It's like a really bad Disney movie, you know?...It's a really terrifying possibility. The fact that we've gotten this far--and we're that close to this being a reality--is crazy.
-- Matt Damon, Interview with the Associated Press
On election night 2008, Sarah Palin had surrounded herself with a huge entourage--one that included dozens of family members and friends from all over the country--at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix where John McCain was expected to deliver a concession speech that evening and where his closest advisers had gathered to steel him for what looked like an inevitable defeat--if not a landslide, then one of compelling political proportions. The McCain-Palin ticket had lost significant sections of the country that Republicans had held for the past three decades. Indeed, Obama was on the verge of recording the highest winning percentage by a Democratic presidential candidate--52.9 percent--since Lyndon Johnson's landslide over Barry Goldwater 44 years earlier.
Contrary to what she has promulgated afterwards about believing in victory until the end, Palin, according to McCain advisors, had long believed the loss was inevitable--she had clearly set her sights on 2012--and she wanted to use the concluding days of the campaign to secure pole position in the GOP's next presidential cycle. The McCain inner circle was outraged by Palin's behavior and they were doing whatever they could to marginalize her presence at the Biltmore during the denouement of the campaign.
Completely unbeknownst to the McCain senior advisors, in the final 72 hours leading up to Election Day, Palin had been working with speechwriter Matthew Scully to draft both victory and concession speeches for the concluding night of the campaign. She hadn't cleared the speech with anyone in McCain headquarters--nor had her handlers on the plane--and Scully had initiated the process "just in case" one was needed. The last thing he wanted anyone to be was unprepared. Who could know in advance what the plans would be for Election Night? If the McCain-Palin ticket pulled off an unlikely upset, it was probable that she would be called to the podium. If they lost, it would be someone else's call, but who knew what the mood would be? Scully simply wanted to make sure that all options were available.
In the rag-tag final days of the campaign, communication between McCain headquarters and those in the field was less than optimal. Scully let some people on Palin's plane know of his intentions and he also let some lower level staffers at headquarters know that he would be flying to Phoenix ahead of schedule to work on the speeches.
Palin's nemesis, Steve Schmidt, hadn't been brought into the loop. "There was never a formal communication from Palin's plane [about her intentions to deliver a speech]," Schmidt told me unequivocally. "As a result, it was never considered, never even discussed prior to her arrival in Phoenix. No one thought it was appropriate."
No matter who initiated the idea (and everyone acknowledges that Scully's motives were thoroughly professional and appropriate), Palin knew that such an address would give her a final appearance before a national audience--an opportunity to look presidential in a scripted setting, to regain some of the luster of her acceptance speech in Minneapolis that been lost and soiled over the past two months--and provide her a claim to the mantle in the Republican Party in the months and years ahead. It would also appear as though McCain was passing her the baton.
Scully had interviewed members of Palin's staff and her friend Kris Perry for anecdotes from the campaign to work into the speech. He drafted the concession speech first--concession speeches, Scully felt, were always more important than victory speeches, and it was also easier to turn a concession speech into a victory speech rather than the other way around--and then he spent about 90 minutes turning that version into a victory address. He and his writing partner Lindsay Hayes issued a first draft, to which Palin made several handwritten changes, and they had sent the draft back to Palin for final changes and corrections so that it would be ready for the teleprompter on stage at the Biltmore.
Scully was one of the McCain staffers who got on extremely well with Palin. He had "enjoyed the process" of working with her on the campaign. He told me that he viewed her as a highly capable candidate, pleasant to work with, who had stepped into a really "difficult and tough situation" and performed extraordinarily well. "I think very highly of her," he said after the campaign. "I think the world of her and consider her a friend."
For most of the night, the McCain and Palin entourages watched the election returns in separate suites at the Biltmore. The fact that Palin and her advisors had not been invited into McCain's suite earlier--even though they were in the same building--said much about the frosty relationship that had developed in both camps. Meanwhile, Obama was running the table in those swing states that he needed to claim the presidency; North Carolina, Virginia, then Pennsylvania (where Palin had spent a considerable amount of time) went for Obama by double digits, and, finally, the game breaker, Ohio--and the writing was on the wall. There would be no victory speeches for the GOP that night at the Biltmore. John McCain's once dynamic Straight Talk Express had slowly skidded off the tracks. It was all over but the crying--quite literally.
Later, Palin would claim her speeches were crafted to do "two things: reminding Americans of what kind of man John McCain was and what he had promised to do for the country." That was not what the speeches were about. There was little substantive reference to McCain in either. Copies of both speeches clearly show that the main bodies of each speech center almost exclusively on Palin and her family. A substantial portion of it focused on her husband Todd:
As for my own family, well, it's been quite a journey these past 69 days. And we are ready to return to a place and a life we love. I told my husband Todd to look at the upside: Now, at least, he can clear his schedule, and get ready for championship title number five in the Iron Dog snow machine race! Along the way in this campaign, it was Todd, as always, who helped with the children, gave me advice, and kept me strong. There are a lot of men in this world could learn a few things from Todd Palin. And I am so lucky that after a couple of decades, five kids, and a presidential campaign, he is still my guy.
