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Jane Mayer on “The Insiders: How John McCain Came to Pick Sarah Palin”

StoryOctober 29, 2008
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Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin has cast herself as an antidote to the elitist culture inside the Beltway. But a new article from New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer says Palin’s sudden rise to prominence owes more to members of the Washington elite than her rhetoric has suggested. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: No matter who wins the White House November 4th, a group of prominent conservatives are planning to meet the next day in Virginia to discuss the way forward for the movement. And regardless of the outcome, Governor Sarah Palin will be high on the agenda. The New York Times reports if John McCain loses the election, Palin could emerge as a standard bearer for the conservative movement and a potential presidential candidate in 2012, albeit one who will need to address her considerable political damage.

Most Americans had never heard of Sarah Palin when McCain first announced her as his running mate back in August. Her national debut came at the Republican Party’s convention in St. Paul, where she sought to cast herself as an antidote to the elitist culture inside the Beltway.

    GOV. SARAH PALIN: I’m not a member of the permanent political establishment, and I’ve learned quickly these last 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.

AMY GOODMAN: Governor Palin’s sudden rise to prominence, however, owes more to members of the Washington elite than her rhetoric suggests. That’s according to an article in The New Yorker magazine by investigative reporter Jane Mayer. It’s called “The Insiders: How John McCain Came to Pick Sarah Palin.” Jane Mayer now joins us in Washington, D.C.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jane.

JANE MAYER: Hi, thanks. Good to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Why don’t you tell us the story of the cruises to Alaska?

JANE MAYER: The cruises. Well, Juneau, Alaska turns out to be a major stop for cruise ships that come through Alaska, and there are political cruises, in particular, that are run by the conservative political magazines that stop there. And so, when Sarah Palin was elected governor, she learned that a number of those Washington insider elite members of the media would be trooping through Juneau. And despite the rhetoric that she’s got that is about, you know, sort of deriding them and saying she doesn’t, you know, seek their approval, in fact, she invited most of them to lunch and to other receptions that she threw. She even brought some up on a helicopter ride to go see a couple sites in Alaska.

So, she was courting some of those Washington insiders. In particular, they were the pundits that work for the Weekly Standard magazine, which is Rupert Murdoch’s conservative political magazine, and the National Review, the old conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley. So she made a great impression on some of these pundits when they came through. They enjoyed their lunches and receptions and went back and wrote fabulous stories about her, and this was one of the things that really got the ball rolling for her.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you know, Jane, if you could actually tell us the story — for example, first, I mean, you had the two magazines, the Weekly Standard had one cruise, and the National Review, Buckley’s publication, had the other. William — Bill Kristol and his crew came into town for the first lunch. Just describe it for us and their impressions, as you understood them from your sources.

JANE MAYER: Well, I mean, I interviewed many of them. They described her as completely charming. And an unusual dish was served, an Alaska dish, halibut cheeks, in the governor’s mansion. And she was — her little girl Piper popped in and asked about dessert. And Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes, who is a regular on a show called The Beltway Boys and writes for the Weekly Standard, and Michael Gerson, who was a former speech — top speech writer for President Bush and writes a column in the Washington Post, were all there with various family members of theirs. And they were smitten by her, especially Bill Kristol, who has really been beating the drums for Sarah Palin, pretty much ever since.

And then, the second group came in several weeks later. They were the National Review crowd, and it was a much bigger group. One of the things that interested me about that group was, among the dignitaries was Dick Morris, who is a political consultant and a very sort of cynical, savvy player in politics, the ultimate, really, Washington insider, in a way. All the kinds of people that Sarah Palin has said that she — you know, she’s such an outsider to, well, they were all at a reception for her there. And, in fact, Dick Morris sort of pulled her aside for a private conversation, which she then revealed later to the group, in which he said, “If you want to be successful politically, you’ve got to continue to hold onto your image as an outsider. Play up that outsider thing.” And obviously, she has. But it’s just so interesting to hear that really it’s a calculated strategy. It’s not just because she is an outsider; it’s a — you know, it’s a ploy, to some extent.

