11.17.09

Palin's Katie Couric Myths

Sarah Palin’s account of her infamous interview with “the perky one” is not the whole story. Shushannah Walshe on what Going Rogue gets wrong about the TV showdown that doomed her.

In Sarah Palin’s new memoir, Going Rogue, the former vice-presidential candidate spends considerable time revisiting her infamous series of interviews with Katie Couric.

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Palin does not, however, spend much time taking responsibility for her own mistakes. Instead, she accuses the CBS Evening News anchor (“the perky one,” as she referred to Couric on Oprah) of bias and holds the McCain campaign to the fire for setting up the seven interviews, which were held over the course of two days. Accounts of inaccuracies and embellishments in Going Rogue have already been widely reported, but Palin’s retelling of the Couric story is particularly ridden with questionable claims and glaring omissions.

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For Sarah from Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar, my co-author and I conducted 190 interviews over eight months and spoke to most of the aides who were with Palin during her disastrous conversations with Couric. In the space below, I will attempt to sort fact from fiction and justifiable grievances from unsubstantiated claims. (In the interest of full disclosure, my co-author, Scott Conroy, works for CBS News, and I have been a “special contributor” on a few CBSNews.com articles. I covered Palin’s campaign as an embedded reporter for Fox News.)

  1. That Conversation With Nicolle Wallace: Palin alludes to deep suspicions she harbored over the motivations and loyalty of her former communications adviser, Nicolle Wallace. Throughout her book, Palin blames Wallace for pushing the Couric interviews because of Wallace’s previous relationship as a CBS News contributor. Palin describes a conversation she says she had with Wallace that made her begin to “feel sorry” for Couric, writing: “Nicolle went on to explain that Katie really needed a career boost. ‘She just has such low self-esteem,’ Nicolle said. She added that Katie was going through a tough time. ‘She just feels she can’t trust anybody.’

    When Couric mentioned that she would ask Palin what she read, everyone agreed it would be a great way to get a better sense of how Palin—a politician who was still brand new to the national scene—obtained her information.

    “‘Katie wants people to like her,’ Nicolle said. ‘She wants you to like her.’”

    In an on-the-record email Tuesday, Wallace disputed that the conversation Palin describes ever occurred. “It is pure fiction,” Wallace wrote. “No such discussion took place.”

  2. On the Expensive Stylist Connection: Palin states twice in Going Rogue that the New York stylist whom the campaign hired to buy the pricey wardrobe for her and her family was also Couric’s stylist. If Palin’s claim were true, it would offer an interesting connection between the Couric fiasco and high-priced wardrobe saga. But according to the stylist herself, Palin’s assertion is false.

    In reporting for Sarah from Alaska, I sat down with the stylist, Lisa A. Kline, for an exclusive interview. It was the first time that Kline had spoken out publicly since the purchases turned into an embarrassing flap for the McCain campaign. The “team of stylists” around her in Minneapolis that Palin describes consisted of Kline, her assistant, and a seamstress. Senior adviser Nicolle Wallace reached out to Kline because of their shared history at CBS, but during my interview, I asked Kline if she had done any work for Couric. Her response was definitive: “No, no, I did not. Katie has her own stylist, and no, definitely not.”
  3. The Question of Bias: In Palin’s book, she describes Couric as “badgering” and having a “partisan agenda.” Yet through our reporting in Sarah from Alaska, we disclose that campaign staffers, many of whom Palin praises in her book and remain loyal to the former governor, thought that Couric’s questions were fair. Some of them did take issue with the way the interviews were edited, as Palin did, but none of them said the interviewer herself was out of line. Yes, Couric did press Palin on the Alaska governor’s abortion views, but she spent the majority of the interviews focused on issues unrelated to social policy, particularly the financial crisis and international affairs.

    “Prepping her for the interview on the financial crisis was the No. 1 subject of her interview preparation. She should have known that she was getting that question. It wasn’t a gotcha question because we told her she was going to get it,” said a former McCain staffer who helped Palin prepare for the interview. He explained that Palin was very upset by Couric’s questioning on social issues such as the morning-after pill and homosexuality, but that she could have handled it better. “Those questions in and of themselves were not difficult questions, but they understandably angered her. A more experienced candidate would have known how to deal with the situation rather than refusing to answer questions that were otherwise easy.”

