AL GRILLO/ASSOCIATED PRESS
On day one of the Republican National Convention, NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell breathlessly reported from the floor of the session that "there are Republican lawyers right now up in Alaska doing a deeper vet on Sarah Palin." Mitchell was both right and wrong. A "jump team" of top lawyers and communications operatives had indeed decamped to Anchorage. But the dozen McCain campaign fixers--led by a veteran of the Bush v. Gore Florida recount fight of 2000--did not head north to perform a post-selection vetting of vice presidential pick Palin. The hired guns were on the Last Frontier to manage a mess: the prospect that the state-sanctioned investigation of an abuse-of-power scandal involving Palin would destroy the governor's credibility as a reformer--and with it the argument that their new No. 2's relative inexperience was mitigated by her able leadership.
Palin had other issues--a record of demanding earmarks while claiming to reject them, extreme religious views, an underutilized passport and a Cheneyesque penchant for official secrecy and executive excess that put the lie to her presumed commitment to openness. But it was the Troopergate scandal that really had the McCain camp spooked. With its intimations that the governor dismissed Alaska's top cop because he refused to fire Palin's former brother-in-law--a state trooper with whom she and her husband were feuding--the controversy threatened Palin's carefully manufactured image. Weeks before she joined the ticket, her ethics counselor, Wevley Shea, a former US Attorney for Alaska, had warned her with regard to Troopergate that "the situation is now grave." Despite statements to the contrary, the decision by top McCain campaign adviser Steve Schmidt to send a strike force, and the relentless focus on Troopergate by its members, like former Justice Department prosecutor Ed O'Callaghan, leaves no doubt that the McCain camp shared Shea's assessment.
"The fight is over how [Palin] is going to be defined in the eyes of the American public," admitted former McCain campaign manager Terry Nelson. "All the information about her has not been introduced, and once that information comes to light people are going to draw conclusions about her, and the campaigns are fighting to shape the conclusions."
The most politically volatile conclusion--an election-season determination that Palin had abused her authority in a manner that could lead to official sanctions, perhaps even impeachment--was not something the McCain camp was willing to leave to chance. Top aides parachuted into Anchorage on a two-tier mission. On the ground in Alaska, they initiated a series of stalling schemes designed to prevent a damaging report from being released before the November 4 election. At the same time, McCain acolytes, led by former New York mayor and presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani, appeared on national television to spin the story that the bipartisan inquiry was a partisan witch hunt. In so doing, McCain's aides provided vivid illustration of precisely what can happen when a determined presidential campaign is willing to do anything to maintain the carefully crafted image of a running mate who has become essential to its electoral prospects.
"The McCain campaign decided it could come into a small state and stop a legitimate investigation," explained Democratic State Representative Les Gara, a former Alaska assistant attorney general. "They knew they had a problem with Troopergate, but they decided they could roll over everyone in Alaska. They've unleashed what for Alaska is an unprecedented amount of spin. They've attacked a bipartisan investigation and a nonpartisan investigator as somehow partisan. It's all about muddying things up rather than providing the transparency that Sarah Palin says she's all about." Alaska House Judiciary Committee chair Jay Ramras, a Republican, was blunter. "I remain a McCain supporter, but certainly not on this issue," said Ramras, who charged that McCain's operatives were attempting to "rewrite history" by seeking to derail the Palin investigation.
The rewrite proceeded rapidly. By the time the GOP national convention opened--three days after Palin's selection--the McCain team, led by veteran Bush/Cheney aide Taylor Griffin and reporting directly to campaign adviser Schmidt, had established a command center in Anchorage and conducted conference calls with Alaska GOP legislators, conservative leaders and associates of Palin to instruct them on how to say "supportive things," according to an Alaska Republican who was in on the calls but spoke to media on condition of anonymity. "All I keep hearing is, 'Why don't you toe the line?'" said Rick Rydell, a conservative Anchorage radio host. Many Republicans did just that; former Alaska House Speaker Gail Phillips, who initially complained to reporters about McCain's failure to vet Palin, suddenly stopped giving interviews. Calls to Palin's office by national reporters started being routed to McCain campaign operatives. And Anchorage news cycles came to be dominated by denunciations of the probe from top GOP officials, announcements that Palin aides would not cooperate with the investigation, the filing of lawsuits and press conferences where O'Callaghan--who six weeks before had been working in the US Attorney's office in New York--commented, with seeming authority, about how the Troopergate inquiry was "tainted."
