Sarah Palin's Brutal Education

Sarah from Alaska book Sarah Palin generic CBS

In "Sarah From Alaska," Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe draw on their experiences as embedded campaign reporters, the many weeks they spent reporting in Alaska during Palin's last days as governor, and exclusive interviews with almost 200 former McCain/Palin staffers, top political minds, friends, and foes in Alaska to tell the remarkable behind-the-scenes story of Palin's political career and the events leading to her surprising resignation.

The authors share new insights and bring to light illuminating stories from Palin's governorship and vice presidential campaign. Read the excerpt below, which includes a prescient remark that Palin made to senior campaign aides after her debate with Joe Biden and revealing emails that demonstrate how she worked behind the scenes to try to convince the campaign's top strategists not to give up on winning the state of Michigan, much to their annoyance.

Scott Conroy is a digital journalist for CBS News, and Shushannah Walshe was formerly a reporter and producer with Fox News. "Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar" is available now in bookstores.



THE OVERPOWERING SMELL OF cheeseburgers and French fries saturated the candidate's suite at the Philadelphia Westin Hotel. About a dozen staffers shuffled around the table set up in the middle of the room where hundreds upon hundreds of five-by-seven-inch note cards were spread out in two-foot-high stacks. Palin had been locked in there for hours, cramming for her debate against Joe Biden. The biggest test of the campaign was less than a week away.

On the heels of the first round of Katie Couric interviews, her margin for error was nonexistent. Joe Lieberman, a veteran of a previous vice presidential debate, had been brought in to give Palin an idea of what to expect. The stifling air shortened everyone's patience, and tensions were running especially high between debate prep coordinator Mark Wallace and foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann. It was the note cards that had first led to the longstanding feud between Wallace and Scheunemann a couple of weeks earlier. One of the aides wanted Palin to memorize them, while the other thought it better for her to learn conceptually. The spat made it all the way up the chain to Steve Schmidt, who told Scheunemann in no uncertain terms that he did not have the time for bickering between staffers and that they needed to sort it out. But the two men were still fuming at one another, and negative vibes permeated the room along with the smell of greasy food.

At the end of one cram session, Palin asked her advisers to run through the various trade agreements, including "who's in NAFTA, who's in CAFTA," and so forth. It seemed an unremarkable request at the time. The advisers knew that the governor was, in fact, aware that the NAFTA treaty included the United States, Canada, and Mexico. But someone in the room with a penchant for whispering to reporters was taking mental notes. Come November, the anonymous source would pass Palin's words along as part of a concerted effort to advance the exaggerated narrative that her handlers had been stymied in their heroic, yet futile, efforts to educate an ignoramus.

Steve Schmidt, Rick Davis, and domestic policy adviser Becky Tallent arrived in Philadelphia by train on Sunday, September 28. It was clear by the time they set foot in the suffocating hotel suite on the third full day of debate prep that a dramatic change was needed. Schmidt and Davis had already spoken to John McCain, who agreed to offer up his sprawling Sedona ranch. It did not take much persuasion to convince Palin of the benefits of moving the operation to the desert compound, where she could work in her shorts and T-shirt with her family by her side. Schmidt realized that the candidate would benefit from having a more condensed circle of aides to brief her, so he sent some of the staffers who had been with her in Philadelphia ahead to the debate site at St. Louis. Others who did travel to Sedona were barred from McCain's compound and had to remain at the hotel.

Palin and her downsized contingent of advisers arrived in Arizona the next afternoon. On the first evening of their stay, one of her aides spoke privately to the governor about the importance of speaking in her own voice, rather than regurgitating talking points handed down from the Washington insiders who ran the campaign, all of whom were white males. It was one piece of advice that Palin took to heart.

The preparations were kept informal except for two timed reenactments in which debate conditions were replicated, including the exact distance between the podiums. Randy Scheunemann had flown in to play Joe Biden, an acting role that the archconservative seemed born to play. Scheunemann had sat through years of Biden's speeches during his time working for two Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he knew the Delaware senator's mannerisms well. Palin struggled to keep a straight face as Scheunemann peppered his performance with "God love ya"s and "literally"s and shifted between long-winded discourses on everything from the war in Iraq to his own mother. A former National Rifle Association lobbyist, Scheunemann as Biden delivered a passionate screed on banning assault rifles. When he waxed poetic on the issue of gay marriage, some of the aides looking on from the sidelines gave up on trying to maintain decorum and burst out laughing. At the end of the ninety-minute session, they broke out into spontaneous applause. Palin's keen memory for detail had manifested itself in her very first formal rehearsal, and she had done even better than they had hoped she would.

Watch Conroy and Walshe Talk About Their Book on "The Early Show"
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Palin Snubs Republican Candidate in House Race
Steve Schmidt: Palin "Catastrophic" for 2012, Good for 2008
Palin Finishes Memoir, Called "Going Rogue"

The next day, the group decided to move the debate operation outdoors so that they could take full advantage of the beautiful Sedona weather. The new environment continued to have a calming effect on Palin and everyone around her. Gone were the endless stacks of note cards and claustrophobic atmosphere that plagued the operation in Philadelphia. Palin looked refreshed as she stood behind her podium in a baseball cap and T-shirt. As evening shadows crept across the well-manicured grass, Cindy McCain came out from the house to address the group. She insisted that all toil must end at an appointed hour of 5 P.M., when everyone was to convene for wine and cheese. There were no arguments.

When Palin nailed a second ninety-minute mock debate, everyone was optimistic about the real thing, which was coming up the next day. By the time she and her aides left the ranch for St. Louis, their confidence was high enough that the hottest topic under discussion was whether the governor should wear blue or black. In the end, she went with black. The background, after all, would be blue.

Just minutes before the candidates shook hands on stage in St. Louis, Palin collected her thoughts in a room as she was joined by three top McCain advisers and her longtime Alaska aide Kris Perry. "Be still in the presence of the Lord!" Perry called out, as Palin bowed her head and prayed.

Palin would give her own version of this event several months later in a speech at a Republican Party dinner in Alaska. "So, I'm looking around for somebody to pray with. I just need maybe a little help, maybe a little extra," she said. "And the McCain campaign, love 'em, you know-there are a lot of people around me, but nobody I could find that I wanted to hold hands with and pray."
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