  4. Preparation: Palin was confronted by an avalanche of information and events at the time of the Couric interviews, including meetings with world leaders during the United Nations General Assembly, preparing for her debate with Joe Biden, and sliding approval ratings at home in Alaska, coupled with the Troopergate investigation, which threatened her reputation as an ethical stalwart. But preparing for the Couric interview seemed to fall to the bottom of Palin’s list. After all, she had gotten out of the Charlie Gibson interview relatively unscathed. In Sarah from Alaska, we describe a scene that reveals how relatively unconcerned Palin was about her upcoming interview with Couric. The morning of the first sitdown, Palin gathered with close aides for a final cram session, but instead of going over questions she might be asked, the candidate was preoccupied with a questionnaire from her local newspaper, the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman. Palin was upset that her staff had not answered the questions sooner and given her more time to review them. “This is not how I do things,” she said. “I told you guys this week that this was a priority and it took you four days to turn it around. This is my priority.”
  1. The Supreme Court Question: In Going Rogue, Palin mentions the Exxon Valdez Supreme Court case and how the 20-year litigation process “compounded the suffering” for Alaskans. In June 2008, when the Supreme Court cut Exxon’s payment to Alaskans from $5 billion to $500 million, Palin spoke out passionately against the payout slash. Yet when Couric asked her what Supreme Court cases she disagreed with besides Roe v. Wade, the Alaska governor couldn’t come up with anything. In Sarah from Alaska, we document how Palin later commiserated with staffers about how she wished she had brought up the Exxon Valdez example or any of the other Supreme Court decisions with which she disagreed.

    “‘I wish I had just used one of those,’ Palin lamented privately after the interview. The unexpressed thought swirling through more than one aide’s mind was, ‘Well, why didn’t you?’ Her aides later discussed with her a couple of court cases that she could bring up with Couric in one of the next week’s interview installments, but Palin failed to do so.”

  2. Palin’s Reading Material: Palin writes in her book about how offended she was when Couric asked her what books and magazines she regularly read to establish her worldview.

    “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to—or as some have ludicrously suggested, couldn’t—answer her question; it was that her condescension irritated me. It was as though she had suddenly stumbled on a primitive newcomer from an undiscovered tribe.”

    In Sarah from Alaska, we describe how astonished staffers were that Palin chose not to answer the simple question and write that campaign aides had actually prepared her to answer a similar question.

    “It wasn’t the exact question Palin’s aides had anticipated, but it was close. They had guessed that Couric, or a future interviewer, might ask the governor what nonfiction books she had read recently,” we write in Sarah from Alaska, “From his vantage point behind the cameras, Chris Edwards looked on in horror at Palin’s refusal to answer the question. He was the one who brought press clippings to her room each morning, and he knew that she got her news from a variety of sources. Why didn’t she just answer the question?”

  3. Gotcha Questions: Palin blames Couric for focusing on “gotcha questions.” Palin writes, “But Katie’s purpose—shared by most media types—seemed to be to frame a ‘gotcha’ moment. And it worked.” She then takes some accountability, writing: “Instead of my scoring points for John McCain, I knew that I had let the team down.”

    Yet inside the white, 12-passenger van in Columbus, Ohio, where Couric sat with executive producer Rick Kaplan, her researcher, and my co-author, as they discussed potential questions before one of the interviews, the conversation was quite different. When my co-author suggested a complex foreign-policy question, Kaplan immediately shot down the idea, insisting that it was important to avoid any semblance of “gotcha questions.” When Couric mentioned that she would ask Palin what she read, everyone in the van agreed it would be a great way to get a better sense of how Palin—a politician who was still brand new to the national scene—obtained her information.

  4. Campaign Reaction: Palin writes about how surprised she was when McCain senior adviser Nicolle Wallace addressed her after the first installment of Couric interviews to offer encouragement on her performance. According to Palin, Wallace said, “‘That was great! Now, for tomorrow what we’re going to—’

    ‘There’s going to be a ‘tomorrow’?’ I asked.

    ‘Yeah there’s another segment—you were really good today.’

    I thought, Dear Lord if that’s what you call a good interview, then I don’t know what a bad one is.”

    We report a similar exchange with Wallace in our book, but Palin neglects to mention a later conversation with two top aides on the McCain campaign, which we report in Sarah from Alaska.

    “Steve Schmidt and Rick Davis pulled her aside and told her in no uncertain terms that the first round of Couric interviews had been a disaster, and the repercussions had been severe. Still, she was not the first politician to have bombed an interview, and the solution was to buckle down and make sure she was prepared the next time.”

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Shushannah Walshe was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.