“I don’t think anybody expected this today,” Republican strategist Matthew Dowd told ABC News.
“This really was a stunner,” said Chip Reid of CBS.
What to call this strange governor from the Arctic North?
“Pronounced pale-in,” conservative columnist Fred Barnes wrote.
One year after John McCain tapped Sarah Palin to be his running mate, it’s hard to imagine there was a day when America needed help pronouncing her name. But revisiting the media’s first attempts to make sense of Sarah Barracuda is revealing. Well before the stunning August 29 pick, the outlines of Palin’s meteoric rise and fall were already clear. We just refused to see it.
Sarah Palin was not a complete unknown that day. Her name had surfaced in conservative journals like The Weekly Standard and National Review. Back in February 2008, she’d been featured in a Vogue magazine spread, which made mention of a “small but vocal cabal … who like to mention her as a national star, maybe even a Republican vice-presidential candidate.” The fashion magazine’s verdict? “That seems unlikely.” By July 2008, the possibility of Palin as veep was still being floated and batted down by the mainstream media, too. Two reporters in The New York Times said, “even some of Mr. McCain's associates said she might not exactly be prepared to be president.”
The main thing the public knew about Palin was a political scandal involving the firing of her brother-in-law, a state trooper, which made headlines in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Prominent liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas said that thanks to Troopergate (indeed, it already had the name), Alaska would be the end of the line for Palin.
“Sarah Palin is the governor of Alaska, and a hugely popular one, with approval ratings hovering in the 90 percent range. She was even discussed as a potential VP pick for McCain,” Moulitsas wrote. “Or, that used to be the case, as her administration is rocked by revelations that she and her family used the governor's office to carry out a vendetta against a policeman who was a former brother in-law.”
“Her brand is mud,” he said.
“Many of those who had been in positions of power and authority have been very envious over the past year and a half, with Ms. Palin's great popularity," one Alaskan mayor told the Journal six weeks before the McCain pick.
As soon as McCain made his announcement (which was teased the day before to draw attention away from Obama’s Greek-columns speech at the Democratic National Convention), the media began to prognosticate on whether or not she would tip the election. Palin’s presence on the GOP ticket, some predicted, would siphon off disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters from Obama.
“We’re the ones that have the babe on ticket,” Rush Limbaugh crowed.
“I can imagine Barack Obama is kicking himself about now that he didn't choose Sen. Clinton as his running mate. John McCain has made a wild coup in bagging Sarah Palin as his VP candidate,” Rep. Michele Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota, said.
Pollster Nate Silver was less enthusiastic: “I DON’T think Palin will have a lot of appeal to Hillary Clinton voters [emphasis Silver’s],” he wrote the morning of the announcement.
James Carville, a loud early dissenter, called the pick “the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. They’re going to get Hillary voters with someone who endorsed Pat Buchanan in 2000 and wants to teach creationism in school? I mean, please.”
But Palin was to be taken very seriously, Democratic strategist Joe Trippi countered. “My take? Don’t LOL,” he wrote. “Palin could thrive and strongly help McCain make his case, or she could crumble and damage his candidacy. My first impression is that she is not going to crumble.”
In those early days, Palin was touted as a bona fide corruption fighter—a noodge even to the GOP. “She pushed for a strong ethics law for public officials and took on members of her own party to do it,” said CNN’s David Mattingly. “She also challenged oil companies over pipelines and leases. Palin also pushed back at government spending, killing the so-called Bridge to Nowhere.”
(Nevermind that the “Bridge to Nowhere,” which Palin was initially in favor of, would haunt the governor for the rest of the campaign.)
Fred Barnes—a star-crossed supporter— wrote fatefully the next day, “She has a record of integrity matched by few elected officials.” Even Palin’s hardcore supporters would be hesitant to say such a thing now.
In the woman who later spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at department stores for campaign clothes, Cokie Roberts saw a folksy gal with a common touch.
“The main thing about Sarah Palin,” Roberts said one year ago, “is that she's down to earth. Sold the state jet on eBay. She drives herself. She got rid of the household staff in the governor's mansion and told the children that they were not going to get anything other than their usual macaroni and cheese.”
And may we never forget, Palin, like her running mate, was a maverick. A “rootin’ tootin’ maverick” in former McCain adviser Mike Murphy’s estimation.
Perhaps the person who got Palin best was the Anchorage Daily News’ Matthew Zencey, who recognized that the governor could contain everything at once: “the maverick image … social conservative, working-class roots and so forth,” he told CNN.
Just as the whiff of Troopergate hinted at trouble down the road, so too was a small strain of dread already percolating beneath the excitement. “She is going to be a heartbeat away from the presidency,” Zencey continued. “And in my humble opinion, she is less qualified than Dan Quayle, but he got elected vice president, so you never know.”
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.