Sarah from Alaska

The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar


By Scott Conroy

By Shushannah Walshe

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A year after a vice presidential campaign that remains as consequential as it was controversial, Sarah Palin is still the most dynamic yet polarizing Republican in America. Now Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe draw on their experiences as embedded reporters on Palin’s campaign, exclusive on-scene coverage of Palin’s post-election struggles in Alaska, and revealing interviews with former McCain/Palin staffers, top political minds, and Palin’s family, friends, and foes in Alaska to tell the remarkable behind-the-scenes story of her improbable rise — and its complicated aftermath. The result is a fair and fascinating portrait of Sarah Palin and of the American political process.

Sarah from Alaska illuminates both the talents that helped make Palin a superstar and the traits that became liabilities under the intense pressures of a divisive national campaign. It reveals in riveting detail how Palin’s vice presidential campaign became as dysfunctional as it was secretive, explores the circumstances behind her triumphs and baffling missteps, and provides new context for understanding her values, her political successes in Alaska, and her abrupt resignation from the governorship.

“It’s easy to turn Sarah Palin into a caricature of either a heroic everywoman or ridiculous dolt,” the authors say, “but the truth is that she is more complex than either her most passionate defenders or harshest critics give her credit for.” Palin remains ambitious and enormously popular among social conservatives, and her future will be intrinsically interwoven with that of the Republican Party as it struggles to redefine itself and recapture the necessary margin for national political victory in the next decade. That makes Sarah from Alaska essential reading for anyone interested in American politics.


A constant source of love and support: our parents, Mick, Estelle, Jim, and Lynn; sisters, Dalia and Erin; and all of our grandparents

