Authors: Meghan McCain
Tags: #Autobiography, #Political Science, #Political, #General, #Biography & Autobiography, #United States, #Biography, #Essays, #Biography And Autobiography, #Language Arts & Disciplines, #Journalism, #Presidents, #Editors; Journalists; Publishers, #Political Ideologies, #Politics and government, #Current Events, #Politics, #Conservatism & Liberalism, #Election, #Political Ideologies - Conservatism & Liberalism, #Republican Party (U.S. : 1854- ), #2001-2009, #2008, #U.S. - Contemporary Politics
hey tell me that the Republican convention was in the Twin Cities of St. Paul–Minneapolis. I don’t have any reason to doubt that. But if you said we were in Kansas City or Kalamazoo, I would believe that too.
It was a life indoors, a life unreal. My memories are dreamlike, nightmarelike. I felt like I was underground—or trapped in a giant closet. If there were windows, I never looked out of them. On my way from one place to another, I had to tunnel through an obstacle course of body traffic and security snafus. Passes weren’t left for me, security clearances were held up. Secret Service kept forgetting who I was. I could have worn the special Secret Service pin that was given to “family members” so they could be identified, but the pin bothered me and kept damaging my tops, and I started feeling rebellious about it.
Forget the pin.
Remember my face.
Could you do that
But that seemed too much to ask. Shannon and Heather and I were always standing to the side, waiting to be cleared by security, or waiting for our passes to turn up.
Our names should be on that list. Can’t you call somebody and clear us?
And the schedule kept changing. I would hear about an event I was supposed to attend after it had started. Or I would stand with wet hair at the door of the hair-and-makeup room, hoping for some help before a magazine shoot, but the chairs inside were filled by the Palin children. Even little Piper, age seven, was getting blowouts.
The weirdest thing was how time flew, like the convention was a black hole that sucked up all the minutes and hours around it. It sucked up all your sanity too. It is blurry now—a big, blank, blurry thing in my brain.
The weather seemed to manifest the swirl of chaos indoors. Hurricane Gustav was moving toward the Gulf of Mexico—a reminder of Katrina and how badly the disaster had been dealt with by a Republican administration. Not a good sign. I thought it was strange, and a little bit of poetic irony, that a natural disaster was going on, as if to remind us that no matter how prepared everyone tried to be for anything, the universe had other plans.
The announcement of Sarah Palin had thrown me off course. I was still reeling from the news and was fighting a mix of strong emotions, but mostly head-to-toe anxiety. I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t thinking straight.
All conversations returned to their beginning.
Who is she?
We had fought like crazy, so long, so hard, from state to state, town hall to town hall. We had gone from broke and tired to flush and ecstatic. We were humble underdogs who had won so many primaries it was becoming hard to distinguish them. We were jubilant, committed, and in a groove. My dad had shaken so many hands, walked in so many doors, talked to so many people. Miles and miles of people. And suddenly he seemed to be staking this whole thing that meant so much to him on her.
The way she was chosen—in secrecy—and the way she was abruptly tossed at the country, just five days before the convention, had thrown the media into a feeding frenzy. The investigative reporters didn’t know where to begin. The press phones rang nonstop, day and night, and suddenly our ragtag Pirate Ship was bulging with new people, new stories, and dozens of unconfirmed rumors. It was like Wac-A-Mole. Just when one had been beaten down, another popped up.
The Palins seemed like nice, regular people. They were low key and traveled light—with small overnight bags of casual clothes, jeans and sweatpants, regular stuff you’d buy at Macy’s or JCPenney. They were definitely shell-shocked but holding it together.
The campaign had intended to stun the world with a surprise running mate, and thought this would get the Republican Party fired up. But this strategy seemed wrongheaded to me. I was starting to see that the American public—or the American media, at any rate—likes to be eased into things. Human beings like routine, predictability, and being able to have expectations about how things will go. Brash, fast, unexpected news is not comforting—or comfortable. From what I could tell, the Obama campaign had mastered the “easing effect.” We had not.
Also, I believe if Sarah Palin and her family had been given more time to get to know the campaign, and us, there would have been more trust in our overall organization. Sarah hadn’t seen us when we were down and out, before the primaries. She hadn’t seen how far we’d come, or the beauty of our struggle. She had no idea of where we had been—or even what we were about. All she knew was our big, polished machine—big planes and big stress—and our bullying campaign manager, Steve Schmidt.
With less secrecy, and more time to get to know each other, there would have been more loyalty and cohesiveness. But, instead, from the minute Sarah arrived the campaign began splitting apart. And rather than joining us, and our campaign, she seemed only to begin her own.
