My first week on the job here at Crooks and Liars, I went on CNN Newsroom with Rick Sanchez to talk about an investigative piece co-written with Max Blumenthal about Sarah Palin's longtime dalliances with Alaska's far-right elements, particularly the secessionist Alaska Independence Party.
At the time, the McCain campaign blew us off publicly. And unfortunately, none of our colleagues in other media settings picked up on the story and asked further questions about the issues it raised -- particularly at a time when the McCain campaign was busy accusing Barack Obama of "palling around" with "terrorists" and extremists.
Now, it turns out that my short appearance on TV threw Sarah Palin into a tizzy and provoked a quarrel with Steve Schmidt of the McCain campaign. This from a CBS story by Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe:
Internal campaign e-mails exchanged three weeks before Election Day offer a rare look at just how frustrated then Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin had become with the manner in which top McCain campaign aides were handling her candidacy. The e-mails, obtained exclusively, also highlight the power struggle and thinly veiled acrimony that pervaded the relationship between Palin and the campaign's chief strategist, Steve Schmidt.
The episode in question began when an investigative report published on the left-leaning Web site Salon.com raised questions about Palin's relationship with members of the Alaska Independence Party (AIP) when she was mayor of Wasilla. The AIP's platform calls for a vote giving Alaskans the option to secede from the United States. It had already been widely known that Todd Palin was a registered member of the AIP from 1995 to 2002 and that Governor Palin had taped a recorded greeting at the party's 2008 convention.
On the morning of Oct. 15, Palin was aboard her campaign jet and en route to New Hampshire when she happened to catch a disparaging CNN segment that touted the Salon.com story, complete with a provocative graphic at the bottom of the screen reading, "THE PALINS AND THE FRINGE."
While shaking hands after a rally later that afternoon, someone on the rope line shouted a remark at Palin about the AIP.
The comment set her off. She worried that the campaign was not sufficiently mitigating the issue of her alleged connection to the party, which despite a platform that harkens more to the Civil War than the 21st century, continued to play a serious role in Alaska politics.
Palin blasted out an e-mail with the subject line "Todd" to Schmidt, campaign manager Rick Davis and senior advisor Nicolle Wallace, copying her husband on the message (all of the e-mails are reprinted below as written).
"Pls get in front of that ridiculous issue that's cropped up all day today - two reporters, a protestor's sign, and many shout-outs all claiming Todd's involvement in an anti-American political party," Palin wrote. "It's bull, and I don't want to have to keep reacting to it ... Pls have statement given on this so it's put to bed."
Schmidt hit "reply to all" less than five minutes after Palin's e-mail was sent. "Ignore it," he wrote. "He was a member of the aip? My understanding is yes. That is part of their platform. Do not engage the protestors. If a reporter asks say it is ridiculous. Todd loves america."
This clear cut response from the campaign's top dog carried an air of finality, but it did not satisfy Palin. She responded with another e-mail, adding five more names to the "cc" box, all of whom traveled on her campaign plane. They included her senior political adviser Tucker Eskew, senior aide Jason Recher, the lone traveling aide from her Alaska office Kris Perry, press secretary Tracey Schmitt and personal assistant Bexie Nobles.
Palin's insertion of the five additional staffers in the e-mail chain was an apparent attempt to rally her own troops in the face of a decision from the commanding general with which she disagreed. Her inclusion of her personal assistant was particularly telling about her quest for affirmation and support in numbers, since the young staffer was not in a position to have any input on campaign strategy.
"That's not part of their platform and he was only a 'member' bc independent alaskans too often check that 'Alaska Independent' box on voter registrations thinking it just means non partisan," Palin wrote. "He caught his error when changing our address and checked the right box. I still want it fixed."
Now, the problem with this response is that it's just factually false. Palin's connections with the AIP ran much, much deeper than Todd's paper affiliation. As we explained in the Salon story:
* Palin formed a political alliance with Wasilla's Patriot-movement faction while still a Wasilla city councilman, and they played a significant role in her successful campaign against the three-term incumbent mayor in 1996.
* Palin, in one of her first acts as mayor, attempted to fill the seat vacated by her ascension to the mayorship with one of the leaders of this faction -- a bellicose man described by the city councilman who blocked his appointment as having a "violent" disposition.
* Mayor Palin also fired the city's museum director at the behest of this faction.
* Palin also organized this faction to turn out at a city council meeting to shout down a proposed local gun-control ordinance. Palin also determinedly allowed the testimony of the pro-gun crowd before the bill had even been presented to the council or prepared for public hearings -- a clear violation of city-council policy.
* Palin had a continual association with Alaskan Independence Party chairman Mark Chryson (a Wasilla resident) throughout her tenure as mayor, and joined to support him in a series of anti-gun-control and anti-tax measures, both locally and statewide.
