McCain's choice of Sarah Palin sparks a media maelstrom

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE September 22 2008


McCain's choice of Sarah Palin sparks a media maelstrom

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE September 22 2008



McCain's choice of Sarah Palin sparks a media maelstrom


On Thursday, Aug. 28, the day that Barack Obama accepted his historic Democratic presidential nomination at an open-air stadium in Denver, he basked in the glow of 75,000 enraptured supporters and an impressive pyrotechnics display. The next day, Republican presidential candidate John McCain erased the image from TV screens, shook up the tight election campaign, and exploded long-held assumptions about the attitudes of American voters by unveiling a 44-year-old freshman governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, as his unexpected vice-presidential running mate.

What happened next could very well go down in media history as the most information dug up and regurgitated on the airwaves, in print, and in the blogosphere about a single individual in a single week. By Tuesday, Sept. 2, a day after the Republican convention opened in St. Paul. Minn., McCain’s top campaign strategist, Steve Schmidt, was accusing the media of “being on a mission to

destroy” Palin, and displaying a new “level of viciousness and scurrilousness” in digging into her personal life.

But it was more complicated than that. The choice of Palin—and the soon-to-come news of the pregnancy of her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol—seemed to fall from the sky in the middle of these most scripted of media events. In St. Paul, as in Denver, the news organizations had spent handsomely to put themselves on preening display. The conventions had become media exercises in pricey brand promotion and hard-knuckled competition. Cable news network MSNBC had built an outdoor broadcast stage festooned in red, white and blue outside the Xcel center in St. Paul—where the voices of its pundits were amplified for blocks. CNN took over an entire restaurant in front of the election hall and erected a gigantic “CNN Grill” sign outside. There were 15,000 credentialed reporters covering the convention—a press pool nearly twice the population of Wasilla, a suburb 70 km outside Anchorage where Palin had once been mayor—and in one fell swoop, McCain had released the beast in them all.

When he announced his running mate, the reaction had been a loud “Sarah who?” Major

media organizations had the thinnest of files on Palin. Pundits had little information to go on. The race was on—and in the resulting media maelstrom Palin was, in a way, paying for a McCain transgression. Although no one had realistically expected a leak of the nominee’s name, they wished for at least a trial balloon that would have them filling out a dossier to have ready—line up interviews, cue footage, look smart. What the McCain campaign had overlooked was that the driving impulse of the media machine was not partisanship but competition—the only thing worse than the campaign withholding information on the candidate was that a competing outlet, or worse, a blogger, might get to it first.

Competing rumours and revelations ensued. Talk of Palin taking on corruption among Republicans in her own state was followed by a revelation that she herself was the subject of an investigation into her firing of Alaska’s public safety commissioner, who refused to sack a state trooper embroiled in a nasty divorce from Palin’s sister. There was chatter about her five kids, and news that she was an avid hunter, shooter and eater of mooseburgers, a former beauty queen, sportscaster, small-town mayor, and, perhaps most importantly to some, a fundamentalist Christian and staunch social conservative who opposed abortion even in cases of rape and incest. The fact that her four-month-old baby, Trig, had been born with Down’s syndrome sparked debates about whether she could be a busy politician as well as give him the special attention he would need, and whether such questions would be asked of a man.

Other reports and rumours later proved less clear cut: of alleged efforts to ban books; that she favoured the teaching of creationism in schools; that she’d asked God to help build a pipeline. There was even false Internet speculation that Trig wasn’t her child, but Bristol’s. Meanwhile, a blogger at the conservative National Review chimed in. “There are few better indicators of political success in the U.S.A.,” it said. “She has children named ‘Track,’ ‘Bristol,’ and ‘Willow.’ It’s like NASCAR meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

On Monday, the day the Republican convention started with a muted kick-off as hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast and tested the levees in New Orleans, McCain campaign officals decided to, as one put it, “flush the toilet.” They released the news that Bristol was five months pregnant, was going to marry the father, a high school senior, and enjoyed her family’s unconditional love and support. It was newsworthy because the governor had stated in a questionnaire that she was opposed to sex education in schools. Commentators, few of whom had much experience in fundamentalist churches, asked whether Palin had just forfeited the support of the religious right. It very quickly became evident that the religious right was not about to sacrifice its warrior princess on account of the sins of her

daughter. Then the conversation turned to questions of what McCain knew, and when. How deep was the vetting? Was he a maverick or merely reckless? And, running through everyone’s mind: what else don’t we know?

