The Magazine

How Palin Got Picked

The maverick candidate decided he wanted a maverick veep.

Sep 8, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 48 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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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.

I think as well today of two other women who came before me in national elections. I can't begin this great effort without honoring the achievements of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, and, of course, Senator Hillary Clinton, who showed such determination and grace in her presidential campaign.

It was rightly noted in Denver this week that Hillary left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America. But it turns out the women of America aren't finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.

So for my part, the mission is clear. The next 67 days I'm going to take our campaign to every part of our country and our message of reform to every voter of every background, in every political party, or no party at all. If you want change in Washington, if you hope for a better America, then we're asking for your vote on the 4th of November.

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.
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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).