Lights Out
IN A CONDOMINIUM SUITE at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin read over the election night victory speech that she would never have the chance to deliver. Thank you all so much. And thank you, America, for the great responsibility that you have given to President-elect John S. McCain.
It was just minutes before the stirring moment when the official results would begin to trickle in, but as the sun descended toward the desert horizon, her fatigue must have been crushing. Palin’s two months on the trail had been not just physically exhausting but mentally draining. This short, strange trip had tested her in ways that might have broken even the most hardened political pro, and she had suffered more than her fair share of setbacks and embarrassments. Still, it was Palin’s gripping story and alluring personality that had breathed life into a once flatlining campaign. Her addition to the ticket had sparked a flood of donations, standing-room only crowds at rallies, and a surge in the polls for the Republican ticket. But along with Palin’s many positive contributions to the campaign had come as many ruinous malfunctions. In the final hours of this frenzied voyage, she would discover just how expendable she had become, as the McCain campaign was literally about to turn the lights out on her.
How had she skyrocketed so quickly into the stratosphere of American politics? Who had really been at fault for her many public stumbles? And what was it about Sarah Palin that drew such passion from both her fans and her foes? Even with the benefit of the thousands of hours of media attention that had been devoted to her candidacy, the heat of the moment did not afford the perspective for anyone to answer these questions adequately, least of all the candidate herself. On this last night of the campaign, Palin remained focused on the momentous judgment that the American people were about to deliver.
Even by presidential-campaign standards, Palin’s last two days had been borderline inhumane. She had started her Monday morning outside Cleveland, Ohio, and made her way across the Lower 48 to rallies in Missouri, Iowa, and Colorado, stopping twice in Nevada, before catching an overnight flight to Anchorage. Then she staggered to the finish line here in Phoenix. While mapping out the final days, Palin’s aides had suggested it might be more practical for the governor to vote absentee, rather than make the sixteen-hour Alaska detour, but she insisted on casting her ballot in her home state.
A few paragraphs down, the victory speech became more personal, adding a touch of humor about her famously low-key husband. We were ready, in defeat, to return to a place and a life we love. And I said to my husband Todd that it’s not a step down when he’s no longer Alaska’s “First Dude.” He will now be the first guy ever to become the “Second Dude.”
Palin and more than a few of her aides had earnestly believed all fall that they could come from behind to win the thing, even though McCain’s top advisers knew the near collapse of the financial system in October likely foretold the Republican ticket’s doom. Yes, the crowds that had greeted her were enormous and passionate, and, yes, there was always hope that God would answer her prayers and grant her just one more miracle in what had been a string of unlikely successes in her short political career. But the recent polls were uniformly grim.
She turned her attention to the other set of remarks that had been penned for her, the concession speech. Like the victory address, its very existence would remain a secret after McCain and his inner circle denied her the opportunity to deliver it later in the night.
I wish Barack Obama well as the 44th president of the United States. If he governs America with the skill and grace we have often seen in him, and the greatness of which he is capable, we’re gonna be just fine. And when a black citizen prepares to fill the office of Washington and Lincoln, that is a shining moment in our history that can be lost on no one.
It was a poignant passage in the far less triumphant of the two speeches that Matthew Scully, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, had written in advance of either outcome. A cerebral animal-protection activist, Scully was an unlikely wordsmith for the governor who could field-dress a moose. He had also penned Palin’s game-changing address at the Republican National Convention, field-dressing Obama with charges of arrogance, elitism, and inexperience. This time, however, he was exceedingly cordial in a manner appropriate for the occasion. Palin scribbled in another line with her black pen, dropping a cherry atop the hot fudge sundae: God bless you and your beautiful family, President-elect Obama.
She had first discussed her victory and concession speeches with Scully two days earlier, when they spoke in Room 719 of the McKinley Grand Hotel in Canton, Ohio. Like Scully’s former boss and many of his predecessors in the Oval Office, Palin was the kind of Christian who felt comfortable expressing her faith in public, which the speech reflected: I will remember all the people who said they were praying for me. She squeezed another handwritten line in the margin, perhaps in an attempt to get the last word in against some of the McCain aides who thought it was better for her to tone down the God talk: You prayer warriors have been my strength and my shield.
The last few weeks had been particularly trying ones for Palin, as public missteps and allegations of selfish motives had accumulated one after another and threatened to define her. But tonight’s speech was her chance to launch the next stage of her political career, and surely her fellow Republicans had seen the excitement she had inspired among the voters; surely they perceived the promise she held for the Republican Party’s future. Still, she knew how important it was to avoid any perception that her own ambitions were anywhere near the forefront of her mind. She had done most of the things she had been asked to do in order to get John McCain elected, but she had only come on board for a small piece of the ten-year odyssey he had begun when he launched his first presidential campaign in 1999. This night was about him. Palin’s antagonists in Washington, in Juneau, and especially in the media would be paying close attention to whether or not she played the good soldier in this final battle of the war.
