10.28.08

A Q and A With Nicolle Wallace, Palin's Chaperone

The McCain senior adviser opens up about the campaign and fires back at Fred Barnes.

UPDATE: Tuesday afternoon, Barnes made a public apology to Nicolle Wallace, admitting he was "wrong" to scapegoat her. Whether it was an error on Barnes' part or on the part of whomever in the campaign told him that Palin's post-selection shopping spree was Wallace's doing is unclear. But the apology is direct enough: "I was rough on Nicolle Wallace of the McCain campaign who was identified as the one responsible for getting the expensive clothes for Sarah Palin and being cowardly and not admitting she was the one. Well, it turns out I was wrong, I discovered. I apologize for my mistake and apologize particularly to Nicolle Wallace."

Wallace accepted the apology promptly, telling The Daily Beast: "I'm deeply appreciative. Fred is a class act."

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Nicolle Wallace is the funny smart girl who is allowed inside the largely male McCain campaign adviser club house. Actually, she's more than allowed in: She basically built the place. True, Steve Schmidt is often credited with bringing discipline and order to the organization that more resembles—in the words of former aide Mark McKinnon—"a pirate ship." But Wallace, Schmidt's fellow Bush-Cheney ‘04 and White House veteran, is the person reporters—and the public—actually see enacting that discipline; whether it's bantering with her opposite in the Obama campaign, Robert Gibbs, or conducting almost daily impromptu press conferences, Wallace brings charm and a smile to the ruthless messaging McCain has adopted.

So it makes sense that she was one of the first advisers tapped to help transition "Governor Sarah Palin" to "Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin." The two women are both charismatic, attractive, and—it turns out—controversial. In the wake of the disclosure that the McCain campaign had bought Palin $150,000 worth of new clothes, angry Republicans—and gleeful Democrats—have repeatedly invoked Wallace as the person responsible for what's become a signature gaffe. Monday afternoon, Fox News contributor (and Bush biographer) Fred Barnes told a stunned panel, "The person who went and bought the clothes and, as I understand it put the clothes on her credit card, went to Saks and Neiman Marcus... the staffer who did that has been a coward," then named Wallace as the staffer in question

“Sarah Palin reminds me a lot of Jeb Bush, who was very hands on... She gets on her email and deals directly with press and the staff and it's very, very impressive.”

We reached Wallace Monday night, enjoying a rare evening at home with her dog, Lily, who also joined the conversation at one point. "That's Lily protecting me from Fred Barnes," Wallace explained.

Wallace opens up about:

  • What Sarah Palin is like on the trail: "She works harder than anyone I’ve known in politics. She’ll go until one or two in the morning and she’s up again at the crack of dawn."
  • The $150,000 clothing allowance: "The campaign made no effort to hide it from anyone. It was on our disclosures."
  • The role of sexism in campaign coverage: "A lot of newsrooms have thought very carefully about how they cover race. I don’t think the same conversations have gone on regarding women."
  • Why she doesn’t want to be a distraction: "I think politics is like an X-ray machine: Everything is found out eventually."
  • And how she feels at the end of the day about the opposition: "Campaigns bring out the warriors in everybody."
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What is your media diet?

I, of course, am a total slave to my BlackBerry. Everything that gets sent to me and I get notes about everything that doesn't. I get everything. I read all of the newspapers but I read them on my BlackBerry. I try to read the local stuff in markets where we've been in to see what kind of coverage we got. During the day I don't read too much of the blog traffic but then at night I read transcripts of all of the network packages and then I watch the wires and some of the political blogs. But that’s not my normal news diet, that's my campaign news diet.

Do you have any media that you consume for pleasure during the campaign?

I will catch the first fifteen minutes of all of those wonderful entertainment shows that come on after the news if I am watching the news live. I love them all—totally ridiculously love them. And when People magazine shows up on the plane, everyone grabs it.

What do you look forward to after the campaign ends in a week?

My dog Lily and I have a wonderful ritual: We walk in Central Park with a group of wonderful, flaming liberals who I love and I love their dogs. I look forward to getting back to our morning routine.

