11.07.08

Palin's Mole at The Times

Did Bill Kristol use the Gray Lady to fight the McCain campaign's civil war?

Was John McCain’s senior foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann fired for leaking sensitive information to his friend, the longtime McCain backer and New York Times columnist William Kristol? Were Kristol, Scheunemann, and deputy communications director Michael Goldfarb at the heart of a feud inside the McCain camp over the Palin candidacy—with Kristol fighting the battle in his Times column? McCainiacs associated with the campaign tell The Daily Beast that whatever happened between Scheunemann and McCain on a formal level, it’s clear that there was a serious rift in the week before the election, and that the cause of the split boils down to one word: Kristol.

Kristol’s New York Times column—written inside what the McCain campaign considered enemy territory—was read with great interest. As Kristol used column after column to boost Sarah Palin, suspicions built inside the campaign that Kristol and McCain staffers close to him had written off McCain and were now determined to salvage Palin as a vehicle for Republican politics in the future, possibly the Republican nomination in 2012. Michael Goldfarb—who left Kristol’s Weekly Standard to work on communications for the McCain campaign—also repeatedly came under suspicion among McCain insiders for his close ties to Kristol and his “manic zeal” in fending off questions over the Palin candidacy.

There was a serious rift in the week before the election, and the cause of the split boils down to one word: Kristol.

As one McCain adviser put it to me: “In the last six weeks there was a remarkable echo. You could listen to arguments made by folks inside of the campaign who were close to Bill Kristol and then open up The New York Times and read them in Kristol’s columns. It was ‘set Sarah free,’ coupled with an agenda designed to appeal to the religious right and the more raucous elements of the party. They got their way often enough, and we started noticing that at many of the Palin functions it was nonstop ‘Sarah, Sarah,’ while John McCain all but vanished. Were they trying to get McCain elected in 2008, or to help Palin on the way to the Republican nomination in 2012? You can’t get yourself into a situation in which anyone can credibly ask that question.”

A scan of Kristol’s columns in The Times shows what the McCain insider was talking about.

His first two columns following the announcement of the Palin pick were devoted to general efforts to bolster Palin’s image and fend off criticisms that she lacked the necessary experience to fill out the Republican ticket. On September 1, in a piece headlined “ A Star is Born,” Kristol argued that the Palin choice would bolster McCain’s image as a “shrewd and prescient gambler.” And on September 8, his column was devoted to debunking criticism of Palin’s qualifications and praising her as a woman “of the people.” “McCain didn’t just pick a politician who could appeal to Wal-Mart Moms. He picked a Wal-Mart Mom.” These pieces were crafted in what was in retrospect the golden age of the campaign. After a financial crisis erupted on Wall Street, however, the Kristol columns got became tactical in their orientation.

On September 28, Kristol wrote: “McCain needs to liberate his running mate from the former Bush aides brought in to handle her—aides who seem to have succeeded in importing to the Palin campaign the trademark defensive crouch of the Bush White House. McCain picked Sarah Palin in part because she’s a talented politician and communicator. He needs to free her to use her political talents and to communicate in her own voice.” The same column contains the first intimations of discord within the campaign, claiming that McCain had criticized his staff over their handling of Palin and suggesting that he had instructed Steve Schmidt and Rick Davis to “liberate” her to go on the offensive. He also suggests that the campaign recalibrate and focus its attacks on Obama’s “radical past,” especially on his relationship with Jeremiah Wright. The next week, Kristol advanced this line of attack in an interview with Palin herself. Palin wondered aloud why Obama’s relationship with Wright “isn’t discussed more”—a deviation from McCain’s own wishes, which were that Wright not be discussed at all.

On October 13, Kristol’s criticism reached the boiling point. “Fire the campaign,” he thundered. “What McCain needs to do is junk the whole thing and start over. Shut down the rapid responses, end the frantic e-mails, bench the spinning surrogates, stop putting up new TV and Internet ads every minute. In fact, pull all the ads—they’re doing no good anyway. Use that money for televised town halls and half-hour addresses in prime time.” Among the McCain tactics that had failed, he acknowledged, were the very ones he had advocated just two weeks earlier.

What emerges on a close reading is this: Palin and those closest to her inside the campaign were eager to wage a Lee Atwater-style campaign designed to demonize Barack Obama, with Palin as the figure leading the charge. McCain was resisting this push or at least attempting to keep it within tight boundaries. Kristol campaigned against the McCain strategy, boosting Palin.

On Wednesday, The New York Times reported rumors of Scheunemann’s firing, and quoted an anonymous McCain aide as saying Scheunemann was feeding a “constant stream of poison” to Kristol. Scheunemann denies he had been fired. But Scheunemann admitted to CNN that his email had been temporarily disconnected..

How did Kristol respond? Appearing on Fox News, Kristol protested his loyalty to John McCain and called the anonymous staffers who had criticized him “paranoid.” He explained that the campaign had started looking through staffers’ emails to see “who was allegedly leaking stuff, negative stuff.” Presumably, he means leaking to Bill Kristol.

Video screenshot

As I reported previously, Kristol was instrumental in convincing the McCain campaign to select Sarah Palin, and he stood tenaciously by his candidate. He used his position as a media figure—at The Weekly Standard, on Fox News, and in his valued column at The New York Times—to advance his vision of the campaign’s interests.

This raises an obvious question for The New York Times: Should Bill Kristol’s contract as an opinion columnist be renewed when it runs up at year’s end? There is no problem with the conservative viewpoint advanced in his pieces—he was after all hired as a replacement for a conservative voice, William Safire. Still, The Times must be concerned about Kristol’s intervention in the campaign he was writing about. Simply put, the pundit meddled in the campaign he was commenting on.

Perhaps all of this could be forgiven and forgotten, but Kristol has committed a far graver sin: He has publicly trashed The Times. Here’s how Editor & Publisher reports his latest eruption of Times-bashing:

“Appearing once again on The Daily Show, Bill Kristol, Jon Stewart's favorite whipping boy (‘Bill Kristol, aren't you ever right?’), on Thursday night defended the McCain-Palin ticket, at one point informing the show's host that he was getting his news from suspect sources. ‘You're reading The New York Times too much,’ he declared. ‘Bill, you WORK for The New York Times!’ Stewart pointed out.”

That may soon require the past tense.

Scott Horton is a law professor and writer on legal and national security affairs for Harper's Magazine and The American Lawyer, among other publications.