The Un-Vetted Veep Choice

ALASKA GOVERNOR SARAH PALIN DELIVERED a terrific speech in St. Paul on the penultimate night of the Republican convention in St. Paul, demonstrating to an enthusiastic crowd and to critical television viewers that she is a natural politician, with a wit that some commentators say recalls Texas governor Ann Richards (whom I knew well and who had little in common with Sarah Palin).

Republicans are counting on Palin to perform for sixty days. The larger question is: how will she perform over the next four (or eight) years if the McCain-Palin ticket wins in November. In fact, it’s the only question that matters.

Seven months into George W. Bush’s first term, Vice President Dick Cheney was in the PEOC—the Presidential Emergency Operations Center bunker beneath the White House. By all accounts, Cheney was calm, steady, and decisive, not hesitating for a moment when asked if fighter pilots should engage an airline full of passengers eighty miles from Washington, D.C., and closing in.

Cheney answered “yes.” The plane turned out to be United Flight 93, which crashed in a field in Pennsylvania before it could be shot down.

I spent more than a year writing a book about Dick Cheney. And four years working on two books about George W. Bush. I consider the Bush-Cheney administration to have been the worst in modern American history—a failure at home and abroad, intellectually and financially corrupt.

Yet the idea that Dick Cheney was in operational command during the most chaotic domestic security crisis in modern times remains reassuring to me. This was a moment for which he had been preparing for most of his professional life. A former Congressional fellow, Nixon sub-Cabinet appointee, chief of staff for President Gerald Ford, member of the House Intelligence Committee, and Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney understood national and domestic security as few others did. (He is also the quintessential “Washington insider” ridiculed by Governor Palin in her convention speech, as is Senator McCain.)

Imagine Sarah Palin in the PEOC bunker beneath the White House with the country threatened. The Alaska governor’s weaknesses have nothing to do with gender. I find the notion of Rick Perry—the amiable, telegenic, and dim-witted Texas governor, who convinced himself that he would be first in line to be vice president in a Rudy Giuliani administration—managing a national security crisis horrifying.

Voters deserve to know who Sarah Palin is. John McCain deserved to know who Sarah Palin is before offering her a job that might place her in a situation like the one described above. There are tested procedures that provide answers.

When former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating was a prospective vice presidential choice for George W. Bush in 2000, the vetting process was exhaustive. Keating had been an FBI agent, Assistant U.S. Attorney General, and general counsel to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He was the governor of Oklahoma when homegrown terrorists bombed the Alfred F. Murrah Federal Building in April 1995.

As a vice presidential prospect, Keating completed a thorough personal questionnaire, submitted a number of large ring binders of documents supported by banker’s boxes filled with files, and was personally interviewed. He had consulted a lawyer and an accountant in order to prepare for the process. Nothing in his background was left unexamined. (Dick Cheney, who was directing the candidate vetting, although he already knew he had the VP job locked up, found one damaging bit of information in Keating’s files and turned it over to reporters, to ensure that Keating wouldn’t be a second-term VP pick for George W. Bush. But that’s another story.)

“It’s a long, complicated process,” a Republican consultant who had directed an earlier vetting process told me when I was reporting on Cheney. “It’s everything: personal history, family health. But it’s really heavy on financial. You can spend thousands on this with your CPA and lawyers.”

Because the McCain campaign failed to vet Governor Palin, the media are now doing so. We will turn our attention to her again in our next issue.