Opinion: McCain’s Steve Schmidt meets the press on Sarah Palin, as if by chance


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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- One by one, two by two, then in quick streams, reporters Monday noon rushed down a curtained corridor on the print media floor at the Republican National Convention to swarm around one of the baldest men on the planet.

They couldn’t believe their eyes. Just an hour or so after the bombshell news was put out by John McCain‘s campaign about the pregnancy of Gov. Sarah Palin’s teenage daughter, there was the actual campaign manager himself, Steve Schmidt, walking right by.

He was quickly swarmed by media representatives with tiny tape recorders doing what excites them most, chasing a breaking news story on a day they thought would be dull.


Patiently, by and large, he answered question after question, some of them several times, pausing to appear to think as he crafted his responses. (See video below.)

Finally, after nearly a half-hour of pushing and shoving and competing to get questions in, Schmidt said he had to go. And walked off with a squad of newly-appointed Palin aides who’d been standing by not smiling.

The excited media, now fed new details, rushed off to write their stories and flash them out to the world.

Precisely as Schmidt hoped they would.

It was a classic, illustrative and instructive case of political damage control. Weeks ago one of the first things out of Palin’s mouth when....

...she met with the McCain campaign’s vice presidential vetter was word of her daughter’s condition and her husband’s DUI arrest in the 1980s.

Schmidt has known since then that if his boss picked the Alaska governor as the running mate, it had better be the McCain campaign that got the bad news out. And got it out its own way at its own time.

They well know the many lessons of politicians who thought they could keep secrets hidden at least until after an election, only to have enemies leak selective details at the worst-timed moments. For example, Texas Gov. George W. Bush in 2000, who hadn’t even told party lawyers about his DUI offense years before in Maine.

Fox News’ Carl Cameron was tipped and broadcast the embarrassing story about five days before the election. Bush had been comfortably ahead in Maine before the revelation. He lost that state’s electoral votes on election day, which is the only reason that Florida’s hanging chad and the Supreme Court became important.

Barack Obama’s campaign was so worried about the militantly outspoken Rev. Jeremiah Wrights public relations impact that it disinvited the Obama family pastor from the senator’s presidential candidacy announcement in February 2007. The candidate hoped that Wright’s racist and anti-American sermons would go unnoticed, which, of course, they did not.

A year later the shocking videos came out. The candidate tried to stand by Wright, who went out and said more inflammatory things, finally forcing a break. But the damage had been done.

The young Palin’s pregnancy would never be good news for a conservative Republican ticket, but it could be disastrous if Palin’s many enemies back home put it out, say, in late October just days before the Nov. 4 balloting.

Many people believe Hurricane Gustav was a terrible break for the McCain campaign, disrupting a carefully choreographed convention and message themes like the Democrats acted out last week in Denver.

The storm was actually a perfect public relations storm for the McCain camp, the kind of gift that Michael Moore asked God for, only for a different reason. It allowed McCain to demonstrate a take-charge, executive attitude while the Obama ticket campaigned in Ohio.

It allowed McCain to visit the potential area with Palin for briefings, vowing no more Bushes, uh, no more Katrinas and ordering virtually all of the convention’s first-day proceedings canceled out of nonpartisan support for the potential victims. What a guy!

This also just happened to eliminate an appearance at the McCain Show by a politically toxic President Bush. Hmmm, what a shame. The storm’s potential impact and dramatic video also drew away from St. Paul all the network TV anchors, leaving the B teams behind on what was expected to be a slow, eventless holiday Monday.

By announcing the surprise Palin choice early Friday morning, the McCain camp had snuffed out after only 12 hours the exciting image of Obama’s stadium fiesta in Denver. It got a gush of two days’ excitement from the conservative base, which had had doubts about Johnny.

Now we all know why Gov. Palin had no public events scheduled for Monday and why her husband Todd took all the children back home away from the spotlight Sunday night.

Monday morning, when least expected, the news release about the pregnancy went out, causing quite a commotion and extinguishing the planted online rumors that Sarah Palin’s recent pregnancy was faked to cover up the pregnancy of her daughter, now a reported five months along on a real birth.

Schmidt’s seeming spontaneous appearance in the convention’s media area allowed him to elaborate on the news release the way he wanted to elaborate on it with his carefully formulated responses.

Some conservative family groups, now with their own stake in Palin, issued immediate statements of sympathetic support. And even Obama, noting that his mother had him as a teen, said family matters should remain private and out of political bounds.

Millions of Americans were closing up summer homes, preparing for school this morning, returning from the beach and generally paying no attention at all to the news on the last holiday of summer.

And because Schmidt’s press encounter occurred unannounced in the print area, there were no TV cameras to create those annoying video loops for replaying a thousand times later as negative reminders.

Assuming the McCain camp knows all the adverse Palin news and got it all out at once, by late September this soap opera mini-chapter will be as old, superseded and forgotten as the bad news stories from last spring that we can’t remember what they were right now.

-- Andrew Malcolm

Ticket Video by Andrew Malcolm

Pictured: Steve Schmidt