My husband called it first. Then, a brilliant 75-year-old scholar and raconteur confessed to me over wine: "I'm sexually attracted to her. I don't care that she knows nothing."You know, I know it's Kathleen Parker, and she's found a lot of nuts lately for a blind squirrel, but did it not give her the least bit of pause that a "brilliant" man of her acquaintance confessed to her that he didn't care about Palin's qualifications for the second-highest elected office in the country, a 72-year-old cancer patient's heartbeat away from the presidency, because she makes his wee-wee tingle?
Finally, writer Robert Draper closed the file on the Sarah Palin mystery with a devastating article in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine: "The Making (and Remaking) of McCain."
McCain didn't know her. He didn't vet her. His campaign team had barely an impression. In a bar one night, Draper asked one of McCain's senior advisers: "Leaving aside her actual experience, do you know how informed Governor Palin is about the issues of the day?"
The adviser thought a moment and replied: "No, I don't know."
Interestingly, she does not mention what her husband thought of Palin, though apparently it accorded with the brilliant 75-year-old's opinion.
Moreover, I have a hard time believing she actually read the Draper piece, because there's no way you could read that and not come away with the belief that Palin, whom McCain had met only once before, at a reception for the National Governors Association, was not in any way McCain's first choice, nor could you come away with the belief that he was led by his dick in picking her. The whole article is terrific, and paints a picture of a campaign in disarray, without a rudder or a message, but here is the relevant passage about Palin:
Then for a half-hour or so, the group reviewed names that had been bandied about in the past: Gov. Tim Pawlenty (of Minnesota) and Gov. Charlie Crist (of Florida); the former governors Tom Ridge (Pennsylvania) and Mitt Romney (Massachusetts); Senator Joe Lieberman (Connecticut); and Mayor Michael Bloomberg (New York). From a branding standpoint, they wondered, what message would each of these candidates send about John McCain? McInturff’s polling data suggested that none of these candidates brought significantly more to the ticket than any other.I just need to pause here and give Draper a big SWOON for his use of the term "oleaginous." Carry on.
“What about Sarah Palin?” Schmidt asked.
After a moment of silence, Fred Davis, McCain’s creative director (and not related to Rick), said, “I did the ads for her gubernatorial campaign.” But Davis had never once spoken with Palin, the governor of Alaska. Since the Republican Governors Association had paid for his work, Davis was prohibited by campaign laws from having any contact with the candidate. All Davis knew was that the R.G.A. folks had viewed Palin as a talent to keep an eye on. “She’d certainly be a maverick pick,” he concluded.
The meeting carried on without Schmidt or Rick Davis uttering an opinion about Palin. Few in the room were aware that the two had been speaking to each other about Palin for some time now. Davis was with McCain when the two met Palin for the first time, at a reception at the National Governors Association winter meeting in February, in the J. W. Marriott Hotel in Washington. It had not escaped McCain’s attention that Palin had blasted through the oleaginous Alaska network dominated by Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens, much in the same manner that McCain saw himself doing when he was a young congressman.
Newt Gingrich and others had spoken of Palin as a rising star. Davis saw something else in Palin — namely, a way to re-establish the maverick persona McCain had lost while wedding himself to Bush’s war. A female running mate might also pick off some disaffected Hillary Clinton voters.These campaign strategists had decided that Palin was the most dynamic pick possible, that she would shake up the race, that she would fit in with the "MMMMMMavericky!" marketing, and that McCain could not play it safe. The machinations went on for a few days, with the close advisers in agreement. Palin, after some brief vetting, was flown to Sedona to meet McCain again; if he offered her the job, the campaign had plans to fly her husband and children out to Ohio secretly. The scene in Sedona, at least as Draper describes it, is hardly the same one playing in Parker's head. Draper:
After that first brief meeting, Davis remained in discreet but frequent contact with Palin and her staff — gathering tapes of speeches and interviews, as he was doing with all potential vice-presidential candidates. One tape in particular struck Davis as arresting: an interview with Palin and Gov. Janet Napolitano, the Arizona Democrat, on “The Charlie Rose Show” that was shown in October 2007. Reviewing the tape, it didn’t concern Davis that Palin seemed out of her depth on health-care issues or that, when asked to name her favorite candidate among the Republican field, she said, “I’m undecided.” What he liked was how she stuck to her pet issues — energy independence and ethics reform — and thereby refused to let Rose manage the interview. This was the case throughout all of the Palin footage. Consistency. Confidence. And . . . well, look at her. A friend had said to Davis: “The way you pick a vice president is, you get a frame of Time magazine, and you put the pictures of the people in that frame. You look at who fits that frame best — that’s your V. P.”
