier, in June, after covering her administration. At one point, he'd even done a story on her vice presidential prospects. "She really didn't think it was in the realm of likely," says McAllister.
On Thursday, McAllister was having lunch with his wife and revisited that subject. "I said if McCain were down 10 points, he would have to throw the Hail Mary," McAllister recalls. "He threw it anyway."
McCain's selection of Palin ended a long and gut-wrenching selection process driven by the senator's desire to do something unconventional. For weeks, McCain advisers said that the pick would be "transformative"--and for much of that time, after McCain told THE WEEKLY STANDARD that he was open to picking a pro-choice running mate--speculation focused on former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge and independent Democratic senator Joe Lieberman.
Although McCain mentioned Ridge by name in his TWS interview, his focus remained on Lieberman, who received a second round of vetting. Lieberman was encouraged when McCain seemed to back off his previous statements that picking a pro-choice running mate would be difficult. The two men have been close friends for years, and McCain saw him as not only a transformative pick but also a comfortable one. Senator Lindsey Graham, who is close to both McCain and Lieberman, pressed the choice on the Republican nominee and quietly made phone calls to key conservatives to gauge whether they would support a McCain-Lieberman ticket. They received word back from such prominent social conservatives as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell, Utah governor Jon Huntsman, conservative activist Gary Bauer, among others--some of whom enthusiastically agreed to support the pick and others who said they would not oppose it. Several pro-life senators also signaled their willingness to support a Lieberman pick. New York representative Peter King won support for a McCain-Lieberman ticket from several of his House colleagues.
Rudy Giuliani, too, supposedly placed a call to McCain urging him to pick Lieberman. In a telephone interview Thursday, Giuliani acknowledged talking to McCain about the selection but would not confirm--or deny--that he pushed Lieberman.
It wasn't enough for McCain, apparently. On Sunday the 24th, he met with his closest advisers to discuss the process. "One adviser, tasked with taking the temperature of the conservative base, had strongly made the case to McCain that it would be a disaster for the party and that the base would revolt," reported ABC's Jan Crawford Greenburg. "McCain concluded he could not go that route."
Earlier in the day, McCain had spoken to Palin, who was visiting at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer. According to McAllister, that conversation had its roots in a comment McCain made in his TWS interview ten days earlier. McCain had called Palin "a remarkable woman" and said that he planned to consult her as he reexamined his position on oil exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Palin is for drilling; McCain--for now--is against it.
"He called her at the State Fair following up on a promise he made to THE WEEKLY STANDARD magazine," McAllister told a press conference Friday in Anchorage. The call was brief--maybe five minutes--and Palin had difficulty hearing in the noisy surroundings. A McCain campaign summary of the selection process provided no details of the conversation. "Last Sunday, Governor Palin and John McCain had a conversation over the phone," it reads. "Governor Palin was at the Alaska State Fair, and John McCain was at his home at Phoenix."
With Lieberman ruled out, McCain spent Monday and Tuesday looking at other candidates--chiefly Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney. Pawlenty was appealing--a smart, articulate governor of a potential battleground state that is hosting the Republican National Convention. And Pawlenty had several strong backers on McCain's staff, including longtime McCain aide Mark Salter, one of the senator's most trusted advisers.
Romney had been asked to submit vetting materials early in the process, but unlike Pawlenty did not have a strong top-level supporter among McCain's advisers. Romney was seen as something of a default candidate and never seemed to get the close examination that Lieberman and Pawlenty received.
Neither Romney nor Pawlenty, moreover, was the transformative pick McCain wanted. McCain thought that Palin might be.
McCain has had a long and sometimes heated rivalry with Alaska senator Ted Stevens, the upper chamber's greediest collector of congressional pork. Going back more than a year, McCain has used Stevens's pet project--the $389 million dollar bridge between Ketchikan, Alaska, and the island that hosts its airport that is known as the "Bridge to Nowhere"--in his stump speech as an example of the problems besetting Washington. Palin, who was skeptical of the project, ordered the state to find a "fiscally responsible" alternative. She has challenged the state GOP as corrupt and openly chastised establishment Republicans for failing to live up to conservative principles.
Not only has she bucked her own party, she has praised Democrats and done so at times that carried significant political risk. Earlier this month, at a time when she was regularly mentioned as a (longshot) McCain running mate, and just 24 days before McCain ultimately picked her, Palin put out a statement praising Barack Obama.
"I am pleased to see Senator Obama acknowledge the huge potential Alaska's natural gas reserves represent in terms of clean energy and sound jobs," she said of Obama's energy plan, released that day. "The steps taken by the Alaska State Legislature this past week demonstrate that we are ready, willing and able to supply the energy our nation needs."
She also praised Obama for recommending $1,000 rebates to help cover increased energy costs. "We in Alaska feel that crunch and are taking steps to address it right here at home," Governor Palin said. "This is a tool that must be on the table to buy us time until our long-term energy plans can be put into place. We have already enjoyed the support of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, and it is gratifying to see Senator Obama get on board."
In a telephone interview on August 22, one week before she was announced as McCain's running mate, I asked her about reports that she had "embraced" the Obama energy plan. She laughed and said:
Perhaps not surprisingly, while her praise for Obama did anger several McCain staffers, it did not upset the senator, who had met her in Washington shortly before he won the Republican nomination.