And the media drama that ensued, immediately, began to stir up doubts and fear within our ranks. Uncertainty has a way of doing that. Within two days of the announcement, I had seen a report on an Internet gossip site that Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol was pregnant. This had to be false, I figured, just like the rumor that Sarah Palin’s infant son, Trig, wasn’t her baby.
But then I remembered how Bristol had stood so quietly, so timidly, at her mother’s announcement at that Ohio high school. She was covering her stomach with a big blanket . . . I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
WE WERE ON THE BUS TOGETHER IN OHIO, THE DAY
after the announcement. Even in the sweltering heat and humidity, Bristol was wearing a big sweatshirt, which I thought was weird. She was aloof, or very shy. Maybe she was just freaked out by her mom’s announcement, I thought. Freaked out by suddenly being in the national spotlight, and seeing the clusters of cameras wherever she went. I had had lots of preparation for the strange cardboard existence of daughter-of. But why was she wearing a sweatshirt?
Somewhere in Ohio, I got off the bus and found Brooke Buchanan, who was doing press for the campaign. Brooke was smoking—she was a chain smoker during the campaign—and I entered her cloud of tobacco smoke, close enough to come right out and ask her if the rumors were true that Bristol was pregnant.
Brooke moved her head up and down. Her eyes were covered by her giant Oliver Peoples sunglasses. She was exhaling smoke and just kept nodding.
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
“We’re dealing with it.”
Brooke looked so stressed out. She isn’t much older than I but, unlike me, is steady and solid and totally unflappable. Nothing rocked Brooke—normally. But that day, she looked ragged and overwhelmed. And this scared me.
In politics, you are supposed to take pride in having things under control, tested to perfection, and managed. Every location where you campaign is supposed to be scouted, and studied, ahead of time. Not just for security reasons. You don’t want surprises. Surprises are your enemy. And
That’s why remarks are prepared ahead of time, schedules are followed. Control is key. And above all, never look rattled or confused or uncertain.
But this was a
of epic proportions. How would the campaign handle it? How would Sarah Palin? And more than I worried about my dad or the outcome of his campaign, I wondered how it could possibly be okay—in any interpretation of that word—to put a seventeen-year-old girl who had accidentally gotten pregnant in such an awful, public position.
I got back on the bus and stole a look at Bristol. She was sitting in her seat, sweating in her sweatshirt, just staring into space.
Miraculously, she was keeping it together. But she had to be dying inside. I knew what seventeen was like. My little sister, Bridget, was exactly that age. And here Bristol was, the poor girl, I thought—having to cope with the media, the rumors, and all these weirded-out campaign strangers like me, who were now staring at her, and whispering. Oh, eventually we’d all be nice. Of course we would. And the campaign would protect her. But people were going be cruel. I knew they would.
What a world politics is. What an awful world sometimes.
MY BIGGEST FEAR IN LIFE, WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER
, was getting pregnant. When I was fourteen, a reporter had asked my father what he would do if I got pregnant and wasn’t married. He famously answered, “That would be her decision.” This comment had created a mild media storm. I was just fourteen and hadn’t had sex, but suddenly I was in the news as a daughter-of in a terrible hypothetical situation. That hypothetical had become my nightmare.
I don’t think abstinence until marriage is realistic these days. For one thing, it could drive you into getting married too young—or drive you into marrying somebody with whom you had no physical chemistry. Why would you marry somebody that you hadn’t had sex with? Isn’t sex monumentally important to a relationship? Why would you keep it a big mystery until the wedding night—when it was too late?
Abstinence doesn’t seem practical to me. It seems like a way of avoiding reality and real conversations about complicated things like pregnancy and STDs. Abstinence sends a message that sex is wrong or dirty. It isn’t wrong or dirty to me. Also, these vows are usually ineffective—studies have shown that more than half of the young people who take a vow of abstinence until marriage don’t keep it, and go on to break it within a year. This heat-of-the-moment change of heart often happens when no contraception is being used.
I am as passionately pro-life as you can imagine. And because of that, I am as passionately pro-contraception as you can imagine too. This is the part of the equation that I don’t think conservatives have addressed enough. In fact, it seems completely missing from the sermon they are preaching. They go on and on about how evil and wrong abortion is, but don’t like to talk about how easy it is to
Bristol was the newest and most unprepared daughter-of that I had ever seen. And she was literally living my worst nightmare.