To turn a little more serious, I want to talk about the quote you gave Ben Smith the other day: “I’m in awe of Palin’s strength under constant fire and if someone were to throw me under the bus, my personal belief is that the most graceful thing to do is just lie there.” Is that a piece of wisdom that has been hard-won for you?

No, when I first started doing this I have always thought that you take none of the credit and all of the blame and everything will work out. I've been really blessed. It looks like this might be the campaign that finally does me in but I've never worked for someone I didn't believe in and I've never said anything—you know, I've obviously made mistakes, I think everybody does professionally, but I think politics is like an X-ray machine: Everything is found out eventually. I've never lied for anyone and I've never done anything that my parents would be embarrassed about. And so far—we'll see—it has worked out okay.

What's the most graceful way to lie underneath a bus?

[Laughter] We'll see. I'm figuring it out as I go.

Like, should you keep your legs crossed?

Nobody ever wants to be a distraction. I've never believed that people care about staff. Not since Mary Matalin and James Carville have there been staff worth paying attention to.

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So few people have actually spent time with Sarah Palin. And you have, and you're one of the few people who talk to the media that has. Did you have an impression of her that's grown and changed over the few months you've known her? What has it been like getting to know her?

I think she has had an entrance into national politics unlike anybody else. Unlike Bill Clinton, who came from a small Southern state, he was the actual nominee so he was before different state press corps and he was before the political press corps. With Bush, the same thing. He was governor and came up as his own candidate. He obviously had a pretty big press corps in Texas and was in the Bush family.

I worked for Jeb Bush. Sarah Palin reminds me a lot of Jeb Bush, who was very hands on. He was always in direct contact, email-wise, with reporters. He'd often get back to them before I'd get back to them. She's like that. She's very hands on. Reminds me of my time working for Jeb Bush. She doesn't like a lot of bureaucracy. She gets on her email and deals directly with press and the staff and it's very, very impressive. Very appealing.

So she's emailing with members of the press corps right now?

Not the national press, but she has said that her press in Alaska was very much a part of her political experience there.

She hasn't gotten burned by using email?

Well, someone did—I think a child of some Democratic congressional staffer—hack into all of her emails, but I think she had great relations with her state press corps in Alaska.

I think it's unusual that you work with your husband, Mark, on the trail.

He came out and just had a discreet mission. He was her debate coach and so we were both around from the time of her announcement for the first four weeks. Obviously I think he’s wonderful and brilliant and amazing. And he and Steve [Schmidt] did an amazing job and Sarah Palin did an amazing job. The whole thing was really one of the highlights of this campaign.

Is it the first time you’ve been out with him on the road as husband and wife?

I guess in ’04 we were not married yet, so yes.

Is there anything different about it? It’s such a hard part of campaign life to be apart from the people in your life.

Yeah, I think, especially for women it’s a very hard line of work if your husband [isn't a part of it]…I’m so glad and thankful he’s a part of it. Steve Schmidt and I are very good friends so when Mark and Steve hang out, it’s guy talk. He knows Mark Salter. He knows the whole crew. We have both been huge McCainiacs for a very long time. My Mark was the liaison to McCain World during the president’s reelection. He actually got to know all these guys.

Was there a lot of work involved being the liaison in ’04?

No, we got involved well past any of the tensions from 2000. We got involved once Senator McCain was helping to reelect the governor.

Both Bush and McCain value loyalty. Do you have any insight on why former Bush supporters are coming out to endorse Obama? What is the thinking there? What’s going on that that’s happening? Is it just trying to hook up with the winner?

You mean like Scott McClellan? I don’t know. That’s a good question. I don’t really know. Scott McClellan made clear that he really disagreed with the fundamental pillars of the Bush administration so maybe Scott was policy-centered.

