PR First, Country Second: A McCain Campaign Retrospective

On her January 12 show, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC reviewed a portion of the new book about the 2008 Presidential election, Game Change, by political reporters John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. The section was about Sarah Palin. The authors discuss Palin's prep and tutoring for the campaign trail, and conclude that "her grasp of rudimentary facts and concepts was minimal." They allege Palin didn't know why North and South Korea were separate nations, didn't know what the Fed does, and couldn't explain who her son, Track, was going to fight in Iraq. Maddow played a video clip of Palin, taped during her appearance on the Bill O'Reilly show shortly before Maddow's show that same night, in which Palin admitted that she didn't know who perpetrated the 9-11 terror attacks against the U.S. In another clip, Palin was giving a speech to American troops as they prepared to ship off to Iraq. In her speech, Palin suggested Saddam Hussein was behind 9-11, even though her campaign prep team had carefully explained to her the day before her speech that Iraq was not involved in planning or perpetrating 9-11.

"This is who John McCain tried to turn into our Vice President," Maddow said, pointing out that the book's exploration of Palin's depth of knowledge on domestic and world affairs draws into serious question McCain's choice of her as his Vice Presidential candidate. As a 72 year-old cancer survivor, his choice would have put Palin a heartbeat away from the U.S. presidency.

Did McCain put the country at risk by choosing Palin?

"I think she's the most qualified of any that has run recently for Vice President, to tell you the truth," McCain told Matt Lauer in an interview about the book on a recent Today Show broadcast. McCain then quickly tried to change the subject to Afghanistan, but failed as Lauer asked McCain about Palin's vetting process, quoting a passage in Game Change in which the authors describe it as "hasty and haphazard." When asked if this was a fair assessment, McCain answered, "I wouldn't know." Pressed by Lauer about this surprisingly dismissive statement, McCain -- appearing slightly irritated -- responded, "I wouldn't know what the sources [for her vetting] are, nor care."

Wouldn't know? Wouldn't care?

McCain was a serious contender for the U.S. Presidency. That he would be so contemptuous and evasive in response to questions about his choice of a Vice Presidential candidate is nothing short of alarming. Each time McCain refuses to discuss how he weighed Palin's qualifications, and every time he fails to justify selecting her to potentially the second highest office in the U.S., he confirms two things: 1) he can't admit he made a mistake, and 2) all that mattered to him about Palin's choice was that she was a woman. As such, she was able to draw the necessary attention and enthusiasm to his campaign that he had been unable to generate himself.

So forget about the question of whether his choice of Palin put the country at risk. She is now destined to the same fate as the Balloon Boy and the White House party crashers: all eyes are on her now, and she surely has attained celebrity status. But like Balloon Boy, her future is likely to be very different as more truths about her emerge.

The deeper concern here is the how McCain put the country at risk by believing himself and his judgment to be presidential material. Clearly, McCain did not put his "country first." His number one priority was on pulling a desperate PR stunt to help him attain the presidency at virtually any cost. The overall interests of the country were maybe second, or somewhere further down the line.