The New York Post tracked down the MySpace page of dad-to-be Levi Johnston, and reported that the 18-year-old hockey player was a self described “f—ing redneck” who states bluntly, “I don’t want kids.” (He later showed up at the convention, sitting next to Bristol, holding her hand with a tattoo of her name around his ring finger.) But the theme that McCain had not properly vetted his


new partner continued: the New York Times reported that for a number of years in the 1990s Palin had been a member of the Alaska Independence Party—which wants to hold a referendum on secession. (It turned out that the Palin party member had been her oilworker husband, Todd.)

The Washington Post reported that between 2000-2003, as mayor of Wasilla, Palin had employed a lobbying firm to secure almost US$27 million in federal earmarks for a community that had 6,700 residents at the time. That’s before the nearly US$750 million she’d requested for Alaska in her two years as governor. McCain, the crusader against earmarks—spending that members of Congress insert into bills to benefit pet projects in their districts—had introduced Palin as someone

who had “stopped government from wasting taxpayers’ money.” And in the meantime, discussions raged over Palin’s judgment when it was disclosed that, in the very late stages of her pregnancy with Trig, she’d gone ahead with a speech to a governors’ convention in Texas in April, despite discovering that she was leaking amniotic fluid. After an okay from her doctor, she took a lengthy flight to Anchorage, and then a 70-km drive to her hometown medical center. The baby was born seven hours later.

By Sept. 2, Schmidt was raging about the nature of the questioning the campaign had endured—such as whether Palin would submit to DNA tests to prove Trig was hers. He complained that she was getting deeper scrutiny than Obama, and accused the New York Times of fictionalizing its account of how thinly Palin had been vetted. McCain cancelled a planned interview on Larry King Live to punish CNN for anchor Campbell Brown’s aggressive questioning of a campaign spokesman to provide an example of a decision that Palin had made as commander-in-chief of the Alaska National Guard. (The spokesman was unable to provide one.)

The Washington Post did run a sympathetic profile of Palin, painting a picture of her personal and professional juggling act. It quoted her biographer, Kaylene Johnson, as saying, “You walk into her office and Piper [her nowseven-year-old daughter] is sitting there, the baby is in the crib—that’s just the way it is. This is how she lives her life.” But even as Schmidt was complaining of the media’s tone, new details were emerging about her church. Did Palin have a pastor problem? The website reported that Tuesday that her church had hosted David Brickner, founder of the controversial group Jews for Jesus, only two weeks earlier. Brickner had preached that suicide bombings in Israel were “God’s judgment” against Jews who did not embrace Christ, and Palin had been present. The news was problematic for various reasons—not the least of which was the battle for Jewish votes in the swing state of Florida.

Meanwhile, hundreds of guests were assembling in a St. Paul hotel ballroom for a cocktail luncheon of the Republican National Coalition for Life. The event had been organized months earlier. Tickets had cost US$95 a piece and Palin was to the keynote speaker. But she was a last-minute no-show. The stated reason was that Palin was too busy preparing for her convention acceptance speech (in her place, conservative talk-show host Laura Ingraham accused the liberal media of attacking Palin because of her pro-life views). It later emerged that, on that day, Palin had attended a private meeting with members of the pro-Israel lobby group, AIPAC,

to dispel concerns that she was not a friend of Israel.

On Wednesday, as Palin prepared to give the speech that would electrify Republicans and prove she had not been beaten down by the coverage, the National Enquirer came out with an issue that promised “World Exclusive News! Sarah Palin’s Dark Secrets! Affair that nearly ruined her career!

How she tried to cover up teen daughter’s pregnancy!