The campaign was “dealing with it,” according to Brooke. But how? And what on earth did Steve Schmidt have to say? He was so tough and unemotional. Boy, I had messed up plenty on the campaign, and Steve Schmidt had been hard on me, and demanding. Would this news affect how the country accepted Sarah Palin?
“What are you going to do?” I asked Steve, a couple days later.
He shrugged. It was all taken care of.
“People will relate to her more,” he said.
This is the essential job of a daughter-of. We are there to make the candidate more human. But in this instance, the price seemed kind of steep.
ithin just a couple days, Bristol Palin’s sweatshirt was gone—replaced by a stunning wardrobe. She looked fresh and beautiful, if not downright angelic. The campaign had announced that she was pregnant a couple days before the convention started, causing a sensation almost as big as Hurricane Gustav, which had lost steam as soon as it hit land.
The campaign had done its job “dealing with it” all right. Rather than an uncomfortable subject to talk about, Bristol was being heralded as a pro-life role model.
I found this troubling. And I thought about my sister, Bridget, and how many conversations she and my mom and I had had about teen pregnancy and the importance of waiting until you were older to have sex. While I admired anyone who didn’t try to make an unwanted pregnancy disappear privately with an abortion, I couldn’t help but feel a very important message was missing.
Rather than seizing an opportunity to discuss the importance of contraception, the campaign seemed to be glamorizing teen pregnancy. And rather than a sense of remorse about Bristol’s situation, there seemed only glee and excitement. Did the campaign really want to suggest that a pro-life message was more important than a message of how to avoid teenage pregnancy to begin with?
But I kept those thoughts to myself, or mostly to myself, and kept cheerleading myself to go along, be quiet, and mind my own business.
CONVENTION PROTOCOL DICTATES THAT THE NOMINEE
arrives after the show has started. When my dad flew into Minneapolis, the campaign notified my family that we were supposed to assemble and greet him on the tarmac. Like everybody else, I wasn’t sure what the purpose of this “event” was, aside from a kind of symbolic welcome. But dutifully, I went along and was loaded into a bus, along with my mom and brothers and Bridget. I was wearing leggings, a wrinkled gray dress, and a pair of flats. My hair wasn’t brushed and I had very little makeup on. I figured it was a crowd shot, at the very most, and it wouldn’t matter what I looked like.
But I was wrong about that. As soon as we got off the bus, I noticed white TV trucks with satellite dishes. There was a giant flatbed truck parked on the tarmac and a riser crowded with what looked like one hundred photographers and cameras.
Uh-oh. This wasn’t just a photo op. It was a mega op.
What was going on?
On the tarmac, the Palins gathered too. But unlike my family, who looked a little mismatched, and our clothes barely pulled together, the Palins were stunning, gorgeous, and color-coordinated. They are a spectacularly beautiful family to begin with, no matter what they are wearing—and perhaps even better looking in person than on TV. Now they shined with movie star perfection. Their hair had been cut and styled. Their makeup was professionally done. Their clothes were amazing. All together, they looked so wholesome and all-American, it was dazzling. “They look like a J.Crew ad,” Heather said.
“Yeah,” my brother Jack said, “and we look like crap.”
I couldn’t help but zero in on Levi Johnston, Bristol Palin’s boyfriend at the time, who was almost unrecognizable from the guy who’d appeared two days before. The transformation was incredible.
My father got off the plane, waved, and came down the steps. He walked over immediately to embrace Bristol and Levi.
Huh? The whole thing seemed off, like he had traveled here to bless their union—and their unborn child. I told myself it was just one of those unfortunate but necessary fake moments that can happen on a campaign—but which I hated and my dad usually managed to avoid. How had we wound up here? I longed for a simpler scene and a simpler running mate, a straight-ahead and experienced politician like good old Joe Lieberman, who always kept it real and didn’t make himself the center of dramas or chaos.
But here we were instead, putting out forest fires, contorting ourselves to make everything seem fine, and trying too hard to not show how scared we were.
The Palins were nice and down-to-earth. I’ve said that before. And I mean no disrespect to them when I say this, but when they arrived from Alaska and unpacked their bags, they brought dramas, stress, complications, panic, and loads of uncertainty. And they brought a tabloid-attention-getting quality that my family has never had—and, God willing, never will.
For my father’s embrace of Bristol and Levi, the cameras began clicking and recording. The media heat of the moment was palpable. We were all photographed, again and again, and within hours, we would all be splattered across the Internet.
Great, I thought, looking down at my lamentable outfit. One more bad photograph of me at a convention that will live on forever. There were so many of those. So many, I was almost used to it.
