Source: New York Times
June 11, 2012
A Career Resurrected After McCain and Palin
By Adam Nagourney
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev.
A BASEBALL cap perched on his head, his eyes sheathed in sunglasses, Steve Schmidt sipped a Diet Coke and gazed across Lake Tahoe to California. Even in this most calming of places — the glassine lake ringed by snow-dusted mountains, the late-morning quiet — Mr. Schmidt seemed slightly coiled.
This resort town is his home, 2,500 miles from Washington, D.C., and nearly four years away from the day in the summer of 2008 when Senator John S. Mcain asked Mr. Schmidt to join his presidential campaign as its senior adviser. He spent the next four months battling political foes, news organizations and rivals inside the campaign itself with such ferocity that Mr. Schmidt — an imposing block of a man — buttressed his reputation as an intimidating enforcer, unsmilingly, calculating and permanently on the attack.
It was Mr. Schmidt who first championed Sarah Palin as Mr. McCain’s running mate, a bold move, he told Mr. McCain, that could win him the White House. Instead, her selection was widely viewed as one of the most calamitous political judgments in modern presidential politics. By the time Mr. McCain conceded, Mr. Schmidt himself feared that his role in that campaign would leave an indelible scar on his reputation.
“I’ve been involved in a lot of victories and I’ve been involved in defeats,” Mr. Schmidt said on this warm morning by the lake. “And the ending of that particular campaign felt like being in a car crash.”
But these days, helped in large part by the book and the movie “Game Change,” particularly the sympathetic portrayal of him in the film by Woody Harrelson, Mr. Schmidt has emerged from that car crash and settled into a lucrative and prominent existence that suggests he is the beneficiary of the kind of political resurrection Mr. Schmidt might have orchestrated for a beleaguered public figure.
Other advisers to Mr. McCain have scurried into obscurity. By contrast, Mr. Schmidt — television commentator and public relations executive, delivering speeches and wisdom on the politics of the day — has a higher profile than ever, and stands as evidence that there may be little cost to being associated with a losing campaign and a disastrous political misjudgment, as Mr. Schmidt now describes the Palin selection.
Mr. Schmidt, who walked the red carpet at the Washington and New York openings of HBO’s “Game Change,” has become a minor celebrity in nonpolitical circles: Mr. Harrelson, in an interview last week, described him as a “buddy” and recounted how he persuaded Mr. Schmidt to be his date to the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in April, and to the exclusive pre- and after-parties, no matter that the night happened to fall on Mr. Schmidt’s wedding anniversary.
“We went everywhere together,” Mr. Harrelson said. “We would be at a party, and people would say to me, ‘You know the guy you played is over there.’ And I was like ‘Yeah, I know. I came with him.’ At this point, I feel quite fond of him.”
Mr. Schmidt is the vice chairman for public affairs of one of the world’s biggest public relations firms, Edelman. He is a regular commentator on MSNBC, which has installed a remote camera in his sprawling rustic home. He is quoted on TV and in newspapers, including The New York Times.
Mr. Schmidt even had lunch in the White House mess with David Plouffe, President Obama’s senior adviser who raves about his politics skills, and had his photograph taken with the president.
“If the Republican Party in 2012 thought more like Steve Schmidt, that would make our job more difficult,” said Mr. Plouffe, who managed Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign.
That evolution has been viewed with disdain by Ms. Palin’s associates, who see in Mr. Schmidt the maneuverings of an insider trying to advance his interests at the expense of a former client. “Schmidt has establishment fever,” said John P. Coale, a friend and adviser to Ms. Palin. “The game was to ingratiate himself with the establishment. And what better way to do it than to tear down Sarah Palin?”
Mr. Coale suggested that Mr. Schmidt had hurt himself should he want to return to political consulting. “He wasn’t loyal,” he said. “When you get down to writing the check to the consultant, that’s the one thing you look at: This guy might be talking on my side now, but he was disloyal.”
At least in Republican circles, Mr. Schmidt may pay a bit of a price for the style of his return, both because of his prominence as a Republican critic on MSNBC and the revelatory nature of such postcampaign chronicles as “Game Change.” None of the Republican candidates for president made a serious effort to recruit him, though it seems unlikely Mr. Schmidt would have wanted to return.
“It’s not been an easy journey,” said Nicolle Wallace, who worked with Mr. Schmidt on the McCain campaign and on George W. Bush’s 2004 election campaign. “He spent a lot of time obsessing over the autopsy of 2008.”
Mr. Schmidt’s re-emergence is in part a result of a considered campaign of penance that began almost immediately after the loss: appearances, speeches and interviews brimming with self-criticism and challenges to his own party. At a postelection forum sponsored by The Atlantic, he said it would be “catastrophic” for Republicans to nominate Ms. Palin in 2012. In one of his first speeches, he came out in support of gay marriage.