Among Todd's many winning qualities are the gift of optimism and thankfulness in all situations. And I suppose I'll be counting on those qualities a little more than usual in the days to come. But far from returning to the great State of Alaska with any sense of sorrow, we will carry with us the best of memories...and joyful experiences that do not depend on victory.
The speech was intended as a mechanism of bringing back the "narrative" of the campaign to Palin, of reframing the campaign as her campaign, historic because of her presence in it.
I will remember all the young girls who came up to me to our rallies, sometimes taking off from school, just to see only the second women ever nominated by a major party in a national election. They know that in America there should be no ceilings on achievement, glass or otherwise. And if I could help point the way for these young women, or inspire them to use their own gifts and find their own opportunities, it was a privilege.
As usual, it was all about Sarah Palin. While she praised Obama for his "grace and skill," and acknowledged his "beautiful family," it included an awkward reference with a racially strained undertone: "When a black citizen prepares to fill the office of Washington and Lincoln, that is a shining moment in our history that can be lost on no one." A black citizen? Why was he not referenced as an African American? Or simply as an American?
Then came the tell-tale conclusion:
Now it is time for us go our way, neither bitter nor vanquished, but instead confident in the knowledge that there will be another day... and we may gather once more... and find new strength... and rise to fight again.
Those were words straight out of the Confederacy--and were to serve as a signal that Palin had no intentions of leaving the national stage, that she would be back for another run at the White House, on her terms, without the cumbersome McCain to hold her back.
In fact, Palin tried to deliver the speech by stealth that night in Phoenix. She had to be told several times "no," she would not be delivering a speech, that McCain would be flying solo on this last mission of the 2008 campaign. Neither McCain nor his wife Cindy wanted Palin to speak that evening. They were clear and adamant about that. For the most part, it would have been unprecedented. In recent history, it had happened only twice --Dan Quayle had given a concession speech in 1992, following the defeat of the Bush-Quayle ticket to Clinton-Gore; and John Edwards had delivered a concession speech in 2004. In Quayle's case, however, he was a sitting vice-president and in a separate location from Bush--his hometown of Huntington, Indiana. In the case of Edwards, his were indeed introductory remarks, brief and to the point, and he had clearly used the occasion to advance his own candidacy four years hence. The McCain camp wanted none of that.
Ever the opportunist, Palin got dressed in her suite and tried to place her furtive plan in motion. She and Todd made their way to McCain's suite, where the senator was with his pals Lindsay Graham and Joe Lieberman, along with Schmidt, Davis and Salter--who were now all aware of Palin's plans. Schmidt consulted with McCain and informed him of Palin's intentions. He let McCain know that his advisors did not think it a good idea and McCain concurred. "John McCain made it clear that there would only be one person speaking and that it would be he," Schmidt told me. Schmidt was tasked with the purpose of telling Palin--in front of McCain--that she would not be delivering her speech. "I understand, Governor, that you have a speech," Schmidt told her in his most serious tone possible. "Only Senator McCain is going to speak tonight. It's not appropriate for a vice-presidential candidate to speak."
Schmidt, who had been deeply troubled by Palin's behavior during the campaign, was gravely concerned about the historic moment immediately facing the country. He and the campaign's top senior advisers had held "discreet discussions" in the week leading up to Election Day about the campaign ending on a "high note, a positive note." According to Schmidt, McCain had been a part of these discussions. The candidate had decided to end his long journey in New Hampshire--for nostalgic reasons much more than strategic purposes--and he had done so in the final days of the campaign, engaging in a series of town hall meetings in the Granite State where he had triumphantly began his run in 2000, before returning to his adopted home state of Arizona for the finale.
Schmidt and his colleagues felt a larger duty at hand than advancing a personal agenda. To Schmidt, the moment of concession initiated the process by which "power is transferred peacefully," and that the social and historic forces at work in 2008 demanded that it be done thoughtfully and deliberately. "We were very much focused on our role and our responsibility in the moment where the process that culminates with inauguration on January 20th that that peaceful transition of power--that that process get off to as good and smooth a start as possible," he told me. "We've had uninterrupted peaceful transitions of power in this country going back to 1797, between the Civil War and two world wars, great depressions and everything else, and with the election of the first African American president after a long and tough campaign, we felt that it was very important for the losing candidate, particularly in the context of how the last two presidential election nights have gone--because of the closeness of those elections--that the losing candidate--our candidate--needed to go out and affirm the legitimacy of the election and to affirm the legitimacy of the president elect."
Those who know Schmidt well describe him as a fierce competitor--one junior aide described him as being like a "warrior from another century"--and the thought of being on the losing side of a national election could not have been pleasant for him. "We would have rather have been on the other end of the phone call," Schmidt concedes, but he also grasped both the political implications of McCain calling Obama and referring to him as "President Elect."
