Sarah Palin was not scheduled to arrive for another 30 minutes, but by 9 A.M. last Thursday more than a hundred journalists from around the world had gathered in a large ballroom at the InterContinental Hotel for a chance to ask her a question. Palin had been at the hotel the previous day, to tape interviews with Wolf Blitzer and Larry King. Everywhere she went in Miami a media caravan followed close behind, hoping for an impromptu question-and-answer session--something the McCain campaign leadership had not permitted her during the campaign.
For political reporters, Palin remains something of an enigma. The soap opera of the McCain campaign and the prospect of a future in national politics combine to make her one of the most interesting political stories going. So almost without exception those of us gathered for Palin's first postelection press conference were eager to hear her.
The exception, seated to my right, was a young producer for "W Radio," a Spanish-language network that covers news in 22 Latin American countries and the United States. She explained that had she gotten rolled by her male colleague into covering this, the second-most important event in the Miami area that day, so that he could cover "the show" at the Fontainebleau Hotel. When I asked what that event was, she looked stunned. "Are you kidding me?" she asked in a thick Spanish accent that accentuated the question. "Victoria's Secret. You do not have someone covering the show?" Utter disbelief. I told her it was an oversight I would be sure to correct next year. She seemed relieved.
Moments later, 13 male governors walked briskly into the room, up a handful of stairs, and onto a beautifully constructed stage paid for by the organization hosting the meeting, the Republican Governors Association. Along with them was Palin, sporting a black miniskirt and a black leather blazer. As she walked in, dozens of cameras began to click in unison. The men took their places on stage--to the right and left of the podium. Opposite them stood risers with nearly 30 television cameras ready to capture every last word of the coming exchange, and in front of the risers were rows of print journalists poised to take copious notes.
Governor Rick Perry of Texas, the current RGA chairman, took the podium and introduced Palin by noting that she represents the best of Republican leadership at the state level. Finally, Palin stood at the microphone and opened the floor to questions.
And just under five minutes later, it was all over. Four questions. ("Are you f--ing kidding me?" two reporters in my row said at almost precisely the same moment.) There was general agreement among the journalists gathered to hear her that Palin did not "make news," by which reporters mean she did not make any major mistakes or say anything controversial.
With the press conference concluded, the male governors, none of whom had been asked a question, were cleared from the stage like props. On my way to the grand ballroom for Palin's big speech, I looked for a restroom. I ran into nine of the governors as they emerged from some back hallway to hit the head. I joined them.
The bathroom was crowded. The first governors claimed the spots--two at urinals and two in the stalls, doors open. Perry was just behind me, along with several other governors. He did not wait quietly.
"Oh, Hoeven! I'm not shaking your hand when you're done," he shouted to North Dakota governor John Hoeven who was wrapping up in a stall. "This is not the Minneapolis Airport!"
Someone else noticed Alabama governor Bob Riley in the other stall. "Wow, Riley really has a wide stance!"
Perhaps more interesting than what they said, was what they did not. Although several would later grouse privately about their role at the press conference, there was no Palin bashing in the john.
In the main ballroom, Palin began her speech with some self-deprecating humor--noting how much has happened since she saw her colleagues last spring. "I had a baby. I did some traveling. I very briefly expanded my wardrobe. I made a few speeches. I met a few VIPs, including those who really impact society, like Tina Fey." Her speech included a look back at the McCain campaign and some very gracious words for the man who had chosen her as his running mate. She spent some time making the case, as many did over the course of the three-day meeting, that Republican governors would be the center of power in the GOP for the foreseeable future.
After the speech, I chatted with her for a few minutes in a side meeting room. She offered me a chair and then a soda before we got started. As she twisted the cap off her Diet Coke, she apologized for being late--even though she wasn't--and said she just didn't feel like she could have run out of the room right after giving her speech without talking to some of the "folks" in attendance. On the table in front of her she had several business cards and a CD that she'd collected.
I started by asking her about the question of the day--whether the federal government should bail out the Big Three automakers. She'd gotten the same question one day earlier from Wolf Blitzer and her meandering response to him was so vague that it suggested she knew very little about the issue. She noted that she was "listening closely to the debate" and that "there is a lot of information that even you and I certainly aren't privy to." If it had come two weeks earlier, it almost certainly would have spawned a new round of attacks from her critics.
I was interested to see if she'd studied up on the issue in the 24 hours since she was first asked about it, so I put the same question to her. She said she was:
not real enthused about looking at this next package if this entails additional dollars--beyond the $700 billion--and if it at all would suggest in this new proposal that these would be grants, not loans. And because Paulson just came out yesterday and again this morning kind of shifting gears on Americans in terms of what had just been proposed in the first bailout, it kind of lends some distrust to the solution here that's being proposed. So we all need more information on what exactly is it this time--the second bailout package that would evidently be very beneficial for manufacturing, for the auto industry. If that's important we have to consider it. But no more surprises. I think the surprises make the electorate distrust elected officials and their ability to appoint people who are to be looking out for the public's interest.