The concession speech included a paragraph about Todd and how his schedule would now be clear to win a fifth Iron Dog snowmachine race back home in Alaska. She was glad to see that it also allowed her to give one of her characteristic shout-outs to Charlie, the boy with Down syndrome whom she’d met in Florida and had been corresponding with ever since. Charlie and I swapped email addresses, and the last time he replied he said, “By the way, please don’t call me ‘sweetie’—it’s not tough enough.” So tonight, a special shout-out to you, Charlie . . . sweetie. But actually, she had referred to Charlie as “darling” in her last e-mail, not “sweetie,” as Scully had written. She crossed it out and scribbled in “darlin’,” though she hardly needed to remind herself to drop the g. She then took out the second “Charlie” and wrote in “Chuck”—just a little something extra to make him sound like the resilient kid she knew he was. Even at this climactic moment in her career, Palin was still immersed in the details.
But perhaps the most important part of the concession speech lavished further praise upon her running mate. It would be a happier night if elections were a test of valor and merit alone, but that is not for us to question now. Enough to say it has been the honor of a lifetime to fight at the side of John S. McCain. She scribbled in just one more line: To the Senator, Cindy, and your amazing family—thank you. I honor you. I love you.
Palin always devoted significant time and effort to honing her speeches, to making sure that they reflected her own voice. Back in Alaska, she had often written her own remarks, and it had taken some time on the trail to get used to the concept of giving a repetitive stump speech. But she had come to admire the work that Scully and his speechwriting partner, Lindsay Hayes, did for her, and this was one of their better efforts. Now she handed both the victory and concession speeches to her personal assistant, Bexie Nobles, to give back to the writers, who were waiting outside the condominium to update them with Palin’s changes. Little did they know how complicated—and painfully tense—this matter of her speech was about to become.
Earlier in the day, Scully had run into longtime McCain speechwriter and confidante Mark Salter in a hallway of the Biltmore.
Salter told Scully that he was writing McCain’s victory and concession speeches, and Scully said that he was doing the same for Palin. There had been no official confirmation that the vice presidential nominee would speak at all on election night, but a lack of communication had become the norm on this campaign, and why else would aides have dispatched Scully to Phoenix if not to draft remarks for Palin? Before they parted, Scully asked Salter if he thought there was a chance the Republican nominees would end up delivering the victory speeches rather than the concessions.
“It’s gonna be tough,” was the somber answer.
Scully later crossed paths with McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, who expressed some surprise when told there was a vice presidential speech in the works.
“We certainly don’t have to,” Scully said, “but it’s been my assumption that she would speak briefly, and we have some four or five minutes of remarks there.”
Davis thought about it for a moment. “Okay, I see how it would work. She would introduce him.”
Scully nodded. “Exactly. For either outcome, she would say some appropriate things, express her gratitude and admiration for Senator McCain, and that would be that.”
Davis agreed with Scully that it was a fine plan.
Shortly before 5:30 P.M., Bexie Nobles delivered the folder containing Palin’s edited speeches to Scully and Hayes. The writers retreated to Hayes’s room, where they worked furiously to insert the governor’s changes in both versions, knowing the results at the polls would start trickling in at any moment. When they finished, they went down to the lobby to find a printer. A staffer they encountered on the way told them Pennsylvania had just been called for Obama. This first bad news of the night was pretty close to devastating. Most polls had shown the Democratic ticket enjoying a double-digit lead in Pennsylvania, but Palin had spent more time there than in any other state during the previous two months, and the Republicans were banking on an upset win with help from those white, working-class voters everyone talked so much about.
On this last night of the campaign, the McCain and Palin camps would ostensibly see their fates sealed together, but in practice, the two sides had long viewed themselves as distinctly separate operations. In striking contrast to the unity and cohesiveness that propelled the Obama campaign, staffers assigned to the top and bottom of the Republican ticket had spent as much time fighting each other as they had their shared opponent. When Palin’s plane had landed in Phoenix earlier in the day, for instance, the governor had decided to turn down a dinner invitation from John and Cindy McCain, knowing she had almost no time to get ready before the polls closed on the East Coast. Word of perceived slights from the McCain side always spread like a virus, and several of Palin’s staffers now speculated that the senator’s dinner invitation had been an empty one. “I think that if he really wanted her there, he would have scheduled the dinner for a later time,” one Palin aide said. “She was literally taking feet off the plane right when the dinner started.”
But the lingering tension between the two factions must have been far from her mind as Palin waited for the election results to come in. Just a few hours earlier, she had cast her own ballot along with her closest friends and family in her frigid hometown. Wearing a deliberately Wasillan ensemble of sneakers, blue jeans, and a Carhartt sweatshirt with her name embroidered below the left shoulder, she had swept into Wasilla City Hall behind her closest aide, Kris Perry, and her husband, Todd, who wore a navy-blue zip-down fleece with an oversized “Iron Dog” patch. After the First Couple of Alaska voted, bright lights from a half dozen television cameras provided the only glow in the predawn air. The temperature outside the polling station hovered around fourteen degrees, but Palin was the kind of Alaskan who took inordinate pride in never admitting the effects of cold weather and wore no hat or gloves. Reporters wiggled numb fingers as they extended small digital tape recorders upward toward the candidate, and icy clouds hung in the freezing air after each breath.