He did a turn on “60 Minutes.” In “Game Change,” based on the book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Mr. Schmidt is portrayed as an honest broker who realized too late he had made a ruinous mistake and whose culpability was shared. Mr. Schmidt came up with Ms. Palin’s name, and two other McCain campaign advisers — Rick Davis, the campaign manager, and A. B. Culvahouse Jr., a lawyer — were primarily in charge of checking her credentials in the space of a week.
Mr. Culvahouse, in a column in The Wall Street Journal, described the HBO movie as revisionist, and said the background check on Ms. Palin was “no less rigorous” than the investigation of other candidates. Mr. Davis declined to talk about Mr. Schmidt, reflecting what Republicans describe as resentment in McCain circles about the way, in their view, Mr. Schmidt patched his own boat.
“My mother always taught me that if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all,” Mr. Davis wrote in an e-mail.
Mr. Schmidt said he has not spoken with Ms. Palin since the night Mr. McCain conceded. His criticism of her has been a defining theme of his post-2008 years, in contrast to Mr. McCain, who has praised her repeatedly. “If I knew two days before what I knew two days later, I would have handcuffed myself to the truck to prevent him from leaving the compound,” Mr. Schmidt said, recalling the moment that Mr. McCain left to announce his selection. “I guess the evidence of that is the trauma I still have four years later.”
“She absolutely should not be president: no way, no how,” he said. “I’ve watched her on the public stage over the past four years. There has been zero effort — zero — to improve any of her obvious deficiencies.”
Today, Mr. Schmidt seems to be trying to walk a line between taking responsibility and taking all the blame, as was clear on a recent day with him riding around the lake in his S.U.V., wandering a pristine beach, puttering around his office, and enjoying a long wine-soaked dinner as the sun set over the lake.
“My regret is I should have been the guy to say, ‘Stop, it’s too risky,’ ” he said, walking slowly up the road to his home. “As opposed to the guy saying: ‘Let’s take the risk. We have to win this.’ ”
How does that make him feel? “Terrible, terrible, terrible,” he said. “I have a level of regret that is hard to put into words. The notion that I would be a participant in a decision that, had events turned out the other way, this person would have been in national command authority? I am sick about it.”
Even here, a place that radiates tranquillity, with a life of golf and boat rides on the lake with family, Mr. Schmidt does not seem a man at peace. Consider him on gay marriage. “I would find it difficult to be involved in an effort that I think disenfranchises people from a fundamental right,” he said. “How do you work with people who are opposed to marriage equality? I don’t want to do it.”
“That said, I understand the hypocrisy in it because I’m probably going to vote for Mitt Romney at the end of the day,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. You try to compartmentalize stuff in your head.”
At one moment, Mr. Schmidt talks about returning to politics to fix a broken system. But just for a moment.
“I don’t know if I ever want to do a campaign again,” he said. “I’m not sure I want to spend the rest of my career waiting to pounce like a cat the moment the other side says something stupid. Aha! I think there are really serious problems in this country and I think politics in a lot of ways is failing the country.”
Of course, that political environment is arguably one that Mr. Schmidt helped shape and thrived in. “Politics is a tough business,” said Mr. Schmidt, who was a key strategist when Republicans won seats in the 2002 midterm election and was one of the most aggressive figures in Mr. Bush’s campaign. “I’ve certainly done more than my fair share of pouncing on a stupid issue to win the news cycle of the day, to distract from what are real and important issues.”
To prepare for the part, Mr. Harrelson said that in his conversations with Mr. Schmidt, he was struck by Mr. Schmidt’s regrets but also by the extent to which he found him more likable, and less fearsome and partisan, than he had expected.
“I’ve played some parts that I thought were a bit of a stretch: like playing a cop, even playing a soldier,” Mr. Harrelson said. “But I think the biggest stretch for me was playing a Republican. I just assumed that we would be so diametrically opposed in our vantage points, in our philosophy and our opinions that there wouldn’t be much connections. But you never know. Here we are: buddies.”
Mr. Schmidt has been living here since last year. It’s a 45-minute drive to the Reno airport, and Mr. Schmidt spends much of his time on the road. His head is shaved clean and he has a salt-and-pepper goatee. His hair, he said, went completely gray while working for Mr. McCain.
It is important to remember, he said, the world he found when he arrived on the McCain campaign. Ms. Palin, whatever the unknowns, seemed his lifeline.
“Look, we were trying to win the election,” he said. “It was a political decision. We understood it was a political risk.”
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