Colin Powell had a lot of things that he was doing in the wake of his experience. He can do whatever he wants. The notion that it was all on McCain is very unfair. He was very disgruntled on departure. He was someone that everyone admires and respects. He was always going to have a lot of attention paid to whichever man he decided to endorse, and that’s a tribute to him. The notion that it was a cold examination of Barack Obama and John McCain is not one that any rational person accepts.

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What do you think will happen to Sarah Palin whether or not she winds up in the White House? As a public figure, how do you think she’ll develop?

Obviously I think she’ll be the next vice president.

Of course.

Along with President McCain, she’ll be one of the leaders of our party. I think it’s great for the Republican Party to put a woman front and center. It’s a real tribute to John Sidney McCain.

What do you think people can get to know about her that they haven’t had time to learn yet that will come out with more exposure to her?

She’s just very, very engaging and she’s very normal and down to earth and very quick and smart, and she’s the real deal.

Is she really fun to hang out with? If you sit next to her at a pot luck dinner, would you enjoy hanging out with her?

I spent time with her around her announcement and her convention speech and it was such an intense time. I only traveled with her one week, the one week we traveled to Wasilla. So I haven’t seen a lot of her relaxed moments. She works harder than anyone I’ve known in politics. She’ll go until one or two in the morning and she’s up again at the crack of dawn. She’s very hardworking; her kids are adorable and wonderful. Bristol, for a 17-year-old to be examined and criticized the way she’s been, she’s just graceful and poised and lovely. And Willow, who’s on the campaign trail with her mom, is just the sweetest 14-year-old I’ve ever met in my life. And Piper has more personality than anyone on either side of this entire race. Watch out, Oprah! And Todd Palin is a wonderful, supportive husband and also a very smart political mind.

What are the media lessons people can learn from this election?

I think the networks have reemerged as the arbiters of what story gets through. Of late, we’ve paid so much attention to the impact of blogs and the democratization of media—everyone can be a blogger and you can sit in your home. It’s almost as the cycle got to such a proliferation of information that I think people returned to the morning paper, the evening news as the arbiter of what is the important story. So while I think there’s more information out there, I think that it’s almost overwhelming for, you know, like my mom and dad. They know what’s on the news at the end of the day. Newscasts and the compilation of a front page has reemerged as a place for information to be organized and consumed.

Like filters now that the floodgates have been let loose.

I think 40 years ago they were becoming aware of the filters. Now they’ve made their choices. They’re going to watch it on Fox or CNN. But I think people appreciate the organization and prioritization of information.

What roles do you think feminism and sexism have played in this election?

I haven’t had much time to reflect on my own reactions, but when you meet women at these events and around the campaign, they’re really aware of it and sensitized to it. Whether it’s Hillary or Sarah Palin, there’s been far greater attention paid to what they wear and how they look. I think we have to get to the place where we have proudly arrived when it comes to race. A lot of newsrooms have thought very carefully about how they cover race. I don’t think the same conversations have gone on regarding women.

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What do you think would be different? If you go back to CBS, what’s the feedback you would give?

Look, in Sarah Palin’s case, first [the media complained] she didn’t give interviews and then the interviews she did were all wrong. There’s a standard applied to her that I don’t see applied to Joe Biden. First, she’s not available, then she starts talking to her press corps, which I think is great. I think when it’s a woman, there are all sorts of connotations to, you know, attacking, or for being a diva. That attack, first of all is not true. And second, you know, if a man did the same thing, what would he be called, independent? I just think there are words and stories that certainly use gender as a weapon. Again, this is not going to decide the election. I think voters are smart enough to sift through it all, but I do think this warrants a more clinical and objective analysis, maybe after this is over, of what happens in America’s newsrooms.

Is it going to take until after the campaign to figure out what happened with the $150,000 clothing story?

The campaign provided clothes for Sarah Palin and Todd Palin and their five kids to wear at campaign events, and most of it was returned. And the truth of it—as Sarah Palin describes—it's in the belly of her plane and available for ad filming or events. The campaign made no effort to hide it from anyone. It was on our disclosures.

People are looking for an explanation—how do we judge her?

We should judge her by her record. She’s not someone who came off the street.

