More Scoop on How Palin Got Picked

Her rise to the ticket was the result of very skillful, behind-the-scenes work by the very Beltway élite that she so happily excoriates.

Her rise to the ticket was the result of very skillful, behind-the-scenes work by the very Beltway elite that she so happily excoriates.

Following the Daily Beast’s initial report of the final three-way competition that produced McCain’s vice presidential nominee, The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine bring fresh details.

The 2008 presidential campaign has not been kind to pundits. The nation’s best known media masters of the Beltway scene were sure of one thing: John McCain’s choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was a political masterstroke which would reenergize his campaign and put it on course to a victory in November. Except that it wasn’t. As the candidates draw closer to the finish line, the Palin pick increasingly looks like McCain’s most damaging among a series of mistakes.

In a recent joint interview with NBC News’ Brian Williams, the “tenseness” between McCain and Palin was palpable, said NBC political director Chuck Todd, who observed the process first hand. And during the interview, Palin misfired badly, giving an incomprehensible answer when challenged to explain her opposition to talks with foreign leaders without preconditions.

By the time the final pick fell, Sarah Palin wasn’t a household name of course, but she had a large fan club among the conservative establishment in Washington. She was, it seems, “their maverick.”

John McCain no longer seems to be reckoning with a victory celebration on election night, instead announcing his plans to address a small crowd of loyal supporters in Phoenix. And among his key election advisors, the name of the game is what blogger Andrew Sullivan calls “precriminations” - allocating in advance the blame for a coming drubbing at the polls. In that process, responsibility for the selection of Palin is the real hot potato.

Following in the wake of my report in The Daily Beast last week, The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer and The New York Times Magazine’s Robert Draper have each tapped sources inside the McCain campaign for a recounting of the Palin pick.

Mayer’s story, dubbed “The Insiders,” begins with a choice Palin quotation in which she testifies that she is not one of the “Washington élite.” Mayer then documents how Palin’s rise to the Republican ticket was the result of very skillful, behind-the-scenes work by the very Beltway élite that Palin so happily excoriates. The Mayer recounting, like mine, launches with that fateful Weekly Standard cruise trip. The luncheon that Palin hosted for the Standard writers gets a thorough portrait starting with Palin’s very political grace. Mayer includes the menu (halibut cheeks) and a cameo appearance by Palin’s daughter Piper. Significantly, however, we learn that Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes were joined by a third member, Michael Gerson, a former Bush speechwriter and Washington Post columnist. Gerson has also distinguished himself by stoking the fires for Palin after her nomination was announced. The luncheon was followed by a field trip, as the feisty governor showed the Standard’s top writers around a mine site in Berners Bay, 45 miles from Juneau, making the case that environmental regulations were harming the state’s mining industry. The Beltway Boys obviously loved what they saw. A starburst was born. Gerson called her “a mix between Annie Oakley and Joan of Arc.”

Mayer recounts that the Palin launch was not entirely the making of the Weekly Standard, however. She brings National Review into the mix, noting that their cruise likewise brought a choice catch to the Juneau governor’s mansion: Rich Lowry, Victor Davis Hanson, Jack Fowler, Robert Bork, John Bolton and Fox News’ Dick Morris.

By the time the final pick fell, Sarah Palin wasn’t a household name of course, but she had a large fan club among the conservative establishment in Washington. She was, it seems, “their maverick.”

Robert Draper echoes the Mayer account with his own glimpse inside the McCain campaign. He recounts the fateful call being made by Steve Schmidt and Andrew Davis at the end of August: it would be Palin. Most of Draper’s account is a very faithful recapitulation of the campaign’s own talking points explaining why Palin was a “maverick” choice. And how exactly did Palin’s name get placed into contention? A McCain staffer flagged that sentence for me: “Newt Gingrich and others had spoken of Palin as a rising star.” A sentence crafted with true New York Times diplomacy. How awkward it would have been to have been more explicit: “and others” of course is shorthand for New York Times columnist Bill Kristol, who had yet to come clean on his own role in the making of Sarah Palin.