By Geoffrey Dunn
Well over three years ago, as I was conducting deep background research for my book, The Lies of Sarah Palin: The Untold Story Behind her Relentless Quest for Power, I had an off-the-record discussion with one of John McCain’s closest advisors about Steve Schmidt’s participation in the selection of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate. “Steve is undergoing some serious soul-searching about his role in all this,” the advisor said, “and he’s got a ways to go. But you should probably give him a call.”
At the time, I was trying to assimilate in my own mind how the “best and the brightest” in the Republican Party had so shamefully — and irresponsibly — landed on Palin as McCain’s vice-presidential selection during what many viewed as one of the most critical junctures in American political history. I devoted more than forty pages to that enterprise in my book, and it was, indeed, a complex, convoluted and highly flawed process that led McCain and Company to first contact Palin at the Alaska State Fair in the late summer of 2008.
Eventually, I made arrangements with Schmidt for an initial off-the-record conversation. I wasn’t sure what to expect. This was a guy who the likes of Karl Rove had nicknamed “The Bullet” and McCain had nicknamed “Sarge.” He had served as Dick Cheney’s communication director and was tasked with seeing the Supreme Court confirmations of justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito through the Senate. More recently he had salvaged Arnold Schwarzenegger’s flailing campaign in California. We didn’t exactly sit on the same side of the political fence.
As a former high school tight end with a bulky six-foot frame, Schmidt had a reputation for being both imposing and intimidating. Republican strategist Alex Castellanos once dubbed Schmidt “the perfect killing machine” in respect to his political messaging. When Palin’s vetting had come under fire in the days following her selection, Schmidt had issued an anger-fueled response accusing the national media of being “on a mission to destroy” Palin with “a level of viciousness and scurrilousness” previously unseen in American journalism. He was wrong. He and his cohorts in the McCain campaign had not fully nor adequately vetted Palin, and the national media were simply doing the job that he and his colleagues should have done.
I had decided in advance of our meeting that if Schmidt tried to inhibit my research into the vetting in any way I was going to push back, and push back hard. I wasn’t going to tolerate any of his tough-guy shtick or any of his spin-making prowess that I had read about during the campaign. When we met, Schmidt, with his trademark shaved head, was cordial, albeit cautious, in his remarks. What I found was not a right-wing ideologue, or even a cynical Republican apparatchik, but a young man then still in his thirties who was honestly and rigorously confronting not only his conscience but also his political values. Moreover, he was carefully examining his own recent journey during which the world’s oldest democracy had just conducted its national election for president.