On Wednesday of last week, Palin flew with her top aide, Kris Perry, to Flagstaff, Arizona, where she met with Steve Schmidt and Mark Salter from McCain's campaign. The following day this group traveled to McCain's home in Sedona and met with the candidate and his wife, Cindy. McCain took Palin outside to his deck and offered her the job. (Decks are fast becoming the traditional location for Republican nominees to offer the job to their running mates, as George W. Bush asked Dick Cheney to join his ticket on the deck of his ranch.) Palin accepted and set in motion a plan that would shock the political world just 24 hours later.
Palin flew with Salter and Schmidt to Middletown, Ohio, and checked into the Manchester Inn. (She registered under the name Upton.)
No one on Palin's staff back in Alaska had any idea that she was going to explode onto the national political scene the following morning. "The only reason I ever thought anything is because I was asked by reporters if she was vetted by the McCain campaign," said McAllister. "And I told them no. The only thing I knew about was some biographical materials that they requested for the convention itself, for her speech." Some of her staff believed she was still in Alaska and planning to be at the State Fair on Friday.
Matthew Scully, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and Bob Dole, had drafted a generic speech to be delivered by an unknown vice presidential candidate. (Scully had experience with the difficult task. In 2000, he and John McConnell coauthored Dick Cheney's convention acceptance speech without knowing who would be delivering it.) Palin worked on the speech Thursday night, adding passages--including the much-discussed ones about Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton--and tweaking several others.
As late as Thursday night, only a handful of McCain advisers and staffers knew whom the candidate had selected. Many of them assumed, like most of the political world, that it would be Pawlenty. Among those still in the dark was Maria Comella, a former spokesman for Rudy Giuliani, who had been brought aboard the McCain campaign to serve as the top press aide to McCain's running mate. She would not learn who her new boss would be until Friday morning.
Many political observers are astonished the secret held. The McCain campaign is not. "The key to keeping secrets is not telling people," says Matt McDonald, a McCain adviser, who was one of only a handful to learn about the pick Thursday night.
Shortly after noon, McCain officially unveiled his pick. "She's got the grit, integrity, good sense, and fierce devotion to the common good that is exactly what we need in Washington today," McCain said. "She's exactly who I need, she's exactly who this country needs, to help me fight--to help me fight the same old Washington politics of me first and country second. My friends and fellow Americans, I am very pleased and very privileged to introduce to you the next vice president of the United States--Governor Sarah Palin of the great state of Alaska."
Palin thanked McCain. With her husband and four of her five children behind her--her eldest son, Track, is preparing to be deployed to Iraq in three weeks and could not attend--she made an impressive debut. Palin described herself as a "hockey mom" and spoke directly about her place in history.
McCain's advisers expected that the attacks from the Obama campaign would be swift and harsh and focus on her lack of experience. They were right. "Today, John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton, in a statement. "Governor Palin shares John McCain's commitment to overturning Roe v. Wade, the agenda of Big Oil and continuing George Bush's failed economic policies--that's not the change we need, it's just more of the same."
The McCain campaign hit back hard, accusing Obama of belittling Palin's accomplishments and denigrating small-town America. Within minutes, the Obama campaign struck a different tone, with Obama adviser Anita Dunn praising Palin's compelling story and offering only the gentlest of criticism of the Alaska governor for the rest of the day.
By mid-afternoon, Obama was distancing himself from his own staff. The campaign put out a gracious statement from Obama and Joe Biden, praising Palin. And when Obama was asked about the initial statement from the campaign, he suggested it was too negative. "I think that, uh, you know, campaigns start getting these, uh, hair triggers and, uh, the statement that Joe and I put out reflects our sentiments."
The McCain campaign welcomes a debate over experience. Democrats devoted much of their convention to making the case that Barack Obama--despite his lack of experience--was ready to lead. The team McCain dispatched to Denver was sent with the task of raising doubts about that proposition and many of the Democratic speakers seemed to be responding to those attacks. It was the theme of Bill Clinton's speech and Obama himself tried to make that case on his own behalf.
Some Republicans are concerned that a McCain-Palin ticket diminishes the power of McCain's attacks on Obama's lack of experience. McCain's top strategists don't see it that way.
"When they're comparing our vice presidential candidate's experience to their presidential candidate's experience and John McCain is just flying above it all," says one senior McCain adviser, "that's a good place for us to be."
McCain's selection of Palin is, without question, one of the riskiest political gambles in the recent history of presidential politics. Her entrance onto the national political stage was impressive, and there is much to like about her compelling personal story and her aggressive conservatism. But Democrats who drive around with bumper stickers announcing the end date of the Bush administration are too invested in winning this November to give her a pass. Her past--every aspect of it--will now come under intense scrutiny and she will be subject to near-daily hostile questioning from political reporters eager to make news by tripping her up.
McCain drove the selection process and, from the outset, was determined to make a bold, transformative pick that would help him win the White House in the worst political environment for Republicans in decades. He has accomplished the former and we have two months to see if Sarah Palin will help him accomplish the latter.
Stephen F. Hayes, a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President (HarperCollins).