She has a uniform, she wears skirt suits. She has not changed her appearance. She is in the public eye, it’s all for everyone to examine. I don’t know exactly why she has brought such strong reaction from the press and from supporters and detractors. But it is completely unfair for her to have to deal with any aspect with the story of the clothes.

Who are your role models?

My mom. My sisters—they are younger but they are so wise.

Any non-family members?

I learned a lot working for Michael McCurry at a very formative stage in my career. Between Jeb Bush and George Bush, I worked for Mike McCurry, and every day I would think, “What would Mike McCurry do?”

And there were a lot of strong women in the Bush White House. Karen Hughes and Mary Matalin were there. They’ve always been role models in a professional capacity; I try to pick up something from everywhere I’ve been. Dan Bartlett is someone that I learned from. Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman. Katie Couric, talk about grace under fire.

Everywhere I’ve worked. Again, this campaign may do me in.

Why do you say that?

There's obviously an organized campaign to lay blame for things at my feet and I’m not going to engage before the campaign ends. I have a very long relationship with Fox News, and the notion that someone would call me a coward on the air and accuse me of putting $150,000 on my credit card without a single person calling and checking with me suggests that something is going on.

 

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There’s such a wealth of people that could be responsible for this. Why would they choose you?

I don’t know.

Do you have a motto?

[Long Pause. Laughter] I probably need one.

Do you have any campaign or election superstitions?

Not really, I haven’t been through that many elections to develop any weird rituals.

Do you think Katie Couric’s treatment of Sarah Palin was fair?

I don’t know. I’d like to take another look at it after the campaign is done. I think people focused on one part of the interview. They focused on a time when she was thinking out loud. I have to watch the whole thing in its entirety.

When do you think you can do that?

I don’t know

Maybe for her reelection campaign.

Yeah, hopefully. They'll be on their way, transitioning into the White House, before I can take a look at it. This has been a really, really hard-fought election on all sides. I’ve ended up on television a lot with Robert Gibbs, and when you're going to debate somebody, you kind of have to think of them as the opponent and the enemy, but we were both in New York for the third debate, and we drove around together and you know, I heard him talk about having a kid and you know, the minute you see your opponent as a human being, it’s kind of devastating.

There are moments that you are reminded in campaigns that everybody is doing the best that they can do. And that’s the core of what it’s about. That’s what it was about when I started this work, when I was 25 years old and I took a job as Jeb Bush’s press secretary without telling my college boyfriend of six years and moved to Tallahassee ten days later. That’s why you do it, because you love it and believe in someone.

And working in politics at the bleakest moment is better than any other career that certainly was available to me. It’s a gift. All of it, losing, winning, getting blamed, getting credit. It’s all together. Even Fred Barnes, I don’t know him, but getting a chance to make your case [to someone like him], getting a chance to go on Good Morning America and talk about what you believe in. It’s all a gift and no one makes any of us do anything. Working in politics, on a campaign, for anyone who does it, they do it because they fall in love. I’ve always admired John McCain and I would do this all over again.

If working on a campaign is like falling in love, when you get to the point in a campaign when you have the finger-pointing happening, it’s like people have forgotten the first date. Is that what’s happening now?

I think everyone has a good rationale for everything that happens. Towards the end, everyone is tired and stressed, and campaigns usually end at the right time. If it would go on another month, people would have heart attacks and you know…I don’t know, that’s a good question.

Does everything get to be OK again? Even after a campaign has had its share of infighting?

With who?

When things turn ugly, especially in an environment where you don’t know who’s doing it…

Jay Carney [of Time magazine] and I had an on-air fight that became an Internet thing, it was everywhere. My father, who is not very email-savvy, had it emailed to him three times, by two liberals and one Republican. I saw [Jay] tonight at NBC and we shook hands and laughed about it.

 

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Campaigns bring out the warriors in everybody. The very nature of debate, the reason it makes good live television is it’s two mother lions defending their cubs. But as soon as the campaign is over, everything changes.