Behind Sarah Palin, a low-profile but high-impact aide
Sarah Palin wanted to meet Rebecca Mansour.
It was the summer of 2009 and the former Alaska governor was in Del Mar, Calif., working on her book “Going Rogue.” Earlier that year, Mansour had co-founded a website that offered detailed defenses of Palin’s record and acidic attacks on her critics.
Palin was impressed.
The pair hit it off. Mansour helped Palin with research on her score-settling bestseller, and a few months later, Palin offered Mansour a job with SarahPAC, Palin’s political operation. She would write speeches and help Palin craft messages that would bypass the traditional media (the “lamestream media” in Palinspeak) and target Palin’s Facebook fans and Twitter followers, which now number 2.7 million and 428,000, respectively.
As Palin considers whether to run for president in 2012, Mansour, 36, has become part of the inner circle that includes Palin’s husband, Todd; her Anchorage-based attorney, Thomas Van Flein; her Washington-based treasurer, Tim Crawford; and a newly hired chief of staff, Michael Glassner.
Mansour is a “jack-of-all-trades” with “an important role ... not only from a communications standpoint, but a policy standpoint,” said a Palin aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not have Palin’s permission to be interviewed. (Palin did not respond to requests for comment.)
But unlike other key Palin players, Mansour is neither a rough-hewn Alaskan nor a seasoned Washington operative. She is a political neophyte, a Republican daughter of Democrat-friendly Detroit, a onetime film student who lives in Hollywood, and a longtime fundraiser for Harvard University, an institution known for churning out the very “elites” so often derided by Palin.
The erudite Mansour, who calls herself a member of “the great unwashed,” doesn’t mind sounding elite; her vocabulary includes real words like “hebetudinous” (mentally lethargic) and made-up ones like “anti-dentite” (a dentist hater, from “Seinfeld”). She loves Victorian poetry, William Faulkner and David Lean films. She is especially fond of “Why I Am a Liberal,” Robert Browning’s 1886 sonnet on liberty.
In an organization that is opaque, if not secretive, Mansour’s profile has remained especially low. News stories have described her as an “all-purpose advisor,” Palin’s “enforcer,” her “secret asset.” Vanity Fair said Mansour was “Palin’s most unconventional hire.”
Mansour declined half a dozen requests to meet for this story. Her reticence, said the Palin aide, “is a sign that she is loyal and that she is focused on doing her job and not on being in the public eye. That’s one of her greatest strengths: her total lack of ambition to be the story itself.”
“I cannot stress enough,” Mansour said by phone, “I am the most boring individual.”
She did answer a few questions about her background and corrected some mistakes that have appeared in print.
On Twitter, as @RAMansour, she is voluble.
In brief missives, she strokes fans and wages war on Palin’s critics. Last year when Politico published anonymously sourced stories critical of Palin, Mansour described its staff as “puppy-kicking chain smokers” and “anti-dentite porn producers.”
Recently, she accused Joe McGinniss, who moved next door to the Palins while researching a book, of “cyber stalking” her when he responded to one of her tweets. (“Praying for the Christians in the Middle East,” she wrote on Feb. 11. “Only the Christians?” McGinniss replied.)
She also reveals personal information via Twitter: She agonized over a new laptop, has a new BlackBerry Torch, loves Celtic and folk music and listens to NPR “for the music.” She is “insanely frugal.” She often gets extra scrutiny at airports because of her Lebanese surname, but doesn’t mind.
Her interview venue of choice is the podcast of Palin-friendly host Tammy Bruce, a former head of the National Organization for Women’s L.A. chapter, who bills herself as an independent conservative.
The day Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot, Mansour appeared on Bruce’s podcast to rebut accusations that Palin contributed to a vitriolic political atmosphere with a map showing cross hairs on congressional districts. “We never, ever intended it to be gun sights,” Mansour said. “It was simply cross hairs like you’d see on maps.” (In a tweet two months earlier, however, Palin had called the symbol a “ ‘bullseye’ icon used 2 target” incumbents who supported healthcare reform.)
In October, Mansour denounced a Vanity Fair article that portrayed Palin as erratic, vindictive and entitled. “Tammy, I just gotta say, I am a no-BS kind of gal,” Mansour said. “I literally work for a woman who tells us, ‘Make sure you don’t make any demands for me.’ ”
Last month, Mansour was in Santa Barbara, where Palin spoke at a fundraiser for a Republican youth group. Afterward, looking for someone to validate her parking ticket, Mansour mistook a reporter for an event volunteer. “Man!” she said in dismay. “I walked right into that.”
