The Magazine

McCain Finds the Right Wingman

And she's a woman.

Sep 15, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 01 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Last Tuesday, as the hordes of media that had begun to dissect every moment of her political career and personal life were distracted by speeches from Fred Thompson and Joe Lieberman in nearby St. Paul, Sarah Palin sat quietly with her family for an hourlong dinner in the Skywater restaurant of the Minneapolis Hilton. It was a rare respite from the intense scrutiny she was subjected to over the first week of her new life in the national spotlight.

Over the previous several days she had been portrayed as a naïf, a rube, and a bad mother. Journalists had peppered the McCain campaign with legitimate questions about her experience and her record as governor. But these same news organizations--including some of the world's most prestigious--devoted much of their time to exploring irrelevant aspects of her personal and family life.

One television network showed a family picture of the Palins with the belly of Palin's pregnant daughter Bristol spotlighted. Another showed several high school pictures of Bristol Palin's boyfriend, Levi. In the fourth paragraph of a front-page New York Times story we learned that Palin's husband, Todd, had been arrested on DUI charges in 1986. A writer for the Atlantic Monthly hyped an unfounded Desperate Housewives-type rumor that Palin's last child, Trig, was actually her daughter's. A major U.S. newspaper demanded the McCain campaign share medical records relating to Palin's amniotic fluid.

There were erroneous reports that Palin had supported Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign (she supported Steve Forbes), that she had been a member of the Alaska Independence Party (she hadn't), and that she had "slashed" funding for Alaska's special needs children (she had increased it).

Top McCain staffers were in the uncomfortable position of having to make decisions about which of the reports to take to Palin and which ones to ignore. She'd had to answer detailed questions about her personal life in the paperwork she filled out during the (expedited) vetting process, so McCain advisers assumed that they would have already known if there were truth to rumors about her family members and her background. Some felt that she should know as much as possible about the charges being made against her so she could help in quickly knocking them down. Others worried that raising sensitive issues one after another would distract her from the all-important convention speech she would give Wednesday night.

Some of it was unavoidable. Palin was told about the US Weekly cover that read "Babies, Lies & Scandal," and was well aware that the tabloid reporting had gone well beyond the tabloid media. But for the most part, Palin spent her time in Minneapolis hunkered down with the speechwriter Matthew Scully, a veteran of the Bush White House as well as the 1996 Dole campaign and Dan Quayle's vice-presidential office. When I told Mark Salter, McCain's longtime aide and speechwriter, that I'd heard Palin spent several hours with Scully writing and rewriting her speech, he corrected me: "Hours and hours and hours and hours." The broad framework of the speech was Scully's and much of the language about McCain and Obama had been in the draft he had written before knowing who would be delivering it. But Palin talked Scully through her recent career, made changes to the text, and added passages. "No one knows their own record like a candidate," says a senior McCain adviser involved in prepping Palin.

After the Tuesday dinner with her family, Palin headed upstairs for a full rehearsal of her speech--wanting to deliver it at approximately the same time of night that she would be giving it at the convention. It was one of several run-throughs.

When McCain arrived in Minneapolis on Wednesday, he stopped by the campaign war room and spoke to his staff. "They're not doing right by our vice president, they're not doing right by the American people," McCain said, according to a source in the room. "We're gonna fight back, we're gonna get 'em." McCain pounded his fist into his hand as he spoke, the source said, and made it clear that he would be aggressively challenging those who are attacking Palin.

Going into the speech, McCain aides felt good. They had watched many hours of tape from speeches Palin had given in her race for governor and in office. "We were a little nervous to see what she actually did," says a senior McCain adviser, "but we were very confident."