“So, we have a very optimistic, very confident view of what’s gonna happen today, and again, so glad to get to be home in Wasilla to cast this vote,” Palin had said, as her shadow danced on the pavement. “Because forever I’m gonna be Sarah from Alaska.”
She had tried to project optimism then, but now that Pennsylvania had gone the other way, the outlook was incontrovertibly grim. The television set in her suite was tuned to Fox News as usual, but Palin wasn’t paying much attention as her husband and young daughters, Piper and Willow, shuffled in and out. She was worried about the members of her extended family who had flown in with her from Alaska and were still scrambling to find their respective rooms after someone lost the lodging assignments list.
“When can I see my family?” she asked. “These people traveled with me. I want to see them.”
A few minutes later, Karl Rove’s voice drifted from the television into the bathroom where Palin’s second personal assistant, Jeannie Etchart, knelt in front of her, pinning the governor’s skirt.
“If he loses Ohio, he goes from 286, which the Republicans carried in 2004, down to 266,” Rove said of McCain. “And that puts him below the 270 threshold needed to win the White House.” As if on cue, Fox News anchor Brit Hume interjected, “Guess what Karl? I’ve just received word that the state of Ohio has gone for Barack Obama.”
Palin swallowed a mouthful of air. “Oh, well, that’s it,” she said.
Her young aide struggled to find the right words as she fought back tears, surprised by how calm and stoic her boss seemed.
Etchart came up with something about how it had been a great ride, but Palin wasn’t quite ready to reflect just yet. As she added some final touches to her outfit, she asked for an edited copy of her concession speech but was told her remarks were not finished yet.
Now that defeat was no longer in doubt, Palin, her husband, and their Secret Service entourage made their way to McCain’s suite to prepare for the candidates’ final appearance together. The Secret Service agent guarding McCain’s door allowed the Palins inside, where the senator was in the bedroom watching the still-menacing returns come in. Chief campaign strategist Steve Schmidt, Mark Salter, Rick Davis, and McCain’s two closest friends in the Senate, Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham, chatted somberly in the suite’s living room. While Cindy McCain stood just inside the doorway and made sure that no one else entered the suite reserved for the inner circle, the First Couple of Alaska joined McCain in the bedroom.
Once Sarah and Todd Palin were out of earshot, Schmidt, Davis, and Salter huddled together. Each of these men had been through it all with McCain over the course of the two-year campaign (or many years longer, in Davis’s and Salter’s case), and the night’s emotions weighed heavily. Though they all knew a speech had been written for Palin, they agreed now that it seemed like a bad idea for her to deliver it. If they let her go forward with her speech, they ran the risk that she might upstage John McCain during what should be his moment. At least one senior aide worried that she might go off script, as she had done to negative effect several times during the campaign.
Schmidt entered the bedroom and asked McCain for a moment of his time. The senator excused himself and retreated to a corner of the living room with the top campaign aides, who told their boss that Palin intended to give a speech.
“We don’t think it’s a good idea,” one of them said. “It’s kind of unprecedented.” Except that it wasn’t. Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards had given his own concession speech in 2004 and incumbent vice president Dan Quayle had done likewise for the Republicans in 1992.
“Do you think Governor Palin should speak before you?” another senior aide asked.
“No, no,” McCain said.
McCain took Schmidt up on the chief strategist’s offer to break the news to Palin. As poised and direct as ever, Schmidt wasted no time in telling the Alaska governor that since this night was really about the peaceful transfer of power, it would be appropriate for only the presidential nominee himself to speak and concede the election. Palin showed little emotion as she appeared to accept the campaign’s decision. Unbeknownst to Schmidt, she was not about to give up that easily.
McCain and Palin reconvened to watch the returns together with their spouses at their sides. Their fates as also-rans were sealed at 11 P.M., Eastern time, when the networks declared that Barack Obama would become the nation’s forty-fourth president. Palin then left McCain’s suite and headed back to her own quarters with her husband and a small contingent of aides.
Though McCain’s decision that Palin would not deliver her speech had been conveyed to the governor with an air of finality, she didn’t treat it as settled doctrine. She did not, for example, inform her staff or do anything to clarify the confusion that would soon beset the night’s events. The first sign of a major problem came when Jason Recher, a Palin senior adviser, ran into McCain aide Davis White. White’s job as director of advance was to make sure that logistics ran smoothly. Recher, one of the many staffers in Palin’s inner circle who was a veteran of both of the Bush-Cheney campaigns, was more used to organizing morning victory speeches than nighttime concessions. He wanted a walk-through with White to make sure everyone was on the same page.
“How is this going to work?” Recher recalls asking White. “She’ll speak first and then McCain?”
White stopped in his tracks. “I’m not sure she’s going to speak. Rick Davis said it may not happen.”
Recher couldn’t believe it. Like everyone else in Palin’s sphere, he had assumed she would introduce McCain to the disappointed crowd. His personal opinion aside, it was a rather important logistical matter to clear up quickly, and Recher asked if he should call Rick Davis in order to do so.
“No, I’ll figure it out,” White said.
Meanwhile, as word began to spread that prospects for Palin’s speaking were looking dim, some on her team began to lobby on her behalf. Scully fired off an e-mail to members of McCain’s senior staff emphasizing the positive, pro-McCain message of the speech he had drafted for Palin and making it clear that he thought it unfair to block her from having a modest final moment in the spotlight.
