Feb 6, 2022 - Politics & Policy

McCain when he picked Palin: "F--- it!"

Mike Allen
Sarah palin and jon McCain
Sarah Palin and Sen. John McCain at a rally in Hershey, Pa., on Oct. 28, 2008. Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

At the moment the late Sen. John McCain green-lit Sarah Palin as his presidential running mate in 2008, he told top advisers: "F--- it. Let’s do it."

The intrigue: McCain balled up a fist and shook it as if rolling dice, N.Y. Times political reporter Jeremy W. Peters reveals in his forthcoming book, "Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted."

The conversation in August 2008 — which took place outside, at the water's edge near a hawk's nest on McCain's ranch in Sedona, Arizona — was confirmed for Axios by a top McCain source.

Why it matters: The incident gives new vividness to how impulsively McCain made a fateful decision that badly diminished him in his race against then-Sen. Barack Obama.

Here's how Peters tells the story in his book (out Tuesday from Crown), which traces the Trumpification of the Grand Old Party over a three-decade arc, stretching back to Pat Buchanan in 1992:

  • "Mark Salter, a longtime aide to McCain, cautioned him that voters could see a Palin pick as discordant with the message of readiness and experience that the campaign had been focusing on as a contrast with Obama, a forty-seven-year-old first-term senator. 'There’s worse things, John, than losing an election. You could lose your reputation,' Salter told him."

Steve Schmidt, a top campaign strategist often blamed for pushing Palin, "also thought Palin was a risk but said maybe it was one worth taking," Peters writes:

[Schmidt] told McCain he should consider whether it would be worth it if he chose Palin and lost, but also knew in the end that he’d lost because he did something bold. "What you’ve got to decide," Schmidt told the senator, "is would you rather lose by seven going for it?"
McCain turned to his wife, Cindy. "John, it's a gamble," she said.
This made McCain's face light up. "Well, I wish you hadn’t said that," he said. McCain, an avid craps player, balled up his fist and blew on it, then shook it like he was about to roll a pair of dice. "F--- it," he said. "Let's do it."

Between the lines: Schmidt thought that to have a chance at winning, McCain needed to be ahead coming out of the September convention.

  • Schmidt couldn't see that happening with either of the other finalists — Mitt Romney or Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Read a Times adaptation from "Insurgency": "The Fox News That Donald Trump Helped Build" (subscription).

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