AMY GOODMAN: Dick Morris, of course, the disgraced aide to President Clinton, though usually with the Republicans.

JANE MAYER: Yeah, he was a disgraced aide. He was disgraced when he was caught with a prostitute, yeah. And he has since been advising mostly Republicans and very much down on — he was writing one nasty column after another about the Clintons throughout the primary season. So, he saw in Palin — and he’s written about this — a female who could in a way replace Hillary Clinton as the most powerful woman in politics. And so, he’s been very much promoting Palin in that way.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have the cruises to Alaska, National Review and the Weekly Standard. How did that parlay into, well, Sarah Palin being chosen on the ticket? And if you could bring Adam Brickley into this.

JANE MAYER: Sure. Well, alright, so the cruises come through in the summer of 2007. Fred Barnes goes right back to Washington and writes a glowing column about Palin and what a fabulous politician she is and a promising, rising star in the Republican Party.

Soon after, there’s this young man named Adam Brickley, who is just out of college, and he is a staunch conservative, he’s looking for somebody who could add some pep to the Republican ticket, and he particularly is worried about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as, you know, a possible combination. So, anyway, he’s looking for a female. And he starts with Wikipedia, and he just looks for all the females in the Republican Party. And he told — I interviewed him. He says at some point, you know, he couldn’t find anybody good, and then he thinks, oh, what about that lady that just got elected in Alaska? So he looks up things about Sarah Palin and sees that she’s considered kind of this rising star.

And so, he starts a blog that’s called Sarah Palin for Vice President Blog. And it starts pushing Palin and gets picked up by many other conservative blogs and then finally works its way into kind of conservative radio, Rush Limbaugh, and the American Spectator, conservative magazines. So there’s this sort of growing groundswell.

Now, the thing that interested me about Brickley is, while he is a kind of authentic, one-of-a-kind voice, I think, he is also the product of — very much of Washington, in a way. He’s not from Washington; he’s from Colorado, but he’s been trained by a number of conservative organizations in Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: Colorado Springs.

JANE MAYER: Yeah, he’s from Colorado Springs. And he’s a home-schooled evangelical Christian, one that is so far into sort of the kind of conservative Christianity, his family describes themselves as Messianic Jews, meaning that they believe to be like Christ they need to be Jews, because Christ was a Jew. It’s very unusual, where they’re coming from.

But at the same time, he also is somebody who’s gone to the Leadership Institute, which is an organization that Morton Blackwell, an evangelical Christian, founded a couple decades ago to train sort of cadres of the right wing. And so, Adam Brickley has gone through this training. He’s also received scholarships from various right-wing organizations. He currently is living in a dormitory that’s part of the Heritage Foundation here in Washington, which is another big right-wing think tank. You know, he’s been trained in how to kind of help the conservative movement and how to become part of it. So, he’s pushing Palin, and his blog gets a lot of traffic. And so, there’s kind of this nexus of these forces coming together, both of which are really Washington forces that are pushing Palin.

AMY GOODMAN: I thought it was very interesting how, as you said, he saw Hillary’s popularity, so he went to Wikipedia, searched election sites for Republican women, not that he supported affirmative action, but he saw the political writing on the wall. And he “puzzled over every Republican female politician I knew,” he said. “Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison,” you write, “of Texas, ‘waffled on social issues’; Senator Olympia Snowe, of Maine, was too moderate. He was running out of options, he recalled, when he said to himself, ‘What about that lady [who] just [got] elected in Alaska?’ Online research revealed that she had a strong grassroots following.” [He] said, “I hate to use the words ‘cult of personality,’ but she reminded me of Obama,” so set up palinforvp.blogspot.com.

