Geoffrey Dunn’s new book, ‘The Lies of Sarah Palin,’ takes on the most polarizing political figure of our time
Note: On May 10, popular Santa Cruz writer and filmmaker Geoffrey Dunn entered the national political discussion for the 2012 presidential election with the release of his fascinating and illuminating new book, “The Lies of Sarah Palin: The Untold Story Behind Her Relentless Quest for Power” (published by MacMillan/St. Martin’s Press), a portion of which is excerpted in this edition of Good Times.
Already on several national bestseller lists, including in the No.1 spot on Amazon for Political Biography, Dunn’s work has been called “a tour de force in investigative journalism.” One early review called it the “best adversarial piece” ever written about Sarah Palin. Bloggers in Alaska from across the political spectrum have called it everything from “superb” to “brilliant.” Dunn, who is slated for a U.S. tour and several appearances on national television, took time out with San Francisco Chronicle blogger and former Santa Cruz resident Gloria Nieto to discuss the book, his original interest in Palin, his connection to Alaska, and the larger political dimensions that he addresses in his book.
Gloria Nieto: Sarah Palin? What’s the Santa Cruz connection?
Geoffrey Dunn: I can see Alaska from my kitchen window.
Nieto: Seriously …
Dunn: Like my late friend Jim Houston would always point out, it’s a Pacific Rim story. And Santa Cruz has geographic and historic links to Alaska, not only through the Japanese Current, which brings that cold water from the Gulf of Alaska down to Monterey Bay, but many of the fishermen from my mother’s Italian fishing family began fishing there in the 1920s and 1930s. So Alaska has always had a place in my imagination growing up here in Santa Cruz, even as a kid.
Nieto: But you obviously have had some personal experience there. Your posts on Huffington Post showed a remarkably in-depth knowledge of the state and the politics.
Dunn: I first visited Alaska in the summer of 1974 with my dad on a fishing expedition. He was thinking about relocating there. We drove through Canada and up the Alaska Highway, eventually all the way through Anchorage to Homer. It was a stunning adventure, and great fishing. I focused on Alaska politics and literature during my undergraduate studies in college. Since then, I’ve been up and down the inside passage several times. I love Southeast. When I was diagnosed with some serious cancer in 2005, I went to Alaska with my family to heal after extensive chemo and radiation treatments.
In Ketchikan on that trip, I first heard about the Bridge to Nowhere. I got refocused on Alaska politics. With the Internet, of course, which didn’t exist when I first studied Alaska politics, you can follow several Alaska papers daily. It was almost like I was living there.
Nieto: So Sarah Palin was not a new politician to you because of your history, is that correct?
Dunn: I first heard about Palin in 2006
during her run for governor. I also knew people in the Mat-Su who knew Palin during her term as mayor in Wasilla, so I didn’t buy any of the hype of her being a “fresh face.”
Nieto: That kind of gave you a head start …
Dunn: Yeah. When she was named McCain’s running mate in August of 2008, I made a single call to Irl Stambaugh—who was a friend of a friend—and whom Palin had fired as police chief when she became Mayor of Wasilla. I did an interview with him then and he told me her governance was based on “fear and retribution.” I did that interview the day she was nominated, and posted a day later. It took me a single phone call to vet her more thoroughly than the McCain campaign ever did before selecting her. And one of McCain’s senior advisers recently said to me that he wished he had made that phone call. He dubbed my book the “vetting that Sarah Palin never had.”
Nieto: Really? A McCain advisor?
Dunn: They may never publicly admit they made a mistake—and I don’t think McCain ever will—but privately they know they made a terrible, terrible mistake.
Most of my sources for the middle section of the book—which focuses on her vetting (or lack thereof) and her performance in the national election [see excerpt]—came from the McCain campaign.
Nieto: Did you expect that when you proposed the book?
Dunn: No, not at all. Originally I thought I’d be forced to get the response to Palin from the Obama camp. But I developed the trust of several McCain advisors—most notably John Weaver and Steve Schmidt—and they had the courage to challenge her version of events.
