02.25.10

Palin's Enforcer Bails Out

Meghan Stapleton, the former governor's famously combative spokeswoman, talks to Shushannah Walshe about why she's quitting and Palin's media strategy.

News this week that Sarah Palin's closest aide and confidante, Meghan Stapleton, was resigning her post has spurred questions about what her role was in Palin's world, and whether the conservative rock star will now be able to manage her own press and public image.

In an interview, Stapleton, a trusted gatekeeper who had worked for Palin since 2006, played down her role in shaping the former governor's image, describing Palin as a politician who is unusually comfortable speaking in her own voice and who naturally gravitates toward unfiltered social media like Facebook and Twitter to issue public reactions to battles as diverse as the health-care debate and the 'R' word smackdown with the creator of Family Guy.

"We don't sit there and ruminate over past comments. Not everyone's going to love you. It's okay," Stapleton says.

"She is in control of her own message, Stapleton said, from her home in Alaska. "Her Facebook and Twitter is her own. I find out about Facebook and Twitter when others email me. She does it on her own. She is in control of her own message. No one has a better voice than the governor and no one can speak better to her than the governor."

Stapleton also said, echoing her former boss, that the political establishment and the media fail to understand the former Alaska governor.

"I think what some people still haven't fully embraced is that she is so different than any other politician and the politician everyone is used to and used to reporting on have a massive infrastructure with no immediate connection and she has that immediate connection and doesn't want to lose that immediate and direct connection to the people," she said. "Reporters and others in the establishment and the elite cannot just grasp it....She thrives on that connection. It's a great asset."

"It's a great part of who she is and why people love her," she added.

A political aide who worked with Palin in Alaska noted that Stapleton did not have national experience when she embarked on the former governor's wild ride. The key to her success, this aide suggests, was also her biggest problem: She "was trying to give Palin what Palin wanted which was somebody to say, 'Yes governor, you're right.' And that was her downfall."

Stapleton counters this, saying that she did challenge her boss at times: "Everything that I did I always did knowing or feeling that it was representing the governor in the best of my abilities. Was I a 'yes' man? We challenged each other all the time, but ultimately [she did] what she felt was best."

Palin insiders say that well before her resignation, Stapleton's role was gradually being diminished, pointing out that she was not on the Going Rogue book tour and hadn't been traveling with Palin to her high-priced speaking engagements. Stapleton also was not with Palin in Alaska when she resigned, but was instead with her family in upstate New York.

Stapleton says she was not on the book tour because her husband and baby were sick with the flu and she had to be home to care for them.

She also said in the interview that she remains devoted to Palin, and that she was leaving her job simply because she wanted to spend more time with her husband and two-year-old daughter, Isabella. She said that she spoke to Palin about the balance between family and work often and that her resignation "came as no surprise" to her boss.

Palin's own views of her trusted aide's exit remain unclear. Other Palin alumni say the former governor has yet to issue a goodbye statement, or even so much as a sympathetic Facebook post.

Since Stapleton took over the media reins for Palin after her failed 2008 vice-presidential bid, the aide has been constantly at odds with the national and local press, other Republicans—and other members of the Palin camp. She raised eyebrows with her combative press releases that dealt not with state business, but with personal matters, including one that aggressively went after Levi Johnston.

"I've been criticized for responding too much and being out there too much and not responding enough," she said, declining to comment on whether her approach reflected Palin's direction. "We responded to that which we wished to respond. And I am comfortable to the extent we communicated with the public. Everything done was always done in the governor's best interests. Did we respond to everyone? No. But statements and decisions were always collaborative efforts."

Stapleton emphatically doesn't regret their tactical decisions.

"We don't sit there and ruminate over past comments." Stapleton said. "Not everyone's going to love you. It's okay. I'm okay with people not comprehending or appreciating every single thing we did. She's okay with it."

Insiders who remain close to the former governor point out that while Stapleton refused to return and ignored phone calls from both the mainstream and conservative press, which incensed reporters, she did court entertainment shows and tabloids like Entertainment Tonight and US Weekly. This strategy came at a price: a friend of Palin's with SarahPAC knowledge said that if Stapleton had not blown off the media, "Sarah would not have had half the flack she did."

But Fred Malek, a close Palin ally who knows Stapleton well, said that Palin's success at making herself a PR phenomenon was in large part due to her spokeswoman.

"It's fair to judge by results," Malek said. "Sarah Palin has risen in both prominence and wealth. By any measure Team Palin has been a huge success and Meg has been a big part of it. Who else is there besides Sarah herself?"

Stapleton says that she is sad to leave the job and that it was a "hard, long thought-out decision," but that she is grateful to Palin for the experience and is proud of her service despite coming under attack by both Palin allies and enemies.

"I woke up every day and went to sleep every night feeling confident and comfortable knowing that I was taking care of her best as possible as I could and will wake up tomorrow feeling that way too."

Palin demands loyalty of the people around her, but as has been widely reported, that loyalty is not always returned. The political aide who Palin worked with in Alaska points out this lengthy list, "I think it's typical of Sarah Palin to run through advisors. You won't find many advisors who work for Sarah Palin for long. Meg is at the longer end of advisors who she is worked with."

This aide described Stapleton as "very dedicated," and said that she "took direction well." The aide said that Stapleton's role was to reinforce Palin's point of view and that because the former governor's decisions were often wrong, Stapleton took the blame when that "reinforcement turned wrong."

Stapleton leaves the door open for working with Palin in the future. "I am honored to have been by her side and look forward to continue helping her in any way that I can as she continues to make a difference," she said.

Shushannah Walshe is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.