While national news reports lumped Palin's personal and political conflicts into a muddy file of Alaskiana, serious political observers in the state understood that the primary concern of McCain aides was Troopergate, a controversy that exploded with Palin's July dismissal of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, allegedly after he refused to fire Palin's former brother-in-law, a state trooper who had been involved in an ugly divorce fight with the governor's sister. Arthur Culvahouse Jr., the lawyer who conducted the pre-selection review of Palin for McCain, admits he "spent a lot of time with her lawyer" discussing the scandal. But it soon became evident that the McCain camp was uninterested in hearing that Palin had problems that might disqualify her. "They had to handle Troopergate. So they hijacked the investigation," complained Camille Conte, a popular progressive radio host in Anchorage.
Essential to the McCain team's initiative was a claim that the investigation, which had begun a month before Palin was tapped for vice president, was a partisan project cooked up by Barack Obama's campaign. This spin was primarily for national consumption; Alaskans knew Monegan as the respected former Anchorage police chief and were aware that the probe of his firing had been unanimously authorized by the state's Republican-controlled Legislative Council.
McCain's operatives did not let facts get in their way. Within hours of his arrival in Alaska, Taylor Griffin--who was the GOP "media coordinator" during the 2000 Bush v. Gore fight before joining the White House Office of Media Affairs--was peddling the line that the investigation "has become a political circus and has gotten out of control." Palin, who initially greeted the inquiry with a call for the legislature to "hold me accountable," underwent an extreme political makeover. Suddenly the governor and her "first dude" husband, Todd--who reportedly had joined the governor in pressuring Monegan--had private counsel. And their lawyer said the governor wouldn't cooperate until the legislature shut down its inquiry and turned over responsibility to the state Personnel Board, whose members are appointed by the governor (unlike the Legislative Council, due to finish its inquiry before election day, the Personnel Board was unlikely to get anything done until after the November voting).
On the first day of the GOP convention, when party leaders were supposedly fretting about Hurricane Gustav, Palin found time to file the equivalent of an ethics complaint against herself, prompting the Personnel Board probe. The notoriously secretive governor dispensed with the "open and transparent" ruse she had employed to challenge Alaska's good-old-boy politics in her 2006 statewide campaign--and that the McCain campaign was celebrating in its ads. What re-emerged was the calculating politician with a history of avoiding accountability that recalled her controversial days as mayor of Wasilla. She was accused of removing Wasilla employees who questioned her authority and using city offices and equipment for political purposes. Palin--who, it was revealed in September, uses two BlackBerrys in order to keep certain communications out of the official record--may be running as an outsider. But Alaska's Conte sees the governor as a smooth fit with the vice president she seeks to replace. "She had to make a choice between sticking with what she said she would do--cooperating with the inquiry--and doing what the McCain people told her to do," said Conte. "They came in with their Karl Rove/Dick Cheney tactics and she said, Count me in."
McCain's camp caught a break when some liberal bloggers and the national media got excited about Palin's family matters--especially the pregnancy of her 17-year-old daughter--rather than the political record that would have been the first focus for a male nominee and that would have turned national attention to Troopergate. This gave Palin insulation--she and McCain aides could complain about "cheap shots" from "the liberal media"--and precious time to reframe the investigation as Democratic victimization.
Palin had always denied wrongdoing in the July firing of Monegan. The governor, who as Wasilla's mayor had fired a police chief who tried to crack down on local taverns that encouraged late-night drinking, claimed she dismissed Monegan for failing to address alcohol abuse in rural Alaska. Palin's story evolved until her lawyer accused Monegan of "outright insubordination." Monegan insisted that "she's not telling the truth to the media about her reasons for firing me." From the start, a number of prominent Republicans and Alaska conservatives expressed their faith in Monegan. Former GOP legislator Andrew Halcro, who pushed for the inquiry, argued, "Walt Monegan got fired for all of the wrong reasons. Walt Monegan got fired because he had the audacity to tell Governor Palin no, when apparently nobody is allowed to say no to Governor Palin.... Monegan said no to firing a state trooper who had divorced Governor Palin's sister because the guy was being maliciously hounded by Palin's family."
Legislators shared the suspicion. The Legislative Council's eight Republicans and four Democrats decided unanimously to hire a retired prosecutor, Steve Branchflower, to run the inquiry. Declaring its intent "that the investigation be professional, unbiased, independent, objective and conducted at arm's length from the political process," the council selected State Senate Judiciary Committee chair Hollis French II, an Anchorage Democrat who had been elected to the legislature after a career as a criminal prosecutor, to manage the probe. Palin, who welcomed the inquiry, had reason to feel lucky: far from being a bitter partisan, French had recently crossed party lines to work closely with her to establish more responsible tax policies regarding the state's oil companies.