Nieto: So the concept for your book changed?
Dunn: Sure. When I first envisioned my book—in the fall and winter after the 2008 presidential campaign—I saw it being sort of a boutique political history of Alaska, focusing on Palin and the way in which Alaska politics are isolated from the larger American body politic and how that isolation played into Palin’s favor in securing her nomination.
Remember, at this time, everyone assumed that Palin would go back to Alaska, serve out her term as governor, and probably run for re-election as governor in 2010. That was going to be the end of my book—Palin’s re-election campaign for governor. At some point along the way I realized she wasn’t going to run for re-election. I was receiving lots of signals from people close to her and in the Alaska legislature. She clearly hated being governor after she returned from the presidential campaign. When she quit, I wrote a piece about how this freed her to establish a national platform. And that’s precisely what she did.
So my book changed substantially. It grew into a massive political biography that still examines the dynamic between Alaska and American politics, but which also exposes Palin’s “pathology of deceit,” as I call it, and the dysfunction that follows her wherever she goes.
Nieto: It’s pretty stunning….
Dunn: The fact that people are even discussing her as a possible candidate for president of the United States is a troubling commentary on American politics. I wouldn’t trust her with my kids for five minutes. I wouldn’t. I know too much about her.
Nieto: So how did they pick her?
Dunn: McCain had been set on Joe Lieberman as his running mate until the very end of August, and the evangelical wing of the Republican Party said “no dice.” They threatened a walk-out at the convention. They would only accept a “pro-life” (read anti-abortion) VP nominee. That whittled the list of those who had been properly vetted down to Romney and Pawlenty. Both had issues. Neither rocked McCain’s world. Palin was, as Barack Obama, speculated, a “Hail Mary” play by McCain. But you’ll have to read the book for the details (wink).
Nieto: So this woman with little experience and all kinds of baggage and no training was unleashed on the voting electorate. In hindsight there has been lots of coverage of her family, their past, her behavior, all the things that come out in a presidential campaign. Now you have a book out about her. What has your book done that all the words written about La Palin have not?
Dunn: First of all, my book will be the first in-depth, cohesive portrait of Palin between two covers. It begins with her childhood—in many ways dysfunctional—and leads through to only a few months ago and her shameful response to the carnage in Tucson. Secondly, I have been leaked thousands of pages of documents—from throughout Palin’s life—that no other journalist has ever seen.
One of the problems with contemporary journalism is that news cycles are 24/7. So no one has really gone back, for instance, and taken a comprehensive view of Troopergate. That was yesterday’s news. I’ve uncovered emails and other documents that prove conclusively that Palin, her husband Todd, and those in her inner-circle all lied about their involvement. She lied about the findings of the Branchflower Report. She was found guilty of “abuse of power.” And abuse her power she did.
Nieto: Now we know Palin is a Tea Party favorite. Do you think she has created enough momentum to carry her in a serious fashion in next year’s Republican primaries? Or will she mount a Tea Party effort and run as a third party candidate?
Dunn: Well, I’m a gambling man, and a few months ago I would have bet any amount of money that Palin would wage a race for the GOP nomination in 2012. That’s why she quit her governorship; she hated being governor and wanted to be president. She has clearly been positioning herself for such a run since October of 2008. But her irresponsible remarks both before and after the carnage in Tucson have severely impacted her favorability ratings. I’d say right now her chances of running are 60-40 against. Her chances of winning the GOP nomination are now a very long shot. The Republican establishment is absolutely united in its opposition to her. Even her former lapdog, Billy Kristol, has signaled his opposition to her candidacy. If she views it as to her benefit, Palin could well bolt the GOP and run as a third-party candidate. As for winning the presidency, slim to none. Let us count our blessings.
Excerpt from “The Lies of Sarah Palin:”
The End of the Line
The Palin candidacy is a symptom and expression of a new vulgarization in American politics.
