Read Tom Nichols on why he’s leaving the Republican party
We recently spoke with top McCain and Obama aides for our podcast marking 10 years since the Palin interviews. According to Steve Schmidt, a senior McCain adviser, Palin’s vetting did not include asking any questions like “Do you understand the U.S. tax system?” or “Do you know where Iraq is?” Schmidt said they simply assumed that a governor would be knowledgeable about public policy.
Fundamentally, it was the priority the campaign placed on optics—Palin’s outsider image and undeniable charisma—that led to the selection of a politician who believed that Saddam Hussein attacked the U.S. on 9/11 and that the British government was run by Queen Elizabeth.
Ten years ago, it was also assumed—not just by journalists but by the people running presidential campaigns—that a candidate for national office would be tested by tough interviews with serious journalists. And so, in addition to a session with Sean Hannity at Fox News, the Palin team arranged interviews with ABC and CBS. In putting together the questions, our goals were simple: be fair, follow up, and get Palin to explain her positions and philosophy to the American people.
After the governor stumbled, with widely mocked answers about Russia and the economy, it did not occur to the McCain team to cancel the second scheduled interview. They also chose not to shoot the messenger by going after the “liberal media.” Nicolle Wallace, another senior adviser, told us the campaign believed that “there was nothing Katie did that could fairly be attacked.” Sitting next to Palin, McCain himself told us he thought it was a good interview. All of that feels quaint today, when nearly one in three Americans believes the press is the “enemy of the people,” when the definition of “fake news” is news the president doesn’t like, and when many partisans restrict themselves to watching, or appearing on, shows that provide affirmation and not information.
Read Adam Serwer on the cruelty that binds Trump and his supporters
As the campaign went on, Palin bridled at the tone McCain set. When a McCain supporter said “I don’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s an Arab,” McCain responded, “No ma’am, no ma’am … He's [a] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” When one man said he was scared of Obama, McCain replied that “[Obama] is a decent person, and a person that you do not have to be scared [of] as president of the United States.” The crowd booed. McCain also said, “I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments. I will respect him and I want everyone to be respectful, and let’s make sure we are.”
Palin took the opposite tack: She stoked her supporters’ fears—and won their cheers. At her rallies, Palin said, “I am just so fearful that this is not a man who sees America the way that you and I see America.” At one, a man shouted “Treason” and Palin said nothing. At another, Palin’s anti-Obama diatribe led a man to yell out, “Kill him!” Palin did not push back against her often-angry crowds. In the strongest echo of today’s Trump rallies, she instead used her speeches to go after the free press (or the “lamestream media”), reserving particular scorn for elite publications. Palin’s supporters then started verbally attacking her traveling press corps, including hurling a racial epithet at an African American journalist. Again, Palin not only refused to lower the temperature, she seemed to bask in that kind of heat.