Nicolle Wallace throws open White House doors
A few years ago, after a successful career in the White House communications shop and a much less felicitous turn as one of Sarah Palin’s handlers during the 2008 presidential campaign, Nicolle Wallace got the ridiculously overconfident idea that she could write a novel that exposed the inner workings of the White House the way “The Devil Wears Prada” peeled back the perfect facade of Anna Wintour’s Vogue.
“What was so thrilling about that book was being transported into this otherwise opaque world of high fashion,” said Wallace, 37, who studied journalism in graduate school at Northwestern but did not write professionally until a few years ago.
Unlike “The West Wing,” Aaron Sorkin’s vision of a loud, bustling place where important people ran around spewing epithets, Wallace knew the White House to be “as quiet as a museum,” as she put it. Her White House, where she worked for six years, was a place that even after the attacks of 9/11 — as the vice president debated whether to order the downing of a U.S. passenger jet — housekeepers went on vacuuming.
“There are probably many, many people who are better writers than me,” said Wallace, “but I knew I could set a novel in that real place and make it more real than anybody else.”
This, at any rate, was what she was thinking when, during a post-election interview with Marie Claire magazine, she blurted out that she was working on a novel.
The New York Post’s Page Six ran a little item. Sloan Harris, an agent at ICM, saw it and emailed Wallace.
“Said novel was a 10-page Word document,” a very pregnant Wallace said over lunch last month at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. She scrambled to write some chapters.
“Eighteen Acres,” released last year, made several bestseller lists. Wallace’s second novel, “It’s Classified” (Atria Books, $25), is now out, and she has signed a contract for a third. The first book explored the struggles of a female president, the second the issue of mental illness in the White House. The third will take place in the White House on the day of a terrorist attack.
The novels, set on the 18-acre White House grounds, feature a mature and grounded Republican president, Charlotte Taylor, modeled on Hillary Rodham Clinton, complete with a charming, philandering husband (a sports agent, not an ex-president), a female chief of staff who later becomes secretary of Defense, and a TV reporter conflicted about love and work who falls for the president’s husband and later becomes press secretary to an unbalanced but charismatic vice president.
The vice president is named Tara Meyers, and if her name sounds like “Sarah,” it was meant to. Wallace modeled the character on Sarah Palin, with whom Wallace had a brief, intense and unhappy professional relationship after Sen. John McCain chose her as his running mate in 2008.
Wallace was assigned to help prepare Palin for national interviews, including her famously disastrous encounter with Katie Couric. In Palin’s memoir, “Going Rogue,” Palin blamed Wallace for her on-camera meltdown.
Wallace’s Tara has a gift for connecting with voters. But Tara is hiding a dark secret.
Beset for years by a crippling depression shared only with her husband, Tara crumbles under the pressure of her job. She eats compulsively, constantly calls in sick (who knew the vice president could call in sick?) and is managed by her overbearing, co-dependent spouse.
The novel opens with Tara resigning, as a special prosecutor launches an investigation to learn what the president knew, and when, about her running mate’s instability.
In a positive review, the Washington Post called “It’s Classified” “flawed but fascinating.”
Wallace, who lives with her husband, Mark, on New York’s Upper East Side, insisted she is not suggesting that Palin suffered from mental illness.
“I have no capacity to diagnose anybody with a headache, let alone mental illness,” but she also said that during the ’08 campaign she had conversations with people she would not identify about whether it might be possible to prevent Palin from being sworn in if McCain won. That dramatic assertion has been publicly disputed by at least one high-ranking McCain official, but Wallace said the issue was quickly dropped when it became apparent in the early fall that Barack Obama was going to win.
“I observed behaviors that I found alarming,” said Wallace. “I worked in the White House on 9/11 where the vice president was given the authority to, if he deemed necessary, shoot down an American passenger jet. I wasn’t sure that that burden would be one she could carry.”
Palin’s behind-the-scenes moods concerned many on the campaign staff — and those incidents have been well chronicled, notably by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann in “Game Change,” coming soon to HBO starring Julianne Moore as Palin.
“I didn’t have a special secret about Sarah Palin,” said Wallace. “I just had a feeling and some concerns. Her blank stares and her lashing out in some interviews, I think, gave voters pause about her too.”
Through Tara, Wallace also explores a poignant aspect of the McCain-Palin relationship — a mutual feeling that each had let the other down; McCain by plunging an unprepared neophyte into an unforgiving spotlight, and Palin by bringing ridicule to the campaign when she seemed inarticulate and ill prepared in interviews.
“She was devastated every time she felt like she screwed up,” said Wallace. “The affection between the two of them was real, it endures, and I think each felt pain for the trouble they caused the other.”
Wallace, who grew up in Orinda in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley, swears, despite regular appearances on political TV talk shows as a GOP defender, that she is done with politics.
“I said day after day Sarah Palin was ready and prepared to be the country’s vice president,” Wallace said with regret. “A life in politics is for people who know themselves and know where their own line is between loyalty and honesty. I figured out where that line was in hindsight. I just didn’t want to be a spinner anymore.”
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