—Peggy Noonan, former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, Wall Street Journal
On election night, November 4, 2008, Sarah Palin had surrounded herself with a huge entourage—one that included dozens of family members and friends from all over the country—at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix where John McCain was expected to deliver a concession speech that evening and where his closest advisers had gathered to steel him for what looked like an inevitable defeat—if not a landslide, then one of compelling political proportions. The McCain-Palin ticket had lost significant sections of the country that Republicans had held for the past three decades. Indeed, Obama was on the verge of recording the highest winning percentage by a Democratic presidential candidate—52.9 percent—since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide over Barry Goldwater 44 years earlier.
Contrary to what she has promulgated afterwards about believing in victory until the end, Palin, according to McCain advisors, had long believed the loss was inevitable—she had clearly set her sights on 2012—and she wanted to use the concluding days of the campaign to secure pole position in the GOP’s next presidential cycle. According to Newsweek’s Evan Thomas, it had trickled back to McCain headquarters that Todd Palin had called potential big-money GOP donors in Alaska “to hold their powder” until 2012. The McCain inner circle was outraged by Palin’s behavior and they were doing whatever they could to marginalize her presence at the Biltmore during the final moments of the campaign.
Completely unbeknownst to the McCain inner circle, in the final 72 hours leading up to Election Day, Palin had been working with her speechwriter Matthew Scully, who had written her triumphant speech at the GOP convention in Minneapolis, to draft both victory and concession speeches for the concluding night of the campaign. She hadn’t cleared the speech with anyone in McCain headquarters—nor had her handlers on the plane—and Scully had initiated the process “just in case” one was needed. The last thing he wanted anyone to be was unprepared. Who could know in advance what the plans would be for Election Night? If the McCain-Palin ticket pulled off an unlikely upset, it was probable that she would be called to the podium. If they lost, it would be someone else’s call, but who knew what the mood would be? Scully simply wanted to make sure that all options were available.
In the rag-tag final days of the campaign, communication between McCain headquarters and those in the field was less than optimal. Scully let some people on Palin’s plane know of his intentions and he also let some lower level staffers at headquarters know that he would be flying to Phoenix ahead of schedule to work on the speeches.
McCain senior advisor and Palin’s nemesis, Steve Schmidt, hadn’t been brought into the loop. A physically commanding figure, with a shaved head and bulky six-foot frame, Schmidt demanded discipline and loyalty throughout the ranks, not by barking out orders, but by modeling the behavior.
“There was never a formal communication from Palin’s plane [about her intentions to deliver a speech],” Schmidt stated unequivocally. “As a result, it was never considered, never even discussed prior to her arrival in Phoenix. No one thought it was appropriate.”
No matter who initiated the idea (and everyone acknowledges that Scully’s motives were thoroughly professional and proper), Palin knew that such an address would give her a final appearance before a national audience—an opportunity to look presidential in a scripted setting, to regain some of the luster of her acceptance speech in Minneapolis that been lost and soiled over the past two months—and provide her a claim to the mantle in the Republican Party in the months and years ahead. It would also appear as though McCain was passing her the baton.
For most of the night, the McCain and Palin entourages watched the election returns in separate suites at the Biltmore. The fact that Palin and her advisors had not been invited into McCain’s suite earlier—even though they were in the same building—said much about the frosty relationship that had developed in both camps. Meanwhile, Obama was running the table in those swing states that he needed to claim the presidency; North Carolina, Virginia, then Pennsylvania (where Palin had spent a considerable amount of time) went for Obama by double digits, and, finally, the game breaker, Ohio—and the writing was on the wall. There would be no victory speeches for the GOP that night at the Biltmore. John McCain’s once dynamic Straight Talk Express had slowly skidded to a halt. It was all over but the crying—quite literally.
Later, Palin would claim her speeches were crafted to do “two things: reminding Americans of what kind of man John McCain was and what he had promised to do for the country.” That was not what the speeches were about. There was little substantive reference to McCain in either. Copies of both speeches clearly show that the main bodies of each speech center almost exclusively on Palin and her family. The speech was intended as a mechanism of bringing back the “narrative” of the campaign to Palin, of reframing the campaign as her campaign, historic because of her presence in it.
