A She Said, She Said Story

Sarah Palin gives the GOP an early start on its Thanksgiving family fight.

Sarah Palin. Click image to expand.
Sarah Palin

The Republican Party is having its Thanksgiving family fight early—and for that it can thank Sarah Palin. Palin, whose book is officially out Tuesday, has set off a new round of fighting with former McCain aides. Dede Scozzafava, the Republican who Palin refused to endorse in the race for a New York congressional seat, is firing back. Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, who once worked for Mitt Romney, is the latest to question Charlie Crist, the Republican governor of Florida, who is in a primary fight against conservative Marco Rubio.

Yes, the Democratic Party is still dysfunctional—just ask Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid or White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, both of whom have recently had to intervene to calm squabbling Democrats. There’s bickering in the administration, too. But now Republicans are starting to rival their opponents in their chronic condition of family strife.

For sheer disruptive value, no uncle who hogs the gravy can match Palin. She is wildly popular among conservatives, but her book—which will explode in full flower next week—will re-open old wounds. After being attacked anonymously by former McCain aides for months, she is pushing back. Charges and counter-charges will fly, and the bickering is likely to occasion a new round in the GOP debate among moderates, conservatives, insiders, outsiders, and self-styled outsiders over how the Republican Party should proceed.

In response to the leaks about her book, Palin has posted on her Facebook page. “As is expected, the AP and a number of subsequent media outlets are erroneously reporting the contents of the book.” It’s not clear whether she means the media has gotten the facts wrong or merely presented them in a way that she does not like. She tells her committed supporters to “keep their powder dry” and wait for the actual book.

The press’s failings are a recurring theme with the former governor: She says we make stuff up. It’s a serious charge. It’s one thing to get the facts wrong—to “erroneously report,” in her words—and it’s quite another to consciously bend the material to meet your own ends.

Does Palin meet her own rigorous standards? The Associated Press suggests she does not. Let’s examine a passage that has received a lot of media attention: her account of the negotiations over her interview with Katie Couric. (Disclosure: I work for CBS.)

Palin starts the passage setting the stage:

By the third week in September, a “Free Sarah” campaign was under way and the press at large was growing increasingly critical of the McCain camp’s decision to keep me, my family and friends back home, and my governor’s staff all bottled up. Meanwhile, the question of which news outlet would land the first interview was a big deal, as it always is with a major party candidate.

Palin’s chronology is off. By the third week in September she had not been “all bottled up.” She’d given one network interview—with ABC’s Charlie Gibson—and another interview with Fox News had been announced. By the third week of September, the campaign was in full Palin roll-out mode. Indeed, the interview with Couric had already been agreed to by then.

Anyone can get the dates wrong, especially when you’re rushing to get a book out. But that’s not the only way in which the facts are askew. Palin makes it seem like the disastrous Couric interview was her first interview. It wasn’t. She also says her suggestion that the campaign “start talking to outlets like FOX” was ignored because she “didn’t have a say in which press I was going to talk to.” But Palin did a two-part interview with Sean Hannity of Fox a week before she talked to Couric.

It gets stranger. Palin says “while the media blackout continued” she “snuck in calls to folks like Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity.” Sean Hannity? Why was it necessary to make furtive phone calls to a guy you just gave a two-part interview to?

Massaging these facts does make her story better, of course. Reporters have been doing this for years, including with Palin. Now Sarah Palin has done it to Sarah Palin—portraying herself as a wise but unheeded adviser on the question of her own media strategy.

The passage has gotten attention because it includes some political score-settling. The Couric interview went very badly for Palin. For that and other reasons, Palin and her allies blame McCain aide Nicolle Wallace, who set it up. In Palin’s retelling, Wallace, who was once a CBS analyst, is fixated on helping Couric and not the campaign. Palin quotes Wallace at length talking about Couric:

“She just has such low self-esteem,” Nicolle said. She added that Katie was going through a tough time. “She just feels she can’t trust anybody.”

I was thinking, And this has to do with John McCain’s campaign how?

Nicolle said. “She wants you to like her.”

That’s just a snippet of the larger conversation Palin reproduces. That’s hard to do from memory. Palin’s either very good, or she’s taking some license. (If it’s the latter, her ability to make Couric and Wallace look so bad suggests hidden talents as a playwright.)

The attempt to discredit Wallace goes further. Palin also says that Wallace was disloyal to George Bush, whom she worked for in the White House and helped re-elect in 2004. “She didn’t have much to say that was positive about her former boss or the job in general,” writes Palin.

This is a potent accusation.

They care about personal loyalty in the Bush circle. I asked some of Wallace’s former colleagues about Palin’s charge, and while I can’t really quote them (not everyone wants to get involved in this intra-party knife fight), their disagreement with her characterization was profound. “Not even close,” said one former senior White House aide. (Former McCain aide Mark Salter has given a rebuttal to Palin’s account.)

I didn’t talk to Wallace for this piece. (I haven’t for months.) In my considerable experience, she was never disloyal to Bush, though part of the strategy for the McCain campaign was to distance itself from George Bush.

So is Palin giving us an accurate portrait of an aide with whom she had disagreements, or is she embroidering her account to portray Wallace in an unfavorable light? It may be possible that Wallace showed Palin a dark side she showed no one else. It may also be possible to know Putin’s intentions by looking at Russia. But it’s not very likely.