Jason Recher had just rejoined Palin in her suite when he received a frantic call on his radio set from McCain’s trip director, Mike Dew, who demanded to know where Palin was. The senator was ready to go on stage, anxious to get the unenviable task of conceding the race over and done with.
“We need a minute,” Recher said.
“Get her back here,” Dew replied. “He is waiting outside. We are going on.”
“Okay, go for it,” Recher said, though he doubted Dew would. McCain’s team knew there would be negative fallout if the candidate left his dynamic running mate behind in his final public appearance of the campaign. Recher’s challenge was a way of calling Dew’s bluff.
Palin still had not told Recher about McCain’s decision to veto her speech. Instead, she gave him some curt instructions. “I’m speaking,” she told him. “I’ve got the remarks. Figure it out.”
Recher acknowledged the direct order from his boss, whom he admired deeply. He said through the radio set, “Recher for White. We’re coming down with remarks.”
As confusion continued to mount, Palin’s deputy chief of staff Chris Edwards, another Bush veteran, sprinted across the stage toward the teleprompter with a flash drive containing the governor’s speech. There, he ran into Steve Schmidt, who reiterated the decision he had already relayed to Palin. No, Schmidt told Edwards, Palin would not be allowed to speak. Not realizing that the governor had already been informed of McCain’s decision, Edwards concluded that the game had gone on long enough and that he should be the one to break the news to his boss. He caught up with Palin on her way to the holding area backstage and told her what Schmidt had just relayed to him. She again did not let on that she had already heard the news from Schmidt. Perhaps she was hoping that if she could prolong the uncertainty for long enough, she would be able to go ahead with the speech. After all, in this campaign, it had always seemed that no decision was ever really “final.”
Palin was still holding her prepared remarks when another of her staffers gave her some hope by contradicting Edwards’s report and sharing what he had heard: she would be allowed to speak. The governor asked rhetorically what the big issue was. “This speech is great,” she said in frustration. “It’s all about how John McCain’s an American hero.”
After she finally located her parents, Palin and her small entourage met up with McCain outside his villa with top aides, including White, Schmidt, Salter, Davis, and communications guru Nicolle Wallace and her husband, Mark, who had run Palin’s debate-prep operation. In a last-ditch attempt to come to the governor’s rescue, Jason Recher decided to try to end the confusion about Palin’s speech by acting as if none existed. “She’s got remarks,” he told White loudly enough for everyone present, including McCain, to hear.
The McCain side stood its ground, and Mark Salter decided enough was enough. He removed his trademark sunglasses and approached Palin. “You’re not speaking,” he told her. “John has decided it’s unprecedented.”
The caravan of family, staff, and Secret Service moved as a group to get into position backstage. Meanwhile, Palin was still shuffling through her notes, and Schmidt picked up on some chatter that led him to believe the issue still had not been resolved. He approached Palin again to reiterate what he had told her in the suite. “Apparently there is some confusion over the speech,” he said. “There is just going to be one speech tonight. Only the senator is going to speak.”
Davis White was there to greet the entourage, and Salter asked him to announce the procedure to everyone in the group. “So we’re going to announce y’all, and Senator McCain’s going to speak, and then y’all are going to depart,” White said in his thick Alabama drawl, becoming the fourth staffer of the night to pass on the official word to Palin that she would not be speaking. Mike Dew chimed in immediately in order to preclude any opportunity for arguments. “We’re walking, we’re walking, we’re walking,” he said, giving his best tour-guide imitation.
John and Cindy McCain continued to lead the procession toward the stage with the Palin team trailing behind. Later that night, Salter would send Scully an e-mail apologizing for the confusion. But now, as the governor prepared to walk onto the stage to stand, wave, and applaud in silence, she was visibly dazed.
Recher leaned into her ear. “Do you want me to try again?” he asked.
“No, I think it’s dead.”
“I will try one more time.”
“I think it’s dead,” Palin repeated, finally admitting defeat.
McCain turned around to speak to his downcast running mate in a well-meaning, yet nonetheless absurd, attempt to lift the mood. “It’s a nice night out, isn’t it?”
She agreed that it was.
“Look at the stars,” McCain continued. “Ah, Sarah, wasn’t this fun? Are you staying here tonight? Go to the pool with the kids.”
The running mates and their spouses ascended the stairs and waved dutifully to the crowd of supporters, volunteers, and staff that stretched across the Biltmore lawn. The audience interrupted McCain’s speech several times to applaud and chant his name, but it wasn’t until the senator thanked his running mate that the throng let out its most boisterous cheer of the night. Palin managed a smile, but her face betrayed the sting she felt. She had been a team player most of the time, but there was no doubt that she resented the decision to deprive her of the chance to soak up the crowd’s adoration and jump-start her future success.
After he concluded his humble speech, perhaps his best and most widely admired of the entire campaign, McCain left the stage promptly, but Palin, having nothing to do for the first time in over two months, lingered a little longer and walked off in another direction with her family and staff. “What are we doing now?” she asked. “Are we going back to the suite? Are we gonna say good-bye?”


On Sale
Nov 3, 2009
Page Count
290 pages

Scott Conroy

About the Author

Scott Conroy is the co-creator and executive producer of Embeds on Verizon’s Go90 platform. Previously, he worked with Vice to launch its nightly news show on HBO. He is coauthor of Sarah from Alaska and created and directed New Hampshire, a seven-part Huffington Post original documentary series about life on the 2016 trail.

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