While she praised Obama for his “grace and skill,” and acknowledged his “beautiful family,” it included an awkward reference with a racially strained undertone: “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.” A black citizen? Why was he not referenced as an African American? Or simply as an American?
Then came the tell-tale conclusion: Now it is time for us go our way, neither bitter nor vanquished, but instead confident in the knowledge that there will be another day … and we may gather once more … and find new strength … and rise to fight again.
Those were words straight out of the Confederacy—and were to serve as a signal that Palin had no intentions of leaving the national stage, that she would be back for another run at the White House, on her terms, without the cumbersome McCain to hold her back.
In fact, Palin tried to deliver the speech by stealth that night in Phoenix. She had to be told several times “no,” she would not be delivering a speech, that McCain would be flying solo on this last mission of the 2008 campaign. Neither McCain nor his wife Cindy wanted Palin to speak that evening. They were clear and adamant about that.
Ever the opportunist, Palin got dressed in her suite and tried to place her furtive plan in motion. She and Todd made their way to McCain’s suite, where the senator was with his pals Lindsay Graham and Joe Lieberman, along with Schmidt, Rick Davis and Mark Salter—who were now all aware of Palin’s plans. Schmidt consulted with McCain and informed him of Palin’s intentions. He let McCain know that his advisors did not think it a good idea and McCain concurred. “John McCain made it clear that there would only be one person speaking and that it would be he,” Schmidt recalled. Schmidt was tasked with the purpose of telling Palin—in front of McCain—that she would not be delivering her speech. “I understand, Governor, that you have a speech,” Schmidt told her in his most serious tone possible. “Only Senator McCain is going to speak tonight. It’s not appropriate for a vice-presidential candidate to speak.”
Schmidt, who had been deeply troubled by Palin’s behavior during the campaign, was gravely concerned about the historic moment immediately facing the country. He and the campaign’s top senior advisers had held “discreet discussions” in the week leading up to Election Day about the campaign ending on a “high note, a positive note.”
Schmidt and his colleagues felt a larger duty at hand than advancing a personal agenda. To Schmidt, the moment of concession initiated the process by which “power is transferred peacefully,” and that the social and historic forces at work in 2008 demanded that it be done thoughtfully and deliberately. “We were very much focused on our role and our responsibility in the moment where the process that culminates with inauguration on January 20th that that peaceful transition of power—that that process get off to as good and smooth a start as possible,” he stated. “We’ve had uninterrupted peaceful transitions of power in this country going back to 1797, between the Civil War and two world wars, great depressions and everything else, and with the election of the first African American president after a long and tough campaign, we felt that it was very important for the losing candidate, particularly in the context of how the last two presidential election nights have gone—because of the closeness of those elections—that the losing candidate—our candidate—needed to go out and affirm the legitimacy of the election and to affirm the legitimacy of the president elect.”
Those who know Schmidt well describe him as a fierce competitor—one junior aide described him as being like a “warrior from another century”—and the thought of being on the losing side of a national election could not have been pleasant for him. “We would have rather have been on the other end of the phone call,” Schmidt concedes, but he also grasped both the political implications of McCain calling Obama and referring to him as “President Elect.”
Sarah Palin refused to take “no” for an answer. As the McCain and Palin entourages made their way to the front of the Biltmore, where McCain was to issue his remarks, Palin was still trying to get a final copy of the speech in hand. Her manner was “almost desperate,” said one adviser. Schmidt was astounded by her gall and tenacity. Palin’s empathetic advance man Jason Recher, who would later be on the payroll of SarahPAC, also tried to assert her case. Just then, the candidate and his wife, Cindy, appeared at the platform. Palin was still trying to take the stage with speech in hand. With a group that included Palin, both McCains, speechwriter Mark Salter and Schmidt, Salter asked McCain very directly, “You’re speaking alone, right?” McCain affirmed. After trying to push her presence onto center stage, Palin finally got the message. It had taken at least four times being told “no” to convince her that she would not be speaking.