Now all three of McCain’s closest advisers were on board. The next morning was Thursday, Aug. 28. Salter and Schmidt drove Palin to McCain’s ranch. According to Salter, the senator took the governor down to a place where he usually had his coffee, beside a creek and a sycamore tree, where a rare breed of hawk seasonally nested. They spoke for more than an hour. Then the two of them walked about 40 yards to the deck of the cabin where the McCains slept. Cindy joined them there for about 15 minutes, after which the McCains excused themselves and went for a brief stroll to discuss the matter. When they returned, McCain asked for some time with Schmidt and Salter. “And we did our pros and cons on all of them,” Salter told me. “He just listened. Asked a couple of questions. Then said, ‘I’m going to offer it to her.’ ”Parker:
As Draper tells it, McCain took Palin to his favorite coffee-drinking spot down by a creek and a sycamore tree. They talked for more than an hour, and, as Napoleon whispered to Josephine, "Voilà."Oh, I don't mean anything untoward by that; I'm just going to play up the sexual tension that I want to see there. There was a sycamore tree, after all! It's so pastoral.
One does not have to be a psychoanalyst to reckon that McCain was smitten. By no means am I suggesting anything untoward between McCain and his running mate. Palin is a governor, after all. She does have an executive résumé, if a thin one. And she's a natural politician who connects with people.
But how did Palin come to be known as a rising star? How did she become known outside of Alaska? According to Jane Mayer, writing in the New Yorker, it all started with some luxury cruises to Alaska:
While Brickley and others were spreading the word about Palin on the Internet, Palin was wooing a number of well-connected Washington conservative thinkers. In a stroke of luck, Palin did not have to go to the capital to meet these members of “the permanent political establishment”; they came to Alaska. Shortly after taking office, Palin received two memos from Paulette Simpson, the Alaska Federation of Republican Women leader, noting that two prominent conservative magazines—The Weekly Standard, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and National Review, founded by William F. Buckley, Jr.—were planning luxury cruises to Alaska in the summer of 2007, which would make stops in Juneau. Writers and editors from these publications had been enlisted to deliver lectures to politically minded vacationers. “The Governor was more than happy to meet these guys,” Joe Balash, a special staff assistant to Palin, recalled.Yep. One of the biggest cheerleaders for the Iraq war (not to mention for going to war with Iran), Bill Kristol, is responsible in part for bringing us Sarah Palin. But that's not to say he's solely responsible; because after the Weekly Standard cruise left port, the National Review cruise pulled in, and Palin made another important contact in Washington:
On June 18, 2007, the first group disembarked in Juneau from the Holland America Line’s M.S. Oosterdam, and went to the governor’s mansion, a white wooden Colonial house with six two-story columns, for lunch. The contingent featured three of The Weekly Standard ’s top writers: William Kristol, the magazine’s Washington-based editor, who is also an Op-Ed columnist for the Times and a regular commentator on “Fox News Sunday”; Fred Barnes, the magazine’s executive editor and the co-host of “The Beltway Boys,” a political talk show on Fox News; and Michael Gerson, the former chief speechwriter for President Bush and a Washington Post columnist.