HAPPILY, THERE ARE NO PICTURES OF ME AT MY FIRST
Republican convention, when my mom and dad were delegates for Reagan in 1984. That’s because I was in utero.
, when I was in fifth grade, the convention was in San Diego and Senator Bob Dole was nominated. My brothers and I made hokey homemade glitter signs that said, “We love you, Dad,” and stuff like that on them. It is against the rules to bring a homemade sign into a convention—that’s why all the signs you see on TV are so uniform, a way to communicate order and control—so when we stood on chairs and waved our unique signs, a swarm of reporters came over to interview me, because I was the oldest kid.
That year produced lots of hideous photos that still make me cringe, and sometimes when I’m having an overblown fantasy of fame, I imagine that they will be used to shame me and destroy all chances of me being thought of as a cool person. I wore an American flag dress to that convention. Yep. But it wasn’t the only one, either. For years, my mother dressed me in a wardrobe of embarrassing all-American outfits. She had a weakness for anything with stars and stripes or red, white, and blue.
Four years later, at the convention in 2000, I was about to start high school and was feeling very grown-up. I remember having a really great time in Philadelphia. My dad was still sort of the wild card of the GOP in those days and I was aware of that on some level, and loved it. I got to sit and watch him give a beautiful speech on the convention stage. Our family was placed in one of those “family boxes” in the front row of the balcony, so the TV cameras can record every single facial expression.
It’s really like sitting in a cage. While you are looking at the stage, the cameras are looking at you. The nice thing is that it doesn’t last long. The family box is only for the family of the person giving the speech. So as soon as Dad was done, and the clapping had died down, we had to evacuate the box so that the next family could sit there.
Something like musical chairs, I guess. Cameras don’t move. The families do. The only thing that matters is that you keep your face from registering any emotion while it’s happening. My mom is incredible at this, and sphinx-like. Her face rarely flickers with emotion in a public setting. But I can always look in her eyes and see what’s really going on.
My other vivid memory of the 2000 convention is seeing a giant effigy of a penis with George Bush’s face on top of it, just beyond the convention center barriers. I was really confused. Was it supposed to be a penis or was it George Bush?
I had never seen a really distasteful political protest before. And I couldn’t understand why people hated Republicans so much. This was before George W. Bush was elected—before the Florida recount, 9/11, Iraq, Katrina, or anything else you want to blame the Bush administration for—and yet, even then, there was vitriol. Such anger.
No one would ever feel that way about my dad, right? I remember thinking that he was much more special than most politicians, and more beloved. But of course I was wrong about that. Extremists like to protest and they don’t seem to care about subtleties or distinctions. The world is only black and white to them. This is true of the Left as well as the Right. The enemy is the enemy to them, no matter what. And whoever that enemy is, they just can’t be human.
AFTER ALL THOSE MOMENTS OF STANDING SILENTLY AT
conventions in the past, of looking perfect and doing my little wave to the crowd and flashing a smile, it was unimaginable to me that someday I might be able to open my mouth and actually say something. To be animated and alive! To be allowed a voice!
Most of all, I was really excited about introducing my mother. At the Democratic convention, Chelsea Clinton had introduced her mother and I had paid close attention to what an excellent job she did. Chelsea was so poised and almost spookily calm. In my head, I imagined just how I’d be—and what I’d say. My mom was really excited too.
But whenever I raised the subject with the Groomsmen, I could not get any traction—or even schedule a meeting to discuss it. It was so frustrating. I had done my part and seen the image consultant. I’d cut off my long hair. My clothes were toned down. I’d even tried very hard to prevent so many
s from falling from my tongue.
Whenever I asked about it, nobody had an answer.
The convention was not about me. I knew that. But when you are twenty-three years old everything seems about you, despite all evidence to the contrary. And as much as I tried to keep my focus and remember that the real goal was to get my dad elected, I kept becoming distracted by my own issues and concerns.
Was I introducing Mom or not?
The days passed and nothing was said about it. Eventually too much time passed—and obviously a decision had been made against it. When I pressed, there were all kinds of explanations that might have been true, but at the time, I didn’t buy for one second. Like “There isn’t enough time to prepare.”
Or “Nobody can think of something for you to say.”
It didn’t seem complicated to me. “I know what to say,” I told them. “Hello, my name is Meghan McCain. I love my mom and here she is!”
My convention speech was quickly becoming just another bad bargain that I made with the campaign. When I complained to one of my dad’s advisers, he said, “You are lucky to even be here at all.”
Really? Was that true?