Skip to content

Newsweek In-Depth Behind the Scenes Of The 2008 Campaign–MUST READ

November 7, 2008

Every four years since I was…well younger…Newsweek has had a most remarkable tradition of writing the inside story of the presidential election.  The magazine had reporters inside the campaigns, and they were allowed access to the process with the understanding that nothing they saw could be printed until the election was over.

The results over the years have always produced fascinating insights, and 2008 is no different.  Below is just a taste of the 50,000 word article…..and may I suggest you either pick up a copy of the magazine, or read the complete story online.  It is pure politics from inside both the Barack Obama, and the John McCain team.  This is the way the political game is really played. The writers create the scenes, tensions, hopes, and frictions and take us on the campaign trail…….

Here is a portion from the ending of the race that was two years in the making.

Mark Salter, McCain’s closest aide, had become increasingly isolated during the final weeks of the campaign. On the morning of the last debate, he had found the candidate stewing in his hotel room. McCain had become riled up after watching some conservative pundits on Fox urging him to lay into Obama that night. Campaign manager Rick Davis was also urging the candidate to take a more aggressive posture toward Obama on the Lewis comments. Davis argued that Obama had tried to bait Hillary Clinton, and she had called him out on it. Davis wanted McCain to do the same. Once again, Salter found himself as defender of the McCain brand, arguing that the candidate needed to stay dignified and not stoop to conquer. But McCain himself disagreed; he wanted to give Obama a chance to repudiate Lewis’ comments. The discussion became heated. As he sometimes did when he was angry and frustrated, Salter stalked out of the room to have a cigarette.

The polls continued to look grim for McCain as the campaign entered the final weekend. He was trailing by an average of 8 points in 14 battleground states—falling further behind in nine and leading in none. On Halloween, a top McCain aide told a NEWSWEEK reporter that McCain’s odds of winning were roughly equal to “drawing to an inside royal flush.” But McCain, who loved to joke “it’s always darkest before it’s completely black,” seemed unflustered, even happy. His aides had seen this mood before. McCain did not mind being the underdog; he seemed to almost glory in battling for a lost cause. “The crazier things get, the calmer he becomes,” said Matt McDonald, a senior adviser to McCain.

Salter was not surprised by McCain’s attitude. Years before, McCain had told him how he idolized the character of Robert Jordan in Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” Salter had written a chapter about Jordan in the book he coauthored with McCain, “Worth the Fighting For.” Salter (in McCain’s voice, and clearly imagining McCain) described Jordan as “a man who would risk his life but never his honor.” The title of the chapter was “Beautiful Fatalism,” after a phrase Hemingway had used to describe warriors “who stayed loyal to a doomed cause.” That pretty well described John McCain as he entered the last days of the long campaign.

On a bus trip through Central Florida, McCain was tired but cheerful, exuberantly shaking hands with shoppers at an open-air market and humbly thanking a veteran of the Navy’s submarine service. He made two brief, humorless statements to his former friends in the press. The crowds turned on the reporters, yelling, “When are you going to stop lying to America?” McCain-Palin supporters had embraced Joe the Plumber, and Palin, with her crowd sense, broadened the franchise to include Tito the Builder and Angela the Hairdresser (and Barack the Wealth Spreader). Irrepressible, Lindsey Graham had started calling his Senate pal “Joe the Biden,” which McCain found inexplicably hilarious.

There wasn’t much laughing on a bus ride through Pennsylvania. McCain sat alone in the back with his friend and aide Steve Duprey. “How are we doing in New Hampshire?” the candidate asked Duprey, who had been the New Hampshire GOP chairman. McCain had a great fondness for the Granite State, where the independent-minded voters had given him overwhelming majorities in the Republican primaries in 2000 and 2008. Duprey hesitated, but looked McCain in the eye. “We’re probably going to lose,” he said. McCain looked genuinely shocked. “How did that happen?” the candidate asked, shaking his head. It wasn’t just Obama, Duprey told him.

In truth, McCain’s “ground game,” as the get-out-the-vote effort is sometimes called, was not strong. In many states, the McCain campaign was out-organized as well as outspent by Obama. Duprey believed that McCain’s political director, Mike DuHaime, and the political operation did not understand New Hampshire. DuHaime, who had run the ill-fated Giuliani campaign, practiced off-the-shelf Republican red-meat politics. Duprey’s own son had received a mailer highlighting McCain as pro-life. Duprey, like many New Hampshire Republicans, was pro-choice. Duprey told McCain, “I’m a supporter of Planned Parenthood. If they are mailing something like this to me, who else are they mistargeting?”