By all accounts, the luncheon was a high-spirited, informal occasion. Kristol brought his wife and daughter; Gerson brought his wife and two children. Barnes, who brought his sister and his wife, sat on one side of Governor Palin, who presided at the head of the long table in the mansion’s formal dining room; the Kristols sat on the other. Gerson was at the opposite end, as was Palin’s chief of staff at the time, Mike Tibbles, who is now working for Senator Stevens’s reëlection campaign. The menu featured halibut cheeks—the choicest part of the fish. Before the meal, Palin delivered a lengthy grace. Simpson, who was at the luncheon, said, “I told a girlfriend afterwards, ‘That was some grace!’ It really set the tone.” Joe Balash, Palin’s assistant, who was also present, said, “There are not many politicians who will say grace with the conviction of faith she has. It’s a daily part of her life.” ...
During the lunch, everyone was charmed when the Governor’s small daughter Piper popped in to inquire about dessert. Fred Barnes recalled being “struck by how smart Palin was, and how unusually confident. Maybe because she had been a beauty queen, and a star athlete, and succeeded at almost everything she had done.” It didn’t escape his notice, too, that she was “exceptionally pretty.”
According to a former Alaska official who attended the lunch, the visitors wanted to do something “touristy,” so a “flight-seeing” trip was arranged. Their destination was a gold mine in Berners Bay, some forty-five miles north of Juneau. For Palin and several staff members, the state leased two helicopters from a private company, Coastal, for two and a half hours, at a cost of four thousand dollars. (The pundits paid for their own aircraft.) [But who paid for Palin's?] Palin explained that environmentalists had invoked the Clean Water Act to oppose a plan by a mining company, Coeur Alaska, to dump waste from the extraction of gold into a pristine lake in the Tongass National Forest. Palin rejected the environmentalists’ claims. (The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Coeur Alaska, and the dispute is now before the Supreme Court.) Barnes was dazzled by Palin’s handling of the hundred or so mineworkers who gathered to meet the group. “She clearly was not intimidated by crowds—or men!” he said. “She’s got real star quality.”
By the time the Weekly Standard pundits returned to the cruise ship, Paulette Simpson said, “they were very enamored of her.” In July, 2007, Barnes wrote the first major national article spotlighting Palin, titled “The Most Popular Governor,” for The Weekly Standard. Simpson said, “That first article was the result of having lunch.” Bitney agreed: “I don’t think she realized the significance until after it was all over. It got the ball rolling.”
The other journalists who met Palin offered similarly effusive praise: Michael Gerson called her “a mix between Annie Oakley and Joan of Arc.” The most ardent promoter, however, was Kristol, and his enthusiasm became the talk of Alaska’s political circles. According to Simpson, Senator Stevens told her that “Kristol was really pushing Palin” in Washington before McCain picked her. Indeed, as early as June 29th, two months before McCain chose her, Kristol predicted on “Fox News Sunday” that “McCain’s going to put Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, on the ticket.” He described her as “fantastic,” saying that she could go one-on-one against Obama in basketball, and possibly siphon off Hillary Clinton’s supporters. He pointed out that she was a “mother of five” and a reformer. “Go for the gold here with Sarah Palin,” he said. The moderator, Chris Wallace, finally had to ask Kristol, “Can we please get off Sarah Palin?”
The next day, however, Kristol was still talking about Palin on Fox. “She could be both an effective Vice-Presidential candidate and an effective President,” he said. “She’s young, energetic.” On a subsequent “Fox News Sunday,” Kristol again pushed Palin when asked whom McCain should pick: “Sarah Palin, whom I’ve only met once but I was awfully impressed by—a genuine reformer, defeated the establishment up there. It would be pretty wild to pick a young female Alaska governor, and I think, you know, McCain might as well go for it.” On July 22nd, again on Fox, Kristol referred to Palin as “my heartthrob.” He declared, “I don’t know if I can make it through the next three months without her on the ticket.” Reached last week, Kristol pointed out that just before McCain picked Palin he had ratcheted back his campaign a little; though he continued to tout her, he also wrote a Times column promoting Senator Joe Lieberman, of Connecticut.
