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.
“I certainly felt welcome and like I could always make points about how Republicans would see a story,” said Ms. Wallace. “Everybody listened, especially Katie. She was very interested in covering the primaries and the general election with as much evenhandedness as can be mustered at a network.”
Producers at CBS News ended up spreading out highlights of the interviews over the course of several days and on several platforms—from the Early Show to the Evening News to the Web. All of which prolonged the interviews’ saliency in the news cycle and prompted Mr. Kristol, for one, to size it up somewhat despairingly as a “nine-thousand-part interview.”
“We had no input on usage,” said Ms. Wallace. “We had no ground rules on the interview. I think that’s pretty unprecedented. A lot of people negotiate platforms. We didn’t negotiate platforms or air dates.”
In the post-interview autopsies, much of the chatter among TV news insiders focused on speculation about Ms. Wallace’s role in the affair. Had she brokered the interview? Was she mad at Katie? Was the campaign mad at her?
On Monday afternoon, Ms. Wallace downplayed her role in setting up the interview. The decision, she said, had been made primarily by campaign manager Steve Schmidt, in keeping with a broader media strategy.
“John McCain has been interviewed with CBS News, with 60 Minutes and on the Evening News with Katie,” said Ms. Wallace. “It’s a good platform. It really had far less to do with any personal insights or personal views about what she should do, and more with the strategy that the campaign manager Steve Schmidt settled on—one where we’d do a couple of long-form TV interviews at the beginning.”
She shot down speculation of favoritism toward her former employer, pointing out that prior to sitting down with CBS, Ms. Palin had done interviews with Fox News’ Sean Hannity and ABC’s Charlie Gibson. “I never worked at ABC News,” said Ms. Wallace. “They got the get. The get was the first interview and the only interview in Alaska. I don’t think anyone at CBS thinks that their relationship with me did them much good at all.”
Ms. Wallace said that her time at CBS News did increase her appreciation of the impact of broadcast journalism. “If it makes it onto the network news, you know that 20 million people saw it that night,” she said. “In this cycle, there has been so much noise. I think the networks have reemerged as the arbiter of what one piece of information from each campaign gets through. That perspective is one that I gained inside CBS.”
The day after Mr. Kristol’s haymaker on Fox News Sunday, the McCain camp went ahead with a second interview between Ms. Palin and Ms. Couric. Shortly thereafter, The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder reported on his widely read eponymous blog that even some members of the campaign were questioning why they hadn’t snuffed out the experiment after the first round. “Aides questioned why CBS’s Katie Couric was given a second interview with Palin after Palin’s responses were ridiculed,” wrote Mr. Ambinder.
Ms. Wallace said that her team never considered bailing on Ms. Couric. “It’s a very steady campaign,” said Ms. Wallace. “There’s not a lot of plug pulling that happens around here. We had our plan and we stuck with it. We’re thrilled we did. We thought Governor Palin did great.”