JANE MAYER: That’s right, yeah. And, I mean, and it is interesting, there was not that much competition, if you’re looking through the Republican Party for female figures from the far right. I mean, Palin, you know, she barely had any experience at all, and even in statewide office at this point. She’d just been governor for a couple months. But there weren’t that many people to pick from. So her resume, her biography, is what really caught these guys’ eyes.

And, you know, they’re sort of going down a checklist. They’re looking far-right politics, female, and then attractive. And one of the things that all of the Republican political pundits who came through the governor’s mansion were —- it was funny to interview them. They were just smitten by her. They described her wearing high heels and saying, “Hi, I’m Sarah,” and introducing herself charmingly. And they talked, almost to a man, how gorgeous she was. They called her a “honey.” Bill Kristol called her “my heartthrob.” I mean, they sounded like guys with schoolboy crushes, practically.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Jane Mayer, let’s move now to the other track, and that was McCain, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. How did they merge? What was McCain doing? In the end, as you point out, he met her all of three hours. How did it happen?

JANE MAYER: Well, this is a -—

AMY GOODMAN: McCain, who wanted Lieberman, chooses Palin.

JANE MAYER: It’s really kind of a wild story, as, you know, American history goes, because it almost didn’t happen. I mean, and it was almost an accident that it did happen. Basically, McCain and his sidekick, Lindsey Graham, who he’s very close with from the Senate, were both leaning heavily towards another senator, Joe Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut, former Democrat. And they really had a great comfort level with Lieberman and very much wished they could pick him for vice president. But all of the sort of political operatives were saying, “You can’t do it. It’s going to hurt you with the base of the Republican Party.” Lieberman was too liberal. He’s pro-choice on abortion. He has a hawkish foreign policy, but on domestic policy, he’s like a Democrat still, in many ways. And so, they were — basically, the operatives around McCain, in the week before he picked, told him he couldn’t have Lieberman, at which — which one of McCain’s friends described to me as putting him in a foul humor. He was really upset and angry.

And so, they went through the list of what was available, and there were so many things wrong with each of the possible picks that they decided to push Palin on McCain. And he hadn’t really spent any time with her. He had talked to her for something like fifteen minutes at a reception with a lot of other people. And so, they engineered then a private conversation for him. He spent somewhere under three hours in total face-to-face with her before he picked her. And, you know, it was then a fait accompli. So that’s how it happened.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of choosing Romney, as one old friend of his said, he just couldn’t stand Romney, is that right?

JANE MAYER: Well, you know, that is what one person said. Apparently, a lot of personal animosity lingers because of, you know, the competition during the primary season. And so, that was out for personal reasons. I quote somebody named David Keene, who is the head of the American Conservative Union, who was pushing Romney and said that he told Romney, “Don’t wait by your phone. He doesn’t like you,” meaning McCain. And with McCain, he says, all politics is personal. So there wasn’t any good chemistry there.

AMY GOODMAN: And this whole issue of Sarah Palin going rogue right now, setting herself up for 2012?

JANE MAYER: Well, it’s really interesting, isn’t it? She seems to be breaking out from the handlers, the McCain handlers, blaming them in some ways for things like the clothing, the $150,000 spent on her outfits, which obviously damaged her image, you know, such a contrast, again, between someone portraying herself as a Washington outsider and not an elitist and then spending just that kind of money on, you know, the most expensive clothes in the country. It really hurt her image. So she’s saying that this was not her idea, and it was pushed on her by the McCain campaign. And she’s separating herself out. I think you get the feeling that they’re turning on each other, maybe so that she can position herself for the next time and try to limit the damage from this run.

AMY GOODMAN: Jane Mayer, I want to thank you for being with us.

JANE MAYER: Of course, I mean, I’ve got to say one last thing, though.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve got five seconds.

JANE MAYER: OK. They could still be elected, so don’t count her out yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Jane Mayer of The New Yorker magazine, thanks so much for joining us.

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