The Salon story that sparked a Palin-McCain feud

Palin asked McCain staff to lie about her husband's involvement with secessionists, and Steve Schmidt said no

By Joan Walsh
July 3, 2009 12:03AM (UTC)
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As CBS News reported Wednesday, Salon's coverage of Sarah and Todd Palin's ties to the secessionist Alaska Independence Party sparked a lively e-mail spat between Palin and McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt. The climax is a withering note from Schmidt to the vice-presidential nominee -- AKA "rogue diva" -- rejecting her request that the campaign essentially lie about Todd Palin's seven-year membership in the secessionist group. 

I wanted to clear up one question the CBS News story raised for me: whether Palin or her staff had gotten media inquiries about the Alaska first couple's involvement with the fringe party. Certainly Salon asked about it multiple times, and got no reply from either Palin's staff or McCain's, but I can't speak to whether other outlets also asked about the story. All I know is, they should have. 


Todd Purdum's Vanity Fair story opened the door on this new round of reporting on the Palin-McCain feud. But where Purdum's piece was long on juicy gossip from anonymous sources, the CBS News story delivers names, dates and clear details on exactly what Palin and Schmidt were fighting about: in this case, Palin's effort to whitewash her husband's long association with the fringe group. 

Salon took the lead in reporting on the Palins' ties to AIP, from David Talbot's interview with Palin-admiring party leader Lynette Clark to the Oct. 10 investigative piece that set Palin off: Max Blumenthal and David Neiwert's deep exploration of how AIP members aided Palin's rise to power, and how she paid them back, from firing Wasilla city employees they opposed, to trying (unsuccessfully) to appoint one party leader to the Wasilla City Council. 

When CNN covered Blumenthal and Neiwert's scoop, Palin demanded that the McCain campaign respond. "Pls get in front of that ridiculous issue that's cropped up all day today -- two reporters, a protestor's sign, and many shout-outs all claiming Todd's involvement in an anti-American political party," Palin wrote to Schmidt, Nicolle Wallace and Rick Davis. "It's bull, and I don't want to have to keep reacting to it ... Pls have statement given on this so it's put to bed." Schmidt fired back: "Ignore it. He was a member of the aip? My understanding is yes. That is part of their platform. Do not engage the protestors. If a reporter asks say it is ridiculous. Todd loves america." 


(Although Schmidt comes off as the stand-up guy here, it's nice to see that the GOP default, even when accused of supporting occasionally violent secessionist whack jobs, is always simply "We love America," as though Democrats don't. The implication is: "Todd Palin loves America -- unlike that Jill Biden!") 

But that wasn't enough for Palin. She dragged out the Big Lies -- secession isn't what the AIP's about, and anyway, Todd wasn't really a member. 

"That's not part of their platform and he was only a 'member' bc independent alaskans too often check that 'Alaska Independent' box on voter registrations thinking it just means non partisan. He caught his error when changing our address and checked the right box. I still want it fixed." 


Admirably, Schmidt wasn't having any of it. 

"Secession," he wrote to Palin. "It is their entire reason for existence. A cursory examination of the website shows that the party exists for the purpose of seceding from the union. That is the stated goal on the front page of the web site. Our records indicate that todd was a member for seven years. If this is incorrect then we need to understand the discrepancy. The statement you are suggesting be released would be innaccurate. The innaccuracy would bring greater media attention to this matter and be a distraction. According to your staff there have been no media inquiries into this and you received no questions about it during your interviews. If you are asked about it you should smile and say many alaskans who love their country join the party because it speeks to a tradition of political independence. Todd loves his country. 


"We will not put out a statement and inflame this and create a situation where john has to adress this." 

It's not quite true there were "no media inquiries" on the links between the Palins and AIP; Blumenthal and Neiwert did, in fact, contact Palin's staff, as well as the McCain campaign when Palin didn't reply. "I contacted Palin’s staff personally, explained the nature of my query and who I was writing for, and gave them my contact info," Neiwert confirms in an e-mail. "I never heard back from them. I also sent an e-mail, which I’ve forwarded to you." The e-mail, to, laid out in detail what the pair found about Palin's ties to AIP extremists. They got no reply. It's hard to believe no other reporters queried Palin and the campaign about her ties to extremists, but then again, looking at the lackluster, personality-driven reporting on the 2008 election, maybe it's not that hard to believe. 

Still, it's nice that even if Schmidt and the campaign wouldn't talk to us directly about the story, they weren't willing to lie about Palin's ties to the AIP, as she requested. It's also fascinating that Palin chose to focus on the passing reference to her husband's ties to the party, when the story was about her own. With Mark Sanford and John Ensign out of the 2012 race, Palin supporters had to be hoping her star would rise. But while the 2008 GOP infighting makes everyone involved look bad, in different ways, one thing comes through clearly: Palin is both deeply uninformed, as well as arrogant about being clueless. It's a deadly combination, and her GOP enemies are likely to stop her before Democrats have to.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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