The true story of how John McCain picked his running mate

The man in charge of the vetting process explains the appeal of Sarah Palin, and why Joe Lieberman wasn't a good choice for legal reasons.

Published April 17, 2009 10:15PM (EDT)

A.B. Culvahouse, a lawyer who led the vetting process involved in picking John McCain's running mate last year, spoke about the experience Friday, and offered a few interesting tidbits for those of us who wish we knew how to quit the 2008 election. (I've tried cold turkey, I've tried nicotine gum, even methadone -- nothing.)

Culvahouse told a Republican lawyers group that he and his team were aware of Bristol Palin's pregnancy before it became public, and that the Alaska governor had successfully answered some key policy questions -- would she be willing to order the use of nuclear weapons, or an attempt to kill Osama bin Laden even if civilians were in the area -- that other contenders flunked. (He didn't reveal the correct answers, though.)

The Washington Independent's David Weigel notes that Culvahouse said Friday that, after interviewing Palin, he told McCain she'd be a "high risk, high reward" choice. Considering McCain's reputation as a gambler, his response shouldn't be too surprising: "You shouldn’t have told me that. I’ve been a risk-taker all my life." Say what you will, but I actually still think the Palin choice wasn't a bad gamble on McCain's part. Clearly, she ended up hurting him. But they didn't know, when they chose her, just how badly she'd do in interviews or in other areas of campaigning, and when they make the pick, she seeemed to have quite a bit of upside. Plus, McCain seems to have come to a decision -- the right one, it turned out -- that he simply couldn't win the election without radically changing the dynamic of it, and naming Palin to his ticket was his attempt to do that. And yes, it backfired badly, but it could well have succeeded.

One other interesting point from Culvahouse's talk: Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, a prominent supporter of McCain's during the campaign, was apparently a serious contender for the vice-presidential nod. But, because Lieberman is not a registered Republican, there would have been legal issues in some states. "Five states have sore loser statutes... [making] it very difficult for someone who's not a member of the Republican Party to become the vice presidential nominee if they only switch parties to become a Republican shortly before the convention," Culvahouse said, according to Politico's Jonathan Martin. "So you were looking at going to the Supreme Court, which is not particularly appetizing."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2008 Elections John Mccain R-ariz. Sarah Palin