Mansour was working for Harvard’s West Coast development office, throwing parties for wealthy alumni, as she put it, when she launched the website Conservatives4Palin in spring 2009. (Her former boss, Shirley Anne Peppers, hung up on a reporter who called to ask about Mansour.)
Mansour had been appalled by what she considered the persecution of Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign. Conservatives4Palin entered the fray with gusto.
“We are ordinary citizens,” Mansour wrote. “We watched with horror and helplessness as a decent and sincere woman was savaged by a dangerously biased media.... As long as [this] continues, we’ll be here to watch her back.”
In Mansour’s posts, Palin was “the good governor,” her critics were “barmy fruitloops” and “worthless mushheads.” In May 2009, she wrote about ethics complaints that had been dismissed against Palin: “That sound you heard was the lachrymose ululations of ankle-biters everywhere.”
According to Federal Election Commission filings, Palin’s political action committee pays Mansour’s company, Aries Petra Consulting, about $8,000 a month for “grass-roots and communication consulting,” “speechwriting” and “Internet messaging.”
Though Mansour has been described as a volunteer for then-candidate Barack Obama, she said she was only curious and went with a “wacky, liberal” neighbor to training for precinct walking. “We had to go around in a circle and say what you are going to do for Dear Leader. I thought I had entered Jonestown,” Mansour said. “It was so freaky it was hilarious.”
Mansour, the youngest of seven children in what she described as “an intellectual Catholic family,” grew up in Madison Heights, Mich., a Detroit suburb. “It was always stressed to me: God, family, education. If you have that, you are OK.”
Both parents were first-generation Americans of Lebanese descent. Her father, Joseph, was a math professor and assistant business school dean at University of Detroit Mercy, a private Catholic school his children attended.
“I am only talking to you because I love my Dad,” Mansour said during one telephone conversation. “That truly is my soft spot.”
Her grandfather was a grocer in Detroit. “My dad would tell me stories about how at the end of every week, they would take the leftover produce and just leave it on the doorstep of a poor family in town,” Mansour said. “My dad would ring the doorbell and run away, so it wouldn’t affect their pride.”
The Mansours were politically engaged Republicans who sometimes voted for Democrats, she said. “My father loved Ronald Reagan. In my family, it wasn’t fun unless we were arguing about politics and religion.”
Her father, a fan of Milton Friedman, taught her about economics.
“Free-market theory was dinner table conversation,” Mansour said. “I would say, ‘Dad, why?’ And he would say, ‘This is what happens when government takes over stuff. You have a lack of personal responsibility and the private sector being shoved out.’ I saw it firsthand. Detroit was a failed Democrat experiment and hasn’t been able to pull itself out.”
When Mansour was 10, her father was shot four times on campus by two apparent drug addicts.
“It’s astonishing that he survived,” Mansour said, adding that her father quickly forgave his assailants. “He went to Mass every day, said his rosary every day. He really did live his faith.”
Mansour, who majored in English and history and minored in philosophy, “was one of my favorite students ever,” said former Detroit Mercy professor Claire Crabtree. “She was brilliant; she was a wonderful writer. We all just loved her. We thought she’d be writing screenplays, she was so funny.”
Crabtree said Mansour, a class valedictorian, delivered a moving graduation speech in tribute to her ailing father. He died in 2002; her mother died 11 months later.
Mansour moved to Hollywood in 1997 to study screenwriting at the American Film Institute.
“She had an open, critical mind,” recalled James Hosney, one of her AFI teachers. “She was always willing to give a movie a chance, even if she didn’t like the subject matter. I would certainly not have pegged her as somebody who was really political.”
Two years later, she graduated with a master of fine arts degree.
Her only produced script was her AFI master’s thesis, a short film called “Something Between Us.” Shot in Los Angeles’ Larchmont Village, it was a story of two brothers in love with the same woman, said the film’s producer, Chris Lenge, Mansour’s then-roommate.
Like many others, Lenge said he was uncomfortable discussing Mansour. “I want to respect her privacy,” he said. “I get the sense that she’s content and happy she’s contributing. I think she feels like she is good at this.”