In a losing campaign, backbiting is inevitable. McCain knew this from his own experience. In 1996 he had played the role Lindsey Graham performed for him—he had ridden on the campaign plane as a friend/adviser to Bob Dole, the Kansas senator challenging President Bill Clinton. In the fall of ’96, the Dole campaign had become a circular firing squad as the polls pointed to a Republican defeat. Indeed, McCain himself had been one of those advisers occasionally second-guessing campaign strategy with reporters, even as he tried to counsel his buddy (and fellow wounded vet) Senator Dole. McCain did not want to read about his own campaign’s infighting in the press. “Don’t do that to me,” he had told Salter and Schmidt, Davis and Charlie Black. And by and large they didn’t. But especially as Schmidt brought in outsiders from the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign, the “unit cohesion,” as McCain might put it, began to crumble.

On Sunday, Oct. 26, McCain’s handlers had considered simply removing the Sunday Magazine from the candidate’s copy of The New York Times, but McCain demanded the paper before anyone could remove the offending article. “The Making (and Remaking) of a Candidate,” by Robert Draper, documented, in detail and with behind-the-curtain scenes, the many strategic lurches of McCain and his advisers. Before he was halfway through the 8,500-word article, McCain declared, quietly but firmly, “I’m very disappointed.”

The discomfort among McCain’s advisers was plain to see. Tensions had been building: in early October, as reporters trooped through the lobby of one hotel, they witnessed Salter and Nicolle Wallace arguing heatedly. Days later, Salter was unhappy with a statement by Wallace that seemed to defend the angry crowds stirred up by Governor Palin. Salter and Wallace clearly had a strained relationship. As reporters, who had been kept away from McCain, boarded the plane that day through the front door, they paraded past the candidate who was sitting on the couch that had been installed—but never used—for “Straight Talk” chats with the press. The candidate who had once traded japes with his press-corps pals did not even look up; he just looked glumly at the floor. He was flanked by Salter and Wallace, who stared grimly ahead.

Reporters noticed that Salter had been spending less and less time with his old pal Schmidt, and that Schmidt was more often seen in the company of Wallace. McCain’s 24-year-old daughter Meghan, was increasingly, and sometimes profanely, complaining that her father was being poorly served by his advisers. The atmosphere on the bus was becoming so poisonous that one midlevel staffer e-mailed another to say, “Kill me.” And yet, as the odds grew longer and Election Day grew closer, Salter took his cue from McCain, or perhaps from their shared mythic doppelgänger, Robert Jordan. Salter stopped brooding and began joking around, as if he were mocking the fates. To the tune of “Rocky,” the music used to introduce McCain as the fighting underdog at rallies, Salter entertained staffers with a shadowboxing match with Schmidt. The latter became a little overenthusiastic, however, and clipped Salter’s aviator glasses, slightly cutting and bruising Salter’s eye socket. When reporters asked what had happened, Salter pointed to the small wound and joked, “Vicious staff infighting.”

The sharpest jabs were aimed at Palin. An anonymous McCain staffer described her to Politico as “wacko” and a “diva.” When Politico reported on Oct. 21 that Palin had spent $150,000 for clothes for herself and her family, the governor had been all wounded innocence. At a campaign stop in Tampa, she said, “These clothes—they’re not my property, just like the lighting and the staging and everything else that the RNC purchased. I am not taking them with me. I am back to wearing clothes from my favorite consignment shop in Anchorage, Alaska.” Publicly, McCain aides backed up Palin, saying that a third of the clothes had been returned immediately, before they were worn in public, and that the rest would be donated to charity. Privately, however, McCain’s top advisers fumed at what they regarded as Palin’s outrageous profligacy. One senior aide said that Nicolle Wallace had told Palin to buy three suits for the convention and hire a stylist, but thereafter Palin had “gone rogue,” as the media buzz put it. She began buying for herself and her family—clothes and accessories from top stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. A week after she announced that she was going back to her consignment shop she was still having tailored clothes delivered. According to two knowledgeable sources, a vast majority of the clothes were bought by a wealthy donor, who was shocked when he got the bill. Palin also used low-level staffers to buy some of the clothes on their credit cards; the McCain campaign found out last week when the aides sought reimbursement. One aide estimated that she spent “tens of thousands” more than the reported $150,000, and that $20,000 to $40,000 went to buy clothes for her husband. Some articles of clothing have apparently been lost. An angry aide characterized the shopping spree as “Wasilla Hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus from coast to coast,” and said the truth will eventually come out when the Republican Party audits its books. A Palin aide said: “Governor Palin was not directing staffers to put anything on their personal credit cards, and anything that staffers put on their credit cards has been reimbursed, like an expense. Nasty and false accusations following a defeat say more about the person who made them than they do about Governor Palin.” The aide added, “It’s incredibly egregious that you even consider running this.”

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: