A hard-hitting piece on Sarah Palin in the new Vanity Fair has touched off a blistering exchange of insults among high-profile Republicans over last year’s GOP ticket – tearing open fresh wounds about leaks surrounding Palin and revealing for the first time some of the internal wars that paralyzed the campaign in its final days.
Rival factions close to the McCain campaign have been feuding since last fall over Palin, usually waging the battle in the shadows with anonymous quotes. Now, however, some of the most well-known names in Republican politics are going on-the-record with personal attacks and blame-casting.
William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard and at times an informal adviser to Sen. John McCain, touched off the latest back-and-forth Tuesday morning with a post on his magazine’s blog criticizing the Todd Purdum-authored Palin story and pointing a finger at Steve Schmidt, McCain’s campaign manager.
Kristol cited a passage in Purdum’s piece in which “some top aides” were said to worry about the Alaska governor’s “mental state” and the prospect that the Alaska governor may be suffering from post-partum depression following the birth of her son Trig. “In fact, one aide who raised this possibility in the course of trashing Palin’s mental state to others in the McCain-Palin campaign was Steve Schmidt,” Kristol wrote.
Asked about the accusation, Schmidt fired back in an e-mail: “I'm sure John McCain would be president today if only Bill Kristol had been in charge of the campaign.”
“After all, his management of [former Vice President] Dan Quayle’s public image as his chief of staff is still something that takes your breath away,” Schmidt continued. “His attack on me is categorically false.”
Asked directly in a telephone interview if he brought up the prospect of Palin suffering from post-partum depression, Schmidt said: “His allegation that I was defaming Palin by alleging post-partum depression at the campaign headquarters is categorically untrue. In fact, I think it rises to the level of a slander because it’s about the worst thing you can say about somebody who does what I do for a living.”
But Kristol’s charge was seconded by Randy Scheunemann, a longtime foreign policy adviser to McCain who is also close to the Standard editor and was thought to be a Palin ally within the campaign.
“Steve Schmidt has a congenital aversion to the truth,” Scheunemann said. “On two separate and distinct occasions, he speculated about about Governor Palin having post-partum depression, and on the second he threatened that if more negative publicity about the handling of Governor Palin emerged that he would leak his speculation [about post-partum depression] to the press. It was like meeting Tony Soprano.”
Schmidt said Scheunemann’s charges were “categorically untrue.”
“It is inappropriate for me to discuss personnel issues from the campaign,” Schmidt continued. “But suffice it to say Randy is saying these things not because they’re true but because he wants to damage my reputation because of consequences he faced for actions he took.”
Schmidt is alluding, without saying so directly, to the stories that emerged after the campaign that Scheunemann had been fired.
Scheunemann said Schmidt did try to fire him but added: “I’ve got a pay stub through November 15th.”
The questions about Scheunemann being terminated are central to the larger battle about who was trashing Palin, something that quickly came to the surface in the back and forth between Schmidt and Kristol on Tuesday.
The vitriol also suggests the degree to which Palin remains a Rorschach test not simply to Republicans nationally but within a tight circle of elite operatives and commentators, many of whom seem ready to carry their arguments in 2012. Was Palin a fresh talent whose debut was mishandled by self-serving campaign insiders, or an eccentric “diva” who had no business on the national stage? Going forward, does she offer a conservative and charismatic face for a demoralized and star-less party? Or is she a loose cannon who should be consigned to the tabloids where she can reside in perpetuity with other flash-in-the-pan sensations?