The losers who gave us Sarah Palin

The GOP operatives who championed her should be held accountable for endangering the country

By Joe Conason
July 10, 2009 2:18PM (UTC)
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Republican vice presidential candidate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, sits in her vehicle with Steve Schmidt, chief strategist for the McCain campaign after arriving on a chartered plane with Cindy McCain, wife of Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for the Republican National Convention at the Minneapolis International Airport in Bloomington, Minn., Sunday, Aug. 31, 2008.

Disaster is often followed by recrimination, a bitter aspect of human nature that can be observed among the Republicans as the Sarah Palin fiasco continues to unfold. The Alaska governor's surprise resignation, amid negative press coverage in Vanity Fair and elsewhere, suddenly revived dormant feuding among campaign operatives and conservative media figures -- notably between Steve Schmidt, the former campaign manager, and Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor and Fox News commentator.

In ordinary circumstances, all their bitchy backbiting, spinning and fabricating would be of little interest except as comic entertainment for political junkies. Who first called Palin a "diva"? Who insinuated that she might suffer from postpartum depression? Who searched computer files to find out which staffer was leaking these bilious tidbits to the press? And who cares now, eight months later, except for these losers?


Plainly there is no reason why anyone should care, except for one small nagging concern. It is worth remembering that these are the same people who chose Palin, a manifestly unqualified and incompetent politician unable to string together a series of coherent sentences, as the potential presidential successor to a 72-year-old cancer survivor. So it would be refreshing and salubrious to see the perpetrators of that contemptuous and cynical tactic held accountable for endangering the country.

The latest eruptions from Kristol, Schmidt and all the lesser actors in the Republican reality show echo similar complaints from the closing days of the campaign last fall, when they were blaming each other for the obvious mistake of Palin's nomination. Back then, Schmidt and other top figures in the McCain orbit -- including lobbyists Rick Davis and Charles Black and speechwriter Mark Salter -- started to seek distance from the Wasilla phenomenon as soon as they realized that their ticket was going to lose the election, and that her nomination might well be counted among the reasons. In assigning responsibility for impending doom, these gentlemen criticized not only Palin herself but her cheerleaders on the right, the most vocal of whom had been Kristol.

But in late October 2008, the New York Times Sunday Magazine published an extraordinary and timely story that explained exactly how McCain had come to select Palin. According to that article, Schmidt had collaborated with Davis and Salter to promote Palin over several more qualified candidates -- after a cursory background investigation that revealed almost nothing about her lack of knowledge, bizarre official conduct, and narcissistic temperament. When the three insiders presented her to a smitten, impetuous McCain, he accepted their judgment, ratified by Charlie Black, one of the most experienced Republican operatives in Washington, who told him that if he chose her, he might win -- and otherwise he would surely lose.


It is true, of course, that Kristol had been pushing Palin forward with almost puppyish enthusiasm, ever since his infatuating luncheon with her at the governor's mansion in Juneau during a summer cruise sponsored by his magazine in 2007. "She could be both an effective vice-presidential candidate and an effective president," he gushed on Fox News Sunday. "She's young, energetic." It is also true, however, that McCain, Schmidt, Davis and Salter chose to listen to Kristol, almost always a political mistake with consequences ranging from the merely absurd to the utterly dire. (The latter category includes the invasion of Iraq, with an astronomical cost in lives and treasure that should be charged to him and his magazine, as he used to boast.)

Enormous as Kristol's errors in judgment surely were, at least he can plausibly claim to be loyal. If anything he is too steadfast, still insisting that Palin deserves to be considered a serious candidate for the presidency and that her qualifications for that position are comparable to those of Barack Obama.

If that sounds ridiculous -- and it does to most sane people -- then let's not forget that Schmidt and many other Republicans were making the same argument on Palin's behalf, at least publicly, not so long ago. When journalists dared to question her qualifications, after the excited flush faded from her convention debut, Schmidt was belligerent -- as befitted a protégé of Karl Rove.


"Her selection came after a six-month-long, rigorous vetting process where her extraordinary credentials and exceptionalism became clear," he barked. "This vetting controversy is a faux media scandal designed to destroy the first female Republican nominee for vice president of the United States who has never been a part of the old boys' network that has come to dominate the news establishment in this country."

Schmidt was lying -- about the process, about her credentials, about the confidence he and his cronies supposedly had in her, and about the media questions that he knew to be legitimate.


Rarely is anyone in Washington, from politicians to operatives to journalists, held accountable for the damage they inflict on the body politic. Those who banged the drum for disastrous war flit from one editorial page to the next; those who insisted on ruinous deregulation return as economic advisors to the president. The men who told us that Sarah Palin should be next in line of succession to the presidency may quarrel among themselves now, but they will all be back with yet more stupid advice -- and we can only blame ourselves if we listen.

Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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