THE STUMP OCTOBER 6, 2011
On the morning after Sarah Palin's announcement that we have to make do without her this time around, a brief recollection from three years ago, just before her stock began to fall:
It is a cold and rainy night in Wasilla, where I have spent the previous week reporting on Palin's tenure as mayor. Palin has come to Alaska to do her first prime-time interview, with ABC's Charlie Gibson. Palin is at this point still riding the bounce of her electrifying convention speech, but the McCain campaign has seen enough of her to be privately worried about how she'll fare in the unavoidable TV interviews, and as a result has sent a number of its top staffers on the long trip to Wasilla. One of them is Steve Schmidt, McCain's bullet-headed and sharp-minded campaign manager -- dispatched all the way from campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va. He watches Palin's interview with the press corps in the bar of a motel on the strip that runs through Wasilla -- that essentially is Wasilla. Palin struggles with Gibson's question about whether she supports the "Bush doctrine" -- "In what respect, Charlie?" -- but otherwise survives. Afterward, I walk down the strip to the Chili's, where I've been taking most of my dinners (except for the night when everyone in town got their annual profit-sharing checks from the state's oil largesse, more than $3,000 each that year -- no chance of getting a table that night.)
On my way back from dinner, I run into Schmidt smoking a cigarette in the parking lot outside the motel. It is after hours, but Schmidt is very much still on the clock, spinning hard. I ask him how he thought the interview went and he says it went terrific, that she would go over great with viewers. He asks what I'm doing in town and I tell him about the piece I'm working on, and that I would be leaving in a day or two and am looking forward to that after a week in Wasilla. He cocks his head at me. What, I don't like small towns, small-town America? I'm amazed: there's never a bad moment for another shot in Palin's culture war, apparently. No, I say, it isn't that at all -- I grew up in a small town, have worked and lived in many of them. No, I just want to get back to my family, that's all. This gets us back onto safer territory and a few minutes later we call it a night.
Only a few months later, we learned just how much Schmidt was on the clock at that moment. After the campaign, he cut loose with a barrage of candor about what a disaster Palin had been for the campaign, how much they'd had to prep her, how hard she'd been to work with. “There were numerous instances that she said things that were — that were not accurate that ultimately, the campaign had to deal with,” he said on "60 Minutes," among many other things. “And that opened the door to criticism that she was being untruthful and inaccurate. And I think that is something that continues to this day.”
But that night in Wasilla, he was just doing his job -- sticking up for the small-town girl against the mean big-city press, the press that was trying to get behind the scintillating image ("she was hot, and got great ratings") in the few weeks we had left, before it was too late. Schmidt was sustaining the very myth he would later explode, and he and the rest of McCain's team almost pulled it off. But hey, that's how the game goes.