In addition to the historical significance of the event, McCain’s senior advisers, particularly Schmidt, did not trust Palin staying on-script. There was little certainty that she would not try to steal the show. They wanted the focus of the evening to be solely on McCain—a vanquished American hero courageously acknowledging his defeat—not on a political parvenu in constant (and haphazard) search of the political limelight. Perhaps most importantly of all, they were aware of what Palin had become on the campaign trail—a divisive figure in respect to the American body politic—and they did not want her to be featured at a time when the country needed to come together, to claim its indivisible legacy.
Of all the problematic accounts in “Going Rogue”—and there are literally dozens now that have been challenged —Palin’s duplicity surrounding the final night in Phoenix is remarkable. Palin went to great lengths in her memoirs to explain why she doesn’t cry. But Palin wept deeply and openly that night in Phoenix, before a national and international audience, as McCain delivered a generous, if not particularly eloquent, concession to Obama. Her tears were not shed for a higher purpose. If they had been, she would have noted it. But it would have been another Sarah Palin lie. Sarah Palin was not crying for John McCain or her country; she was crying for herself.
As McCain wound down to his concluding remarks, there was a troubling moment that went overlooked by the national media. “This campaign was and will remain the great honor of my life,” McCain declared. “And my heart is filled with nothing but gratitude for the experience and to the American people for giving me a fair hearing before deciding that Senator Obama and my old friend Senator Joe Biden should have the honor of leading us for the next four years.”
The largely all-white audience assembled in Phoenix booed and catcalled McCain’s conciliatory remarks. The crowd had an edge to it, one that augured the temper and tone of American politics in the weeks and months that were to follow. McCain held up his hands to stifle the anger—“Please, please…” he intoned—and then the crowd broke into a raucous chant of “Sar-ah! Sar-ah! Sar-ah!” as Palin’s tears suddenly turned into a bright smile. She had gotten her final moment on the national stage and a nod toward the future.
In the aftermath of McCain’s speech, the two camps went their separate ways, only to encounter each other awkwardly in the parking lot of the Biltmore, as McCain drove away to his nearby Phoenix home. Palin’s entourage remained restless. The stage on which McCain had delivered his speech was still in place and fully lit. Most of the media assembled were still huddling around their equipment. Palin decided that she would assemble her friends and family there for a final group portrait. Some worried that she still might attempt to deliver her speech. It was another moment of chaos on the long strange trip of Sarah Palin’s bid for national office, and Palin was once again at the center of it. She was trying to upstage the fallen McCain a final time.
According to reporters Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe, Recher tried desperately to stop her, then gave in. Palin had no lingering loyalties to McCain, the incoming president or her country. “My loyalty is to my family,” she reportedly told Recher. She indicated she had every intention of going on stage and taking the group photograph.
Carla Eudy, who had upbraided Recher only a few weeks earlier in New Hampshire, was furious when she heard the news. She reportedly ordered Recher to “get [Palin’s] ass of the stage.” Eudy called Schmidt. He ordered his staff to shut down the stage—cutting off the sound feed and turning off the lights. It was an apocalyptic moment. The bright promise of the campaign closed down quickly on Palin and her entourage, leaving only the desert stars of the Arizona night to illuminate the final, awkward act of her failed dream and her uncertain political future.
From “The Lies of Sarah Palin” by Geoffrey Dunn. Copyright © 2011 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
Local Book Talk & Appearances
Geoffrey Dunn will be holding two local guest appearances to sign his new book:
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 25, at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Avenue, Santa Cruz. Prioritized seating and signing vouchers are available. Two seating/signing vouchers will be given with a purchase of each book. This is a free event, open to the public. Standing room, as well as limited open seating, will be available.
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 14, at Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. This is a free event, open to the public. Standing room, as well as limited open seating, will be available.
KUSP-FM (88.9 FM) interview with Rick Kleffel from 7- 8 p.m. Sunday, May 22.