The Newsweek Campaign Piece
The juiciest bits of the magazine's 50,000-word opus.
Newsweek has delivered its 50,000-word campaign opus, which appears in the November 17 issue of the magazine. The Daily Beast presents the juiciest nuggets, with links to the relevant chapters.
Chapter 1 – New Hampshire and Iowa
In the opening days of the campaign, Barack Obama was a “tentative,” “awkward” presence—after a mediocre debate performance, even John Edwards chided him for lacking focus. But backstage, a looser Obama emerged. In an audio tape obtained by the magazine, Obama says:
“So when Brian Williams is asking me about what’s a personal thing that you’ve done [that’s green], and I say, you know, ‘Well, I planted a bunch of trees.’ And he says, ‘I’m talking about personal.’ What I’m thinking in my head is, ‘Well, the truth is, Brian, we can’t solve global warming because I fucking changed light bulbs in my house. It’s because of something collective.’”
Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, was “oddly detached” and “conflict-averse,” and staffers like Mark Penn took advantage. Penn’s trick was to maintain the illusion of a team effort while secretly controlling everything himself. He tells Hillary, “We have to make [Wolfson] think he’s in charge of communications, the same way we made Mandy [Grunwald] think she’s in charge of ads.”
On the night of the Iowa caucuses, it was up to former DNC chair Terry McAuliffe to tell the Clintons that “we’re going to get killed.” (Bill was predictably outraged and demanded the campaign run negative ads.) On the night of the subsequent New Hampshire primary, David Axelrod delivered the bad news to Obama—he had lost despite a big lead in the polls. “This is going to take a while, isn’t it?” Obama said.
Newsweek reports that "a week after [Palin] announced that she was going back to her consignment shop she was still having tailored clothes delivered."
Chapter 2 – McCain’s Resurrection
A man who loved insurrections, this time John McCain staged one against his own floundering campaign. He “used his cell phone to set up back channels into the campaign hierarchy”; meanwhile, loyalist Rick Davis, who had been demoted to being Cindy McCain’s handler, worked the candidate’s wife. The campaign seemed to bring out McCain’s passive-aggressive side, the one that would have him alienate staffers to make them quit and then reach out to them in exile and beg for advice. Estranged fundraiser Carla Eudy compared it to the Eagles’ song “Hotel California”—with McCain, you could check out, but you could never leave.
The McCain campaign found its footing when aide Steve Schmidt told McCain to risk everything on victory in Iraq. “There’s only one narrative left—the comeback,” he told McCain. “You have no choice, sir.” McCain’s numbers improved. Plus, his GOP opponents weren’t much to look at. As Rick Davis put it, “[T]he rest of these guys suck.”
Newsweek reports McCain’s many superstitions—always sitting on the fourth row of his campaign plane; carrying a lucky penny and Indian feather; and wearing his lucky green sweater.
Chapter 3 – Bubba Unleashed
Always eager to play the victim card, Bill Clinton kept with him an 81-page list of atrocities that had been done to Hillary. Clinton told Donna Brazile, “If Barack Obama is nominated, it will be the worst denigration of public service.” Brazile responded: “Why are you so angry?”
It was with Hillary’s blessing that Bill went to South Carolina, the place where he fatefully compared the Obama campaign to Jesse Jackson’s. (The Clintons lobbied Jackson to forgive them publicly, but Jackson declined.) Caroline Kennedy would later endorse Obama in The New York Times. Newsweek reveals that despite the pleas of staffers, Hillary never called Caroline to lock up her endorsement.
A rare mistake from the disciplined Team Obama: Despite orders from Obama and Axelrod to find every speech Rev. Jeremiah Wright had delivered, no one on the staff did the job. The campaign watched “God damn America” on the news with everyone else. After Obama delivered his race speech in Philadelphia, he walked backstage to find his entire staff in tears. Obama, however, was unmoved—the speech was “solid,” he said, nothing more.
Chapter 4 – Beating the Press
McCain’s abrupt divorce from the media was not something the candidate himself was terribly happy about. When he saw reporters, the magazine says he looked “like a sheepish teenager who has been told by his parents that he has to stop seeing a girl.” His campaign plane was outfitted with a special bench to replicate the sessions from the Straight Talk Express bus, but Newsweek says no reporter was ever asked to sit on it. McCain would say, “I want them around me,” but his aides would dissuade him.
Part of the media-hating culture came from aides Mark Salter and Steve Schmidt, who engaged in regular late-night drinking sessions in which they talked about the awfulness of the media. Within the campaign, The New York Times was a “527” group; NBC became the “National Barack Channel.” By this point, even McCain’s signature town halls had lost some of their spontaneity—after some so-so receptions from “real” voters, the town halls were packed with loyal McCain supporters.
Several media outlets noted the irony that McCain had hired George W. Bush staffers who had helped smear him before the South Carolina primary in 2000. Cindy McCain blamed Karl Rove for the smears, and wasn’t in the mood for forgiveness. Asked if she wanted to “stab Rove in the back,” she replied, “No, I’d stab him in the front.”