According to several accounts, however, no connection made that day was more meaningful than the one struck between Palin and Dick Morris. “He had this very long conversation with her,” Fowler recalled. [Rich] Lowry laughed in remembering it: “The joke going around was that he was going to take credit for making her.” (Nordlinger’s column went on to say, “Her political career will probably take her beyond Alaska. Dick Morris is only one who thinks so.”)I do realize that Parker was one of the few conservative pundits who came right out and said that Palin was a horrible choice, that she's unqualified and unprepared, and she did so at a time when Palin was riding high and pundits like Kristol and Morris were tripping all over themselves to praise her. But it's important to remember that Palin did, in fact, electrify the party, particularly the base, that she had incredibly high interest when she came on board, and that there were a lot of people who found her worth a look. It's only now that we have an economic crisis on our hands that Palin's popularity is dimming. The McCain gamble might have paid off, the usual Republican tactics of frivolity might have worked, had the economy not gone into the toilet and both John McCain and Sarah Palin not shown themselves as utterly out of their depths in addressing it; moreover, in this environment, something like spending $150,000 on a wardrobe for Palin out of campaign funds rubs a whole lot of people the wrong way. Paul Krugman theorizes that it's not just because McCain is at sea when it comes to the economy, but that the electorate has rediscovered seriousness:
In fact, in an admiring column published in the Washington Post two days after Palin was chosen, Morris wrote, “I will always remember taking her aside and telling her that she might one day be tapped to be Vice-President, given her record and the shortage of female political talent in the Republican Party. She will make one hell of a candidate, and hats off to McCain for picking her.”
Morris offered Palin some advice during their encounter in Juneau, several of those present recollected, which he shared with the rest of the gathering in a short speech. As Lowry recalled it, Morris had warned her that a reformer, in order to be successful, needed to maintain her “outsider cred.” In a similar vein, Simpson recalled that Morris “gave a little speech” in which he warned that “what happens to most people is that they campaign as outsiders, but when they get into power they turn into insiders. If you want to be successful, you have to stay an outsider.”
Clearly, Palin has taken this advice to heart. Still, when the moment came for Morris and other guests to depart, Palin was sad to see the Washington insiders go. Hanson recalled, “She said, ‘Hey—does anyone want to stay for dinner? We’re going to eat right now.’ She also invited everyone to come back the next day. ‘If any of you are in the area, all you have to do is knock. Yell upstairs, I’ll be right down.’ ”
But I suspect that the main reason for the dramatic swing in the polls is something less concrete and more meta than the fact that events have discredited free-market fundamentalism. As the economic scene has darkened, I’d argue, Americans have rediscovered the virtue of seriousness. And this has worked to Mr. Obama’s advantage, because his opponent has run a deeply unserious campaign.
Think about the themes of the McCain campaign so far. Mr. McCain reminds us, again and again, that he’s a maverick — but what does that mean? His maverickness seems to be defined as a free-floating personality trait, rather than being tied to any specific objections on his part to the way the country has been run for the last eight years.
Conversely, he has attacked Mr. Obama as a “celebrity,” but without any specific explanation of what’s wrong with that — it’s just a given that we’re supposed to hate Hollywood types.
And the selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential candidate clearly had nothing to do with what she knew or the positions she’d taken — it was about who she was, or seemed to be. Americans were supposed to identify with a hockey mom who was just like them.
In a way, you can’t blame Mr. McCain for campaigning on trivia — after all, it’s worked in the past. Most notably, President Bush got within hanging-chads-and-butterfly-ballot range of the White House only because much of the news media, rather than focusing on the candidates’ policy proposals, focused on their personas: Mr. Bush was an amiable guy you’d like to have a beer with, Al Gore was a stiff know-it-all, and never mind all that hard stuff about taxes and Social Security. And let’s face it: six weeks ago Mr. McCain’s focus on trivia seemed to be paying off handsomely.
But that was before the prospect of a second Great Depression concentrated the public’s mind.