It is disturbing to compare Schmidt's concerns that evening to those of Palin as expressed in Palin's memoir Going Rogue. "Aunts and uncles and cousins had gathered from Washington to Texas for the final night," she wrote, "and no one knew where they were supposed to be or even where the speech was." She complained about the chaos of the campaign, without acknowledging how she had contributed to it. And she felt that she wanted to recognize those partisans "who had put their lives on hold and had dedicated everything they had, everything, to fight for what's right." She wanted one last chance to fire up the troops. And she wanted her friends and family center stage. "I felt this ending deprived a lot of people of some joy that could still be salvaged from the night," she concluded. She complained that her young daughter "Piper wasn't thrilled when I had to shoo her and her cousins away" from appearing on the stage with the candidates.
Sarah Palin refused to take "no" for an answer. As the McCain and Palin entourages made their way to the front of the Biltmore, where McCain was to issue his remarks, Palin was still trying to get a final copy of the speech in hand. Her manner was "almost desperate," said one adviser. Schmidt was astounded by her gall and tenacity. Palin's empathetic advance man Jason Recher, who would later be on the payroll of SarahPAC, also tried to assert her case. Just then, the candidate and his wife, Cindy, appeared at the platform. Palin was still trying to take the stage with speech in hand. With a group that included Palin, both McCains, speechwriter Mark Salter and Schmidt, Salter, according to Schmidt, asked McCain very directly, "You're speaking alone, right?" McCain affirmed. After trying to push her presence onto center stage, Palin finally got the message. It had taken at least four times being told "no" to convince her that she would not be speaking.
In addition to the historical significance of the event, McCain's senior advisers, particularly Schmidt, did not trust Palin staying on-script. There was little certainty that she would not try to steal the show. They wanted the focus of the evening to be solely on McCain--a vanquished American hero courageously acknowledging his defeat--not on a political parvenu in constant (and haphazard) search of the political limelight. Perhaps most importantly of all, they were aware of what Palin had become on the campaign trail--a divisive figure in respect to the American body politic--and they did not want her to be featured at a time when the country needed to come together, to claim its indivisible legacy.
Of all the problematic accounts in Going Rogue--and there are literally dozens now that have been challenged --Palin's duplicity surrounding the final night in Phoenix is remarkable. Palin went to great lengths in her memoirs to explain why she doesn't cry. But Palin wept deeply and openly that night in Phoenix, before a national and international audience, as McCain delivered a generous, if not particularly eloquent, concession to Obama. Her tears were not shed for a higher purpose. If they had been, she would have noted it. But it would have been another Sarah Palin lie. Sarah Palin was not crying for John McCain or her country; she was crying for herself.
As McCain wound down to his concluding remarks, there was a troubling moment that went overlooked by the national media. "This campaign was and will remain the great honor of my life," McCain declared. "And my heart is filled with nothing but gratitude for the experience and to the American people for giving me a fair hearing before deciding that Senator Obama and my old friend Senator Joe Biden should have the honor of leading us for the next four years."
The largely all-white audience assembled in Phoenix booed and cat-called McCain's conciliatory remarks. The crowd had an edge to it, one that augured the temper and tone of American politics in the weeks and months that were to follow. McCain held up us hands to stifle the anger--"Please, please..." he intoned--and then the crowd broke into a raucous chant of "Sar-ah! Sar-ah! Sar-ah!", as Palin's tears suddenly turned into a bright smile. She had gotten her final moment on the national stage and a nod toward the future.
In the aftermath of McCain's speech, the two camps went their separate ways, only to encounter each other awkwardly in the parking lot of the Biltmore, as McCain drove away to his nearby Phoenix home. Palin's entourage remained restless. The stage on which McCain had delivered his speech was still in place and fully lit. Most of the media assembled were still huddling around their equipment. Palin decided that she would assemble her friends and family there for a final group portrait. Some worried that she still might attempt to deliver her speech. It was another moment of chaos on the long strange trip of Sarah Palin's bid for national office, and Palin was once again at the center of it. She was trying to upstage the fallen McCain a final time.
According to reporters Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe, Recher tried desperately to stop her, then gave in. Palin had no lingering loyalties to McCain, the incoming president or her country. "My loyalty is to my family," she reportedly told Recher. She indicated she had every intention of going on stage and taking the group photograph.
Carla Eudy, who had upbraided Recher only a few weeks earlier, was furious when she heard the news. She reportedly ordered Recher to "get [Palin's] ass of the stage." Eudy called Schmidt. He ordered his staff to shut down the stage--cutting off the sound feed and turning off the lights. It was an apocalyptic moment. The bright promise of the campaign closed down quickly on Palin and her entourage, leaving only the desert stars of the Arizona night to illuminate the final, awkward act of her failed dream and her uncertain political future.
Excerpted with permission from Geoffrey Dunn's best-selling The Lies of Sarah Palin: The Untold Story Behind Her Relentless Quest for Power, published by Macmllan/St. Martin's in May of 2011 and which will be published in paperback this May.
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