Chapter 5 – The Palins Cometh
In mid-summer, a cyber-attack on both campaigns succeeded in unloading massive amounts of the Obama campaign’s information. The FBI said the culprit was a "foreign entity" that "wanted to look at the evolution of the Obama and McCain camps on policy issues, information that might be useful in any negotiations with a future Obama or McCain administration." Technical experts hired by Obama speculated that the hackers were Russian or Chinese.
As the convention approached, the Obama campaign was worrying about the Clintons. "Hillary Clinton was on better terms with John McCain than she was with Barack Obama … In early June, on the night she officially lost the Democratic nomination, Hillary had enjoyed a long and friendly phone conversation with McCain." The Obama campaign never really considered Hillary as veep, "not so much because she had been his sometime bitter rival on the campaign trail, but because of her husband.”
McCain, meanwhile, chose Sarah Palin. When Joe Biden was informed of the choice, he said, "Who's Palin?" The mood in Obamaland was "giddy" when McCain first announced Palin, although they grew more nervous after her initial popularity. Axelrod, however, predicted an implosion. Her nomination turned out to be a gift to Obama, not simply because of her many gaffes, but also because as it:
stirred a feeding frenzy, reporters shifted their attentions from Obama to Palin. Though the Obama campaign had seeded the ground with some oppo research on Palin, with the arrival of investigative reporters like Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff, "there's no point for us to be on it," the Obama aide noted in mid-September. Isikoff had been writing about Obama's ties to Tony Rezko. Now he was writing about Troopergate. "I thought, 'Go, Mike!' " the aide said. "Especially with the cover-up dynamic."
The McCain campaign enjoyed the spectacle of the Palin clan. This chapter includes the now infamous tale of Palin greeting Schmidt and Salter in a hotel room wearing “nothing but a towel.” (Schmidt subsequently denied the story.) Also: "Lindsey Graham mischievously enjoyed getting [Piper Palin] hopped up on Mountain Dew, a beverage to which he was mildly addicted."
Chapter 6 – Recriminations
As early as October 12, McCain's core advisers convened to discuss whether they should tell their candidate that the race was essentially over. "The consensus in the room was no, not yet, not while he still had a 'pulse.'" The hope was that he would rebound in the final debate. McCain, however, had not been an eager preparer for the debates—one top adviser called his rehearsal preparations "a mess."
McCain's old hands started to blame the Bush-Cheney veterans for the campaign's woes, notably the mishandling of Sarah Palin. They were also annoyed that she had jumped the gun on the Bill Ayers attacks. Apparently, she decided on her own to launch the attacks, before McCain had signed off and while Salter was still resisting. Salter was apparently troubled by the campaign's negativity:
Salter was particularly aggrieved by a McCain ad suggesting that Obama wanted sex education taught to preschoolers. He predicted, correctly, that The New York Times would jump all over the ad and lambaste McCain. But no one on the senior team seemed to care what The New York Times wrote anymore. Schmidt wanted to kick the Gray Lady off the campaign plane for good. Though polling suggested that such a move would play well with the GOP base, Salter vehemently protested that it would be foolish to cut off The Times, and Schmidt backed off.
For all the attention McCain's negativity received, the attack ads that wound up on the scrapheap are worth noting:
McCain had set firm boundaries: no Jeremiah Wright; no attacking Michelle Obama; no attacking Obama for not serving in the military. McCain balked at an ad using images of children that suggested that Obama might not protect them from terrorism; Schmidt vetoed ads suggesting that Obama was soft on crime (no Willie Hortons); and before word even got to McCain, Schmidt and Salter scuttled a "celebrity" ad of Obama dancing with talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres (the sight of a black man dancing with a lesbian was deemed too provocative).
Chapter 7 – Endgame
The McCain campaign descended into backbiting in its final weeks, with the split generally running between the McCain loyalists and the Bush-Cheney recruits. When Robert Draper's piece about McCain campaign infighting ran in The New York Times Magazine on October 26, McCain's handlers considered removing the magazine from his Times, but he demanded the paper too quickly. Halfway through the article, McCain announced, "I'm very disappointed."
The rift between Schmidt and Salter, who had been drinking buddies early in the campaign, continued to widen, as Schmidt began spending more time with Nicolle Wallace. McCain's and Salter's spirits buoyed in the closing days, however, as they relished playing the underdog. In a shadow boxing bout, Schmidt accidentally blackened Salter's eye. "When reporters asked what had happened, Salter pointed to the small wound and joked, 'Vicious staff infighting.'"
But good spirits couldn't overcome the campaign's poor organization. New Hampshire provides a nice window: McCain’s campaign there was managed by Giuliani's former campaign manager, who "practiced off-the-shelf Republican red-meat politics." Consequently, New Hampshire mailboxes were stuffed with flyers promoting John McCain's pro-life positions, despite the fact that many Republicans there are pro-choice.
Newsweek's details on Palin's shopping spree were released last week, but this chapter adds that "a week after she announced that she was going back to her consignment shop she was still having tailored clothes delivered." There's also more information on her "going rogue":
McCain's advisers had been frustrated when Palin refused to talk to donors because she found it corrupting, and they were furious when they heard rumors that Todd Palin was calling around to Alaska bigwigs telling them to hold their powder until 2012. … McCain himself rarely spoke to Palin (perhaps once a week when they were not traveling together, estimated one adviser). Aides kept him in the dark about Palin's spending on clothes because they were sure he'd be offended.