As late as mid August, French--whose Anchorage office is lined with history and law books and who retains the cool, measured style of a prosecutor--was assuring reporters that the Palin administration was cooperating with the inquiry. It was unlikely that subpoenas would need to be issued, said French, who predicted Palin would volunteer to be deposed.
Like legislators of both parties, French said he was shocked that the McCain campaign made no effort to contact senators involved in the probe during what McCain claimed was a "completely thorough" vetting of Palin. "If they had done their job, they never would have picked her. Now they may have to deal with an October surprise," French told reporters, noting that the Troopergate report had been set for a late October release (the timetable was later sped up, with an eye toward dialing down partisan rancor, and is set for October 10).
McCain operatives leapt on the "October surprise" line to smear French as an Obama operative out to discredit the governor. GOP State Representative John Coghill--who says he called McCain's campaign after Palin's selection to say, "Hey, I'm your boy now"--demanded, after consulting with McCain lieutenants, that French quit as manager of the investigation, charging that he was "steering the direction of the investigation, its conclusion and its timing in a manner that will have maximum partisan political impact on the national and state elections."
Coghill was wrong, and he knew it: the date for the release of the report had been set long before Palin joined McCain's ticket, and it was French who had said early on that in order to avoid partisanship, "We need to hand this off to someone." That someone, veteran prosecutor Branchflower, is conducting the investigation and preparing the report.
The state's largest paper, the Anchorage Daily News--which has a mixed record of praising and pillorying Palin--dismissed Coghill's attack as "a partisan overreaction." Legislators in both parties agreed, and after Palin aides started refusing to assist the probe, the Senate Judiciary Committee decided in a bipartisan vote taken September 12 to issue subpoenas to thirteen people--including Todd Palin--to compel their cooperation. The state attorney general, a Palin appointee, objected, as did Todd Palin's lawyer, and prospects that the probe would follow its original timeline dimmed. Meanwhile, the McCain camp was busy discrediting a legitimate investigation with big lies that reverberated in the national media echo chamber, as the facts were dismissed or forgotten. It wasn't just Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or even the right-wing blogs that attacked Hollis French as "a made man in the Obama mafia" and an "Obamabot." Ed O'Callaghan was on CNN from Alaska, telling anchor Rick Sanchez that French and other Democratic legislators were doing Obama's bidding, failing to note that key Alaska Republicans, like Senate President Lyda Green, continued to support the investigation. Rudy Giuliani appeared on Meet the Press saying, "That whole investigation in, in Alaska...that's being run by Obama supporters."
By mid September national media were reporting Palin's refusal to cooperate. The Obama campaign, meanwhile, was doing everything it could to keep the discussion on McCain and the economy, offering little if any push back. In Alaska, however, even conservatives were griping. "I want McCain and Palin to win too," argued Dan Fagan, a popular right-wing Anchorage radio host. "But with Palin's refusal to cooperate with the independent investigator and her transparent delay tactics, Americans deserve to know what Palin is trying to hide before we vote her a heartbeat away from the leader of the free world."
Jay Ramras, the GOP Judiciary Committee chair, was frustrated. "It's a shame for anybody who buys this bag of oats that the McCain camp is peddling," Ramras said. His Democratic colleague Les Gara said, "Usually, the spin wins. We caught them on it here. But they're still spinning. It doesn't seem to matter, even when they're confronted with the truth."
Gara's right. So the question is no longer merely, How did Sarah Palin abuse her authority? Or even, What did she know and when did she know it? The fundamental political question of the moment is whether the McCain camp will succeed in spinning Palin's nasty home-state scandal into something just convoluted enough to get the fickle national media to give the Alaska governor a soft pass. If that happens, it will be because a crack campaign team, made up of veteran Bush/Cheney operatives and reporting directly to McCain campaign adviser Schmidt, stirred up sufficient confusion and partisan rancor to obscure what's really happening in a small state that has never before been a prime battleground in a presidential race.
If spin wins, it will not just be the truth that takes a hit. As Troopergate and its fallout reveal, Sarah Palin is more than a hockey mom. She is a fiercely ambitious politician with a penchant for secrecy and a history of using positions of public trust to advance her personal and ideological agendas. It is no coincidence that the current vice president has lavished praise on Palin--saying he "loved" her "superb" convention speech. Dick Cheney is often portrayed as the ultimate insider, just as Palin is packaged as the ultimate outsider. But Cheney recognizes in Palin someone who meets his warped standard for "an effective vice president." That's the inconvenient truth the McCain campaign is working overtime to hide until after November 4.