Before Nicolle Wallace took over the role of senior adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign, the wrangling on the evening news in recent weeks over Sarah Palin’s performance in interviews with CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric might have been the kind of on-air debate she relished.
“Governor Palin did fantastic,” the 36-year-old told The Observer in a telephone interview on the afternoon of Oct. 6.
But since she took on this high-level communications job with the campaign in May of this year, Ms. Wallace has had to relinquish her spot as a G.O.P.-credentialed commentator for CBS News.
Her analysis would have been provocative: In the aftermath of the Palin-Couric encounters, pundits took turns pummeling the Alaska governor’s apparent lack of preparation and arguing about just how much the interviews had damaged her credibility as a vice presidential candidate.
Even many conservative pundits have been using the 24-hour cable-news gabathon to criticize Ms. Wallace’s employers for agreeing to them. On the morning of Sept. 28, William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, appeared on Fox News Sunday and eviscerated the strategy. He accused Ms. Palin’s handlers of adopting a “total defensive crouch” that was “typical of the Bush White House.” “I think the McCain team has pursued a bad strategy for her, relying mostly on the broadcast networks, with an incomprehensible leaning toward the last-place network, CBS,” wrote Byron York on National Review Online.
“They’ve totally mishandled her for the last week or two,” said Mr. Kristol. “Don’t talk to any conservatives on talk radio or on television. That would be just talking to the people who might vote for you. Go get quizzed by Katie Couric and don’t make a mistake.”
“People might not agree with all of her views,” said Ms. Wallace. “But I thought she was a forceful advocate for her views. We were very happy with that.”
Ms. Wallace said that she was struck by one aspect of the criticism. “I am most fascinated by and curious about what is at the root of the vicious hate-filled commentary coming out of so many of the women in cable news,” said Ms. Wallace. “It’s something I’ve never seen before. I find it startling and stunning.
“My personal theory is that she’s something that they can’t grasp,” she added. “They don’t know how to process her. She is beautiful, accomplished, successful, pro-gun and pro-life. They’ve never seen all those things in one package. She totally disorients many in the liberal media, especially a lot of the women.”
Those talking points aside, Ms. Wallace’s position in all of this puts her right at the center of the controversy. Before joining the McCain campaign in May 2008, Ms. Wallace spent nearly two years serving as a conservative political analyst for CBS News. There, she worked intimately with none other than Katie Couric. While Ms. Palin has since criticized Ms. Couric’s handling of the interview, Ms. Wallace seemed unwilling in her conversation with The Observer to lump her former coworker in with the rest of the catty female anchors she feels are unfairly thrashing Ms. Palin.
Ms. Wallace originally joined CBS in the fall of 2006 after serving as communications director for the White House in Bush-Cheney’s second term. At the time, the relationship between CBS News and the Bush administration was severely strained, thanks in no small part to the fallout over Dan Rather and company’s flawed reporting on President Bush’s military record.
But according to several CBS News sources, upon joining the Tiffany network, Ms. Wallace quickly established herself as a valuable and well-liked member of the newsroom. What she lacked in terms of on-air experience, any producer who met her would agree, she more than made up for by her good looks, her quick and articulate response to the cameras, and of course, her extensive background in Republican political circles.
Over time, according to sources, Ms. Wallace grew particularly close with Ms. Couric, and became a sort of symbolic central figure in the warming relationship between CBS News and Republican Washington.