article

07.04.09

How Her Mind Works

Mark McKinnon, who helped prep Sarah Palin for her infamous debate with Joe Biden, says he never saw her bombshell resignation coming—and insists there's another surprise up her sleeve yet.

Plus: Read more of The Daily Beast's coverage of Palin's resignation and the GOP implosion.

Just when we thought things couldn’t get any crazier, and that the news might take a break for the holiday weekend, Palin explodes a nuclear device by announcing she’s stepping down as governor of Alaska.

No matter what you think about Palin, you have to give her credit for her ability to attract attention. The most interesting thing in politics is surprise, and she just pulled a doozy. Nobody, absolutely nobody, saw this one coming.

Pretty much everything has been said about Sarah Palin and the McCain campaign, and about Todd Purdum’s Vanity Fair article about her last week, but since I haven’t said it, allow me to jump in.

Nobody, absolutely nobody, saw this one coming.

Purdum called me to talk about Palin for his article. I chose not to participate for a few reasons. One, I didn’t want to add to the drama surrounding the McCain campaign and Palin. Two, to the extent I could offer any interesting or helpful observations, I had already talked to a reporter writing a book on the subject and had done so on an exclusive basis. And three, I really didn’t have much to say.

Contrary to Purdum’s characterization, which is understandable because I didn’t clarify it for him, I spent a total of three hours of the entire campaign with Palin. A week before her debate, I got a call out of the blue asking if I could spend the next week helping run Palin’s debate preparation. There was clearly an emergency at hand. But, cognizant of my pledge not to campaign against Obama because I didn’t want to be the tip of the spear attacking him, which led to my departure from the campaign in June, I was worried that this exercise would inevitably drag me into uncomfortable territory. So, I said no. My friends, clearly in a desperate situation pleaded with me to reconsider. I didn’t want to totally let them down, so I compromised in a way that satisfied my own conscience. I agreed to spend one initial session, about three hours, with Palin talking about basic debate techniques and fundamentals. But, made clear that I would not participate in any discussions about strategies to attack Obama.

Three hours was enough, however, to get a very interesting glimpse and some insights into Sarah Palin. And I know John McCain, Steve Schmidt, Nicolle Wallace, and many of the other folks who ran the campaign well enough that it has been excruciating to watch as they've been pulled collectively through the mud in the seemingly neverending campaign analysis, which in classic presidential rear-window physics always draws to one inexorable and ridiculously unfair conclusion: The winners were geniuses and the losers were idiots.

A few words about Sarah Palin: She is one of the most fascinating women I have ever met. She crackles with energy like a live electrical wire and on first meeting gets about three inches from your face. Her instant subliminal message is: “I don’t know you very well, but I’m very clear about who I am.” She reeks of moxie and self confidence. And she’s fearless.

Well, she was mostly fearless when I intersected with her. But, she was also a week out from a nationally televised debate with Joe Biden, and she knew she was in trouble. She knew she wasn’t prepared. And she knew it would be difficult, maybe impossible to be ready. And the brief session I witnessed, verified as much and I was convinced the debate would be a disaster. But, despite the crushingly stressful situation in which she found herself, and despite the aching vulnerability, she squared up in her uniquely Palin way and made it clear to all of us in the room that she was going to bear down, get ready, and was not, under any circumstances, going to let John McCain down. But, I frankly thought she would.

But damned if she didn’t. I watched the debate on television from Austin and was stunned. The difference in the person I’d seen just five days earlier and the woman I saw step onto the stage with Joe Biden was a complete transformation. Granted, expectations were low, but she cleared ‘em.

A few words about Palin’s campaign manager Steve Schmidt: He is in my strong opinion a man of very strong character and integrity and has been unfairly attacked, by people with axes grinding, as being responsible for unflattering leaks about the governor.

When you understand the full history of the McCain campaign and that Steve was deeply involved with picking Palin in the first place, and if you’ve spent any time at all with the guy, you know the notion of Schmidt “leaking” makes no sense.

The difference in the person I’d seen just five days earlier and the woman I saw step onto the stage with Joe Biden was a complete transformation.

My experience in politics has proven this: When someone leaks once, they tend to leak again. And if they are doing so by the time they’ve reached Schmidt’s level in presidential campaigns, they probably have a well-developed track record. Steve has served in high-profile roles in Republican politics for years. During the 2004 presidential race, he ran rapid response and was a part of a small group of strategists who met with Karl Rove daily. No suspicion of leaks. After the campaign, he served as the vice president’s communications director and deputy assistant to the president. Again, no suspicion of leaks. He helped confirm John Roberts to the Supreme Court and led the confirmation effort for Samuel Alito. No leaks. At each juncture, damaging information from private conversations or meetings between himself and his clients was never a part of the media narrative. I’ve also followed his activities in California, where he has maintained the confidence of Gov. Schwarzenegger from the time he arrived in February 2006 until this day. And I bet that’s because I’ve never read about a leaked private conversation he’s had with the governor.

When John McCain’s campaign imploded in the summer of 2007, Steve made a decision to volunteer for the senator—providing his services for free, as did I—to help see him through the primaries. The decision was considered by many as detrimental from a career perspective. Nobody thought our campaign would come close to getting the nomination, so Schmidt made a decision to work for free on a campaign that was probably going to lose. In a political consultant’s line of work, that’s just about unheard of. But Schmidt felt a sense of duty to a man we both viewed as one of the most honorable in politics, so he gave up lucrative opportunities elsewhere to help John McCain end his campaign with dignity. It would make no sense to think that Steve would later try to undermine a candidate he had previously risked so much for, by leaking damaging information about his vice-presidential pick. To the contrary, his respect for McCain was what fueled his efforts to protect the ticket’s vice-presidential nominee. From everything I witnessed, Steve was instrumental to the defense of her reputation from unfair attacks throughout the campaign.

Back to Palin. So, wassup in Wasilla? Maybe she’s just tired of all the drama and simply wants to stop the madness surrounding her. Maybe she wants to focus on her family. Maybe she wants to make a lot of money giving speeches. Maybe she wants to host her own TV show. Maybe she wants to start a Barry Goldwater-like movement. And maybe she wants to run for president in 2012. Or, maybe she’s got a boyfriend in Argentina.

Only one thing is for sure when it comes to Palin: There is more to come. Probably much more. And we’ll all be watching, fascinated by the antics of the thriller from Wasilla.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, causes, and individuals, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.