Family war that exposed her lies!” Because the tabloid had been the first to report the extramarital affair of Senator John Edwards, it wasn’t laughed off, although there was no evidence of an “affair”—an allegation that the Enquirer was careful to label “incredible,” and which drew threats of lawsuits from the McCain camp.

Meanwhile, Time magazine had reported that, while mayor of Wasilla, Palin had asked the librarian how she would respond if asked to ban certain books. The librarian said she would refuse such a request, and then was told she was going to be fired. Soon a list began circulating on the Internet of books Palin had allegedly tried to ban from the public library. In fact, Palin had asked the librarian to resign in a political housecleaning before the book-banning conversation. Later, after a public outcry, she changed her mind. No books were ever banned.

Palin’s in-laws, neighbours, former political rivals and colleagues in Alaska were besieged by phone calls. The volume was such that reporters calling Alaska often met a recorded message that “all circuits are busy.” Amid that frenzy, Palin made her speech Wednesday night—a roaring success. The ovations she received were louder than McCain would get the next night. There was a sense of pride in her accomplishments, and no small feeling of protective defiance among Republic-

ans of their “Sarah Barracuda,” the nickname she’d earned as a high school athlete.

But the questions continued. A story began circulating that Palin had cut Alaska’s budget for special-needs children by 62 per cent. (The following week the campaign came out with a rebuttal that Palin had actually tripled the money over three years, and the website dug up an Alaska official to explain that critics had looked at the wrong line in the budget.) The reporting became even more tabloid-esque on Friday when a business partner of her husband, Scott Richter, moved to seal his divorce papers—apparently giving encouragement to those who alleged he had had an affair with Palin. But the documents revealed nothing that would implicate Palin. Meanwhile, reporters at the Anchorage Daily News marvelled that they were even receiving inquiries about the rules of the Miss Wasilla Pageant in 1984, because an editor somewhere wanted to check whether Palin had cheated. And another smear made its way onto the Internet—this time an anonymous allegation that Palin once referred to Obama as “Sambo.”

By last weekend, the scrutiny was no less intense, but was migrating mainly to Palin’s political record and McCain’s claims that she was a “reformer” and a fiscal conservative. The Wall Street Journal dissected the finances of a sports complex that Palin

pushed for, a move that resulted in formerly debtfree Wasilla owing US$22 million and becoming embroiled in land-title litigation. And at a campaign event, Palin made her first gaffe. Speaking about the federal takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, she said the two private mortgage guarantors had become too expensive for taxpayers to pay for. The Associated Press noted that the institutions had not received taxpayer money.

The McCain campaign then came out on Sept. 7 with an ad touting the two as “Original Mavericks,” and noting that Palin “killed” a pricey infrastructure project in Alaska, known nationally as “the bridge to nowhere,” that had became a symbol of congressional pork-barrel spending. The Obama campaign responded with an ad pointing out, accurately, that Palin had been in favour of the bridge until federal funding was eliminated. Footage soon surfaced online of Palin wearing a pro-bridge T-shirt; the liberal website Talking Points Memo assembled footage of Palin promoting the bridge and the use of federal earmarks to pay for it. The next day, the Washington Post featured a front-page story claiming that, as governor, Palin had “billed taxpayers for 312 nights spent in her own home during her first 19 months in office, charging a ‘per diem’ allowance intended to cover meals and incidental expenses while traveling on state business.” Fier Alaskan spokesperson said she was entitled to them.

By Sunday, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis decreed that Palin would not give interviews “until the point in time when she’ll be treated with respect and deference.” The campaign later changed its tune, and offered an in-depth interview, scheduled for the end of this week, to ABC’s Charlie Gibson. It would seem to make sense. Despite— or perhaps more accurately because of—the media glare, the Palin Effect had flipped the polls. As of Tuesday, McCain, who had been trailing, had taken the lead. A Gallup poll on Monday gave him a six-point convention bounce, and put him at 49 per cent to Obama’s 44McCain’s lead among independent voters post-Palin stood at a staggering 15 points. And, for the first time in the campaign, the McCain campaign was getting more media coverage than Obama’s. With nearly eight weeks until election day, that bounce might fade, but the fascination with Palin probably won’t. Nl