* Palin attended the AIP's state conventions in 1994 and 2006, the latter when she was campaigning for the governorship. The 1994 appearance is more questionable, since it came at time when the AIP was more openly radical (its members had backed militia figure Col. James "Bo" Gritz in the 1992 election), and its platform then contained what Chryson calls "racist language".
* She sent a videotaped address to the AIP at its 2008 convention, ostensibly because "I've always thought competition is so good, and that applies to political parties as well" -- though notably, she sent no such similar videotaped welcome to the state's Democratic Party.
Schmidt needn't even have consulted our story to ascertain its falsity. According to the CBS story, all he had to do was look at the AIP's website:
Clearly irritated by what he saw as Palin's attempt to mislead her own campaign and apparently determined to demonstrate that the ultimate authority rested with him, Schmidt put the matter to rest once and for all with a longer response to everyone in the e-mail chain.
"Secession," he wrote. "It is their entire reason for existence. A cursory examination of the website shows that the party exists for the purpose of seceding from the union. That is the stated goal on the front page of the web site. Our records indicate that todd was a member for seven years. If this is incorrect then we need to understand the discrepancy. The statement you are suggesting be released would be innaccurate. The innaccuracy would bring greater media attention to this matter and be a distraction. According to your staff there have been no media inquiries into this and you received no questions about it during your interviews. If you are asked about it you should smile and say many alaskans who love their country join the party because it speeks to a tradition of political independence. Todd loves his country
We will not put out a statement and inflame this and create a situation where john has to adress this."
Schmidt's rebuttal to Palin's suggestion that reporters had asked her about the issue was particularly blunt in that it implicitly questioned her truthfulness.
At the time, the McCain campaign's official response was this, from Michael Goldfarb:
CNN is furthering a smear with this report, no different than if your network ran a piece questioning Sen. Obama's religion. No serious news organization has tried to make this connection, and it is unfortunate that CNN would be the first.
Well, as I pointed out at the time: the issue isn't one of Sarah Palin's faith, it's about her conduct in public office, and how it is affected by her ideological associations. It's the cold reality that Palin has a real history of empowering these extremists, and pandering to their conspiratorial beliefs, from her position of public office.
That was an issue then, and it continues to be an issue today.
UPDATE: You'll note that Palin's staff appears to be claiming that they received no inquiries about this matter. Schmidt's memo observes: "According to your staff there have been no media inquiries into this and you received no questions about it during your interviews."
Well, it's true that we didn't communicate directly with Palin's staff, but that's mainly because we could only contact them through the McCain/Palin campaign at the time. I phoned them as the story neared completion and asked them for comment, and was told that I needed to send an e-mail to the main press address for the campaign. So here's the e-mail I sent to the McCain campaign people on Oct. 9:
From: David Neiwert
My name is David Neiwert; I’m a freelance journalist based in Seattle. Max Blumenthal and I spent some time in Alaska the past few weeks going through public records and talking to local residents in Wasilla and elsewhere about Gov. Palin. We’ve put together a report that will be published shortly at Salon.com.
We wanted to know if the McCain campaign cared to comment on our findings so we could include that in the story. I called your press office at headquarters this morning and they suggested I send an e-mail.
Essentially here’s what we found:
- That Gov. Palin, when a Wasilla city council member, formed an alliance with some of the more radical far-right citizens in Wasilla and vicinity, particularly members of the secessionist Alaskan Independence Party who were allied with local John Birch Society activists. These activists played an important role in her election as Wasilla mayor in 1996.
- Once mayor, one of Mrs. Palin’s first acts was to attempt to appoint one of these extremists (a man named Steve Stoll) to her own seat on the city council. This was a man with a history of disrupting city council meetings with intimidating behavior. She was blocked by a single city council member.
- Afterward, Mrs. Palin fired the city’s museum director at the behest of this faction.
- She fomented an ultimately successful effort to derail a piece of local gun-control legislation which would simply have prohibited the open carry of firearms into schools, liquor stores, libraries, courthouses and the like. The people recruited to shout this ordinance down included these same figures, notably the local AIP representative (who became the AIP’s chairman that same year).
- She remained associated politically with the local AIP/Birch faction throughout her tenure as mayor on other issues, particularly a successful effort to amend the Alaska Constitution to prohibit local governments from issuing any local gun-control ordinances.
In general, we found that not only did Mrs. Palin have numerous associations with these extremists, she actively sought to empower them locally and to enact their agendas both locally and on a state level.
We’d like to know if you have any comment on these findings. We hope to hear from you soon.
I received no response to this e-mail whatsoever.