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 email: "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 paystub 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 readyto 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?
Schmidt, who has returned to his California-based political and public affairs consulting business, said that he "worked incredibly hard during the campaign to defend Sarah Palin and her family against a lot of attacks that I thought then and think today were very unfair."
And he got in a dig at Kristol, who frequently offered unvarnished assessments of McCain's campaign from his perch at the Standard, on Fox News, where he is a contributor, and in his then-New York Times column.
"Bill Kristol, going back to the time of the campaign, has taken a lot of cheap shots at the campaign without ever offering a plausible path to victory," Schmidt said. "He's in the business of ad hominem insults and criticism."
Responding to Schmidt's counter-attack, Kristol directly fingered Schmidt: "It's simply a fact that when the going got tough, Steve Schmidt trashed Sarah Palin, both within the campaign and (on background) to journalists. This was after Steve took credit for the Palin pick when, at first, he thought it made him look good. John McCain deserved better."
At this, Schmidt unloaded in a lengthy telephone interview, suggesting that Kristol was carrying out a personal vendetta based out of anger over the attempt to fire Scheunemann in the final days of the campaign.
In doing so, Schmidt revealed what has been whispered about for months following the campaign: that he and another top aide had ordered a leak hunt in the campaign's internal email system.
"What this is about is a personal issue that happened late in the campaign relating to a close, personal friend of Bill Kristol and people at the Weekly Standard," Schmidt said, refusing to use Scheunemann's name.
"At the end of the campaign there were a series of leaks that were so damaging that it was consuming the 24-hour cable news cycle. Leaks to reporters where Sarah Palin was called all manner of names. [McCain senior adviser] Rick Davis and I jointly felt that was outrageous. So we made an attempt for the first time in the campaign to try to ID who was leaking information that was so damaging and demoralizing to a campaign that was in very difficult circumstances," Schmidt said, noting that an IT professional executed a system-wide search by keyword.
"What was discovered was an email from a very senior staff member to Bill Kristol that then entered into the news current and continued the negative in-fighting stories for an additional news cycles. I recommended tough medicine for that individual that was carried out," Schmidt said, again referring to Scheunemann. "Bill Kristol might not have liked that decision, and he might be mad about what happened to his friend, but going all the way back he has been a part of this story and I've preserved his confidentiality in that until now. But his use of his public forums to take a personal fight and make character attacks is just simply dishonest and wrong."
Scheunemann, confirming that his email had been searched, accused Schmidt of "acting in a manner of Iranian secret police" in going to his account.
The foreign policy hand said what was discovered was a message from Kristol inquiring who was the source in the campaign of the "diva" leak, the now-famous complaint from a senior McCain campaign official to CNN's Dana Bash that Palin was acting like a spoiled and selfish celebrity.
Schmidt suggesed that Scheunemann had fingered Nicolle Wallace, a senior McCain adviser who helped work with Palin, to Kristol in the message.
"It led to a whole another round of speculation, including Fred Barnes the next night attacking Nicolle Wallace on the air," Schmidt said, suggesting without saying directly that was why an effort was made to terminate Scheunemann. Barnes, another Weekly Standard editor and Fox News contributor, accused Wallace on Fox News in late October of being "a coward" for running up tens of thousands of dollars in high-end clothes for Palin and then letting the governor take the blame for the purchases. After Wallace denied she had purchased the clothes, Barnes apologized on the air the following night.
But Scheunemann said the clothes controversy was an entirely separate issue and one which he made no mention of in his email to Kristol.
Asked directly if he accused Nicolle Wallace of being the source behind the "diva" leak in his message to Kristol, Scheunemann said: "My email did not accuse Nicolle Wallace. It said something very disparaging about Nicolle but it did not accuse her of being the leak."
A source familiar with the contents of the email said that Scheunemann actually accused Nicolle Wallace's husband, Mark Wallace, of being the source of the leak.
When Kristol questioned the likelihood of a male like Mark Wallace using such a gossipy term as diva, this source said, Scheunemann wrote back that Mark Wallace knows something about divas because he's married to a diva.
Asked about the email, Nicolle Wallace said: "I did not have any knowledge of this. This is all news to me."
As for being called a "diva," Wallace laughed for a few seconds.
"I don't have anything to say on that," she said.
Mark Wallace, taking the phone from his wife, also laughed about the diva accusation but wouldn't respond when asked whether he had been the source of the "diva" leak.
"I've maintained a zero-talk policy since the campaign," he said. "And even in cases where that's detrimental to me in defending myself against strange post-election accusation I will maintain that zero-talk policy."
The leak-hunting, Scheunemann said, began after POLITICO's Ben Smith wrote a story in late October suggesting that Palin had "gone rogue" and began ignoring the advice of her campaign handlers.
"So after that, they went nuclear with 'diva' the next day," Scheunemann said, referring to the Palin-bashing done to CNN's Bash the day after the POLITICO story. "But did anybody search Mark or Nicolle Wallace's emails for leaks to Dana Bash?"
Schmidt said Kristol was driven by a personal vendetta over the attempt termination of his decades-long friend, Scheunemann.
"Nonsense," Kristol replied. "My post today was (self-evidently) triggered by the Todd Purdum article that appeared today, which had Schmidt's fingerprints all over it. I hadn't thought about Schmidt in months, and will be happy now to return to more pressing issues, like the presidency of Barack Obama."
As for the charges of being a sunshine soldier with regard to Palin, Schmidt said: "Nonsense. I'm a team player. That's a reflection of [Kristol's] values. He's the Washington, D.C., talking head and glitterati. I live in Northern California and I really don't give a s--- about that stuff."
The nasty back-and-forth between the two well-known Republicans and re-litigating of internal backbiting underscores the degree to which the internecine and very personal battle over last fall's ticket between those seen as Palin allies and Palin detractors still rages on nearly six months into President Obama's term.
And it comes as Palin strugglesto find her footing, at times appearing to want to take a strictly Alaska-first approach, but then re-emerging on the national stage - something chronicled in the nearly-10,000-word Vanity Fair article.
Loyalists to Palin, including Kristol, were outraged at Purdum's piece, believing it to be another example of what they see as elite media contempt for the Wasilla native.
In his post, Kristol also criticized Purdum for writing that several Alaskans had told him during the reporting of the piece that they had checked the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders definition of "narcissistic personality disorder" and found it fit their governor.
"Is there any real chance that 'several' Alaskans independently told Purdum that they had consulted the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders?" Kristol wrote. "I don't believe it for a moment. I've (for better or worse) moved in pretty well-educated circles in my life, and I've gone decades without 'several' people telling me they had consulted the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders."
In response, Purdum, a Princeton graduate, wrote of his Harvard-degreed critic: "I'm not nearly as well-educated as Bill, but the great Irving Berlin taught me that 'you don't have to go to a private school not to pick up a penny near a stubborn mule.' In the age of Google, I'm confident that plenty of Alaskans know more about finding medical reference works -- and all sorts of other knowledge -- than Bill thinks they do."
by Jonathan Martin