Sources close to Palin say she will continue to study national issues--including foreign policy and national security--so that she will be in a better position to talk about them in the future. Palin said she is open to campaigning for Republicans during the next election cycle, but noted that her other responsibilities will require her to be selective.
"My family and my job in Alaska certainly come first," she said.
And keep in mind, too, that I've never been an obsessive partisan, believing that just because you have an "R" by your name that you're going to be the best candidate. . . . It would have to be someone I truly believed in and could recognize their ability to usher in those things that I think are so important to help lead this nation and perhaps help them lead their state.
Can you think of a Democrat you'd be willing to campaign for?
Well, in Alaska, I've appointed Democrats to positions where they're helping lead the state and they're doing their job. I like to try to help them see the light and to help them understand why the Republican planks in our platform I believe are best for governing. At this point, no, I can't think of anyone.
She pauses to think. "No."
In her speech, Palin went out of her way to praise George W. Bush for keeping the country safe for the past seven years. And yet, days earlier, she pointed to Bush administration incompetence as one of the reasons the McCain-Palin ticket lost on November 4. Much of the rhetoric at the RGA meeting echoed that view. In private conversations with Republicans here, many of them pointed to Bush as the reason the party finds itself so unpopular with voters.
With polls showing Bush's approval rating at a record low, I asked Palin how she would respond to a pollster who wanted to know whether she approved of the job Bush is doing as president.
"I would say there are some of the shots that he has called that I agree with, and there are areas where I disagree with him," Palin responded.
And that's just a general comment--I could give it with anybody and everybody. But what is foremost the president's responsibility? To defend our country, protect the homeland. And he has succeeded there. And that's why doing a shout-out to him even here--we do, in the political arena go to great lengths to avoid stating the obvious. The obvious is, he has succeeded there. We have not been attacked again. That has been where his concentration has been and for that I do thank him.
I pressed her a bit to answer the question. "If you got a call in the governor's mansion from a pollster, and they said: 'Governor Palin, do you approve of the job the president's doing, yes or no.' Do you know how you'd answer that?"
Said Palin: "I'd have a long answer like that and say talk to me specifically about the policies, implementation of some of his ideals, and I'll be able to answer that."
Alongside all of the public discussion about the future of the Republican party and the reporting on the new Obama administration, we will probably spend a good chunk of the next two months evaluating Bush's presidency. So I put that same question to two other Republican governors at the RGA meeting, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Jon Huntsman of Utah.
The impressive young Jindal is already mentioned as a presidential possibility for 2012. The son of immigrants from India, he went to Brown and earned a Rhodes Scholarship. At 25, he was named secretary of Louisiana's Department of Health and Hospitals, an agency rife with corruption. He turned it around. Jindal served two terms in Congress before his election as governor last year.
He is, as his résumé suggests, a policy wonk. He rattles off numbers and statistics with the greatest of ease, and reporters who take the time to check them out--as I did when working on a profile of him last year--discover that he is almost always right. When I spoke to Jindal before his speech at the RGA, he adapted the language of the left to argue for market-based solutions to the country's health care problems. Jindal says Americans have a "right" to health care, but adds: "I don't think recognizing that there's a right to health care means you favor a single-payer system."
Although he is a very effective communicator, Jindal's rapid-fire speaking style risks coming off like a used-car-salesman pitching on behalf of ideas. What is it going to take to get you into this new medical savings account? But that's nitpicking. There is a reason he's mentioned as a presidential possibility at just 37.
Jindal did not respond directly when I asked how he would respond to a pollster asking whether he approved of Bush's performance.
"Look, the history books will certainly judge the president," he said. Jindal pointed to Bush's education policies as one area of disagreement and he's been an outspoken critic of Bush on spending. At the same time, like Palin he pointed to Bush's "tremendous work behind the scenes to keep America safe after 9/11."
He added: "I voted for him twice and don't regret my votes."
Huntsman is as impressive as Jindal, though far more moderate. A veteran of the Reagan White House, Huntsman served as ambassador to Singapore at 31. He worked in both Bush administrations--at the State Department and at Commerce. He speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese. Before running for governor, he was the deputy U.S. trade representative.
When we chatted at the RGA meeting, Huntsman voiced concerns about the direction of his party, saying that Republicans are on the wrong side of "seismic demographic shifts that are occurring right under our feet." Huntsman, who has a strong record as a tax-cutter in Utah, argued that Republicans should talk more--and more convincingly--about the environment and issues that appeal to younger voters. He warned against "always trying to remake the world to look just like us."
Huntsman, who comes from a state that John McCain won by 29 points, was less timid than Palin or Jindal when I asked him if he approved of the job George W. Bush is doing as president. He simply said, "No."
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).