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."
The five-day saturation coverage of all things Palin made her acceptance speech a highly anticipated national event. An estimated 37 million people tuned in to see what she would say and how she was holding up. It was nearly the same number of Americans who watched Barack Obama six days earlier, in a speech that had received three months of buildup.
Palin focused on Americans who live and work in small towns, on the blue-collar workers who love their country and hate Washington politicians. It was like hundreds of other speeches from this presidential race--stretching back two years to the earliest rhetoric from both Republican and Democrat candidates--except in one very important respect.
As she put it: "I grew up with those people."
They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America, who grow our food, and run our factories and fight our wars.
They love their country, in good times and bad, and they're always proud of America. I had the privilege of living most of my life in a small town.
I was just your average hockey mom and signed up for the PTA--
The Michigan delegation--all wearing hockey jerseys--went crazy, and some held up "Hockey Moms for Palin" signs. She stopped for a moment and improvised: "I love those hockey moms. You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a Pit Bull? Lipstick." The crowd roared.
So I signed up for the PTA because I wanted to make my kids' public education better.
When I ran for city council, I didn't need focus groups and voter profiles because I knew those voters, and I knew their families, too.
And those voters, Palin noted, like small town voters across the country, worry that politicians are all alike--that they're inauthentic and insincere and will say whatever it takes to get elected.
Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my hometown.
And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves.
I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a "community organizer," except that you have actual responsibilities. I might add that in small towns, we don't quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren't listening.
We tend to prefer candidates who don't talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco.
As for my running mate, you can be certain that wherever he goes, and whoever is listening, John McCain is the same man. I'm not a member of the permanent political establishment. And I've learned quickly, these past few days, that if you're not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone.
But here's a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion. I'm going to Washington to serve the people of this country. Americans expect us to go to Washington for the right reasons, and not just to mingle with the right people.
In a race that sometimes feels like little more than a contest to see which side will be most closely associated with "change," this was a big moment. With three senators on the two tickets, Palin offered herself as spokesman for the rest of the country and, in effect, vouched for McCain's regular-guy credentials. "It felt like watching a pilot in the storm. Sure, she had navigational help and a good crew but she took control at the beginning and the landing proved it," said Tucker Eskew, a veteran of the 2000 campaign and the Bush White House, who is now working for Palin. "She owned that speech."
As Palin spoke, Scully stood on the floor of the convention hall, holding his laptop and a rolled-up McCain-Palin sign. He nervously fingered the sign and glanced up at the press section to gauge the reaction to Palin's most cutting and dramatic lines, not knowing that he would shortly be the focus of the response from the Obama campaign.
"The speech that Governor Palin gave was well delivered, but it was written by George Bush's speechwriter and sounds exactly like the same divisive, partisan attacks we've heard from George Bush for the last eight years. If Gov. Palin and John McCain want to define 'change' as voting with George Bush 90 percent of the time, that's their choice, but we don't think the American people are ready to take a 10 percent chance on change," said Bill Burton, Obama campaign spokesman.
The statement said more about the Obama campaign's inability to respond to Palin than it did about Palin.
Jim VandeHei and John Harris, top editors at Politico, which does as much to shape conventional wisdom these days as the New York Times, had initially called McCain's pick of Palin "desperate." After the speech, they wrote that while the pick was "risky . . . in the space of one 36-minute speech by Palin, McCain proved that his choice was not a lapse into temporary (or even permanent) insanity."
A longtime McCain adviser points to the Palin selection as one of two "pivot points" in McCain's run for the presidency. The first came when he rejected his campaign team's advice to move away from his support of the war in Iraq in the summer of 2007.
With the nomination in hand, McCain decided that he wanted his vice-presidential selection to be bold and leaned toward picking Joe Lieberman. But after an extensive look at the practical realities of selecting Lieberman and listening to the arguments for and against taking that dramatic step, McCain realized it wouldn't work. He turned his sights to three other candidates: Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, and Sarah Palin. Romney was always a default candidate, but never a likely pick. Pawlenty had several backers among McCain's top advisers and, though McCain likes Pawlenty, he saw the pick as too conventional. There was a bold if risky choice remaining: Sarah Palin.
McCain had been impressed by Palin during a 15-minute conversation back in February and spoke to her again on August 24. She did not have a strong advocate among McCain's top advisers, and more than one cautioned him about the risks of picking someone with such limited experience. And as he had on Iraq, McCain listened to that advice, considered the politically safe choice, and then rejected it in favor of something bolder and riskier.
The early results have been promising, and McCain's team is confident that she will be a major asset over the next two months.
"You do not get to 80 percent approval by not being a good politician," said a senior McCain adviser. "I don't care how red your state is or how blue it is--if it's Alaska or California--you don't get to 80 percent without being good."
Palin will spend much of her time over the next eight weeks in small towns in battleground states. McCain advisers believe that the overwhelming media coverage over her first week has made her quite a draw and that average Americans will flock to someone who represents their sensibilities and their views. She grew up with them.
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).