Michael Goldfarb was the McCain campaign’s deputy communications director-cum-media bodyguard, tasked by McCain’s high command with bullying the press into covering things the “right” way. It’s a role Goldfarb, a reporter and blogger himself, played with gusto—so much so that he generated controversy and became part of the storyline himself on occasion.
Now back at The Weekly Standard, he talked to Kate Klonick about the campaign’s flirtation with punishing The New York Times, the decision to pick Sarah Palin, and that memorable interview on CNN.
Kate Klonick: You spent the last six months as the official campaign blogger for the McCain campaign, taking leave from your position as Web editor at The Weekly Standard. What were you expecting when you made the switch?
Michael Goldfarb: [The McCain campaign] assured me that they were looking for someone to attack the press. And that struck me as a really bad idea, but when a presidential campaign calls up and offers you a job you take it. I didn’t think they’d follow through on the claim the way they promised, and I expected to be reined in pretty quickly—end up working on statements and the like. I didn’t expect to have free reign to do what I wanted
Occasionally they would task me with something and I wouldn’t get to follow through. Like they were going to throw The New York Times off the plane, I wrote the memo explaining that [decision], and then they changed their minds. But day to day, in terms of picking lines of attack, I was giving a great deal of latitude. I was working with other communication guys—but there was a tremendous amount of latitude and that persisted well beyond the convention, which was surprising. I thought they’d end the blog after the convention. But it wasn’t until about three weeks out from the election that I basically stopped blogging, because I decided it wasn’t prudent to keep it going. There were other outlets for that. I decided to work on statements, and the blog just became a little bit risky because it didn’t have to go through the normal channels. It left the campaign exposed and it left me exposed.
KK: Were you looking ahead to a possible McCain victory, and the possibility of joining his administration? Or did you not let yourself go there?
MG: I thought from the beginning that we would lose. I’m not a lunatic, the odds were always stacked against McCain. But there were a couple weeks there after the convention where [winning] looked like a possibility. People, for the first time, let themselves think that maybe it was possible that we could win. But then the markets collapsed, and everyone sobered up and realized it was an incredible longshot. But you don’t do that because you think you’re going to get some cushy job after. As a journalist you want the opportunity to see it from the inside out, and you have a candidate you really like, admire, and respect. You saw it with Linda Douglas and Jay Carney—there’s no expectation that a journalist who gets that opportunity is going to pass it up. It’s too interesting.
You see journalists from the other side, which is one of the most shocking things. You’re the one giving things to the journalists, so you know when something is going to come out and where they’re getting their info and when they’re making it up.
KK: You were a long time proponent of McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his VP pick. Seeing how everything played out, do you still think she was the right choice?
MG: It’s unbelievable the way the media has covered this and the way the media has been played—which is partly from the bullshit inside the campaign. When you have The New Yorker write a story about how Sarah Palin was selected… well, that was like Jane Goodall going in and writing about fucking apes mating in the jungle—they don’t know what’s going on. They’re writing from another planet. I like Sarah Palin, I think she was a very attractive candidate, but I think she made a lot of mistakes. But so did Biden.
I am not convinced that Sarah Palin hurt the campaign. People think that this decision was made in some kind of vacuum. I’m not convinced that a McCain/Romney ticket would have outperformed a McCain/Palin. Well, maybe if we’d done Lieberman we would have been down fifteen points after the convention instead of up four. I’m not convinced that Palin, even with all her weaknesses, wasn’t the most plausible ticket you could have put forward this year.
KK: What about all the talk about the acrimony between the McCain/Palin camps behind the scenes? What was the story with that?
MG: The reporters who produced those quotes weren’t making them up. It was a disgrace to the campaign and John McCain, and I think the people who did that are going to pay a real steep price in the long run, because the media ate it up, the media loved it. Once you’ve lost the campaign, who holds responsibility for [publicly airing their grievances with Palin] and who escapes with their credibility intact won’t be decided by The New York Times. Conservatives are not pleased by this.
KK: One of the most memorable moments in the campaign involving you was your much-watched interview with CNN’s Rick Sanchez, where you danced around naming Jeremiah Wright as an anti-Semite. When I Googled your name, links to that video were the first thing that popped up. The liberal blogs vilified you for that exchange, and I think there was a moment in the video where you suddenly recognized that the whole interview was going to be put on YouTube and go viral. What was the campaign’s reaction to the clip? Did you get much response from it outside the communications office?
MG: I was summoned to the office of the campaign manager and given a slap on the wrist. We had a clear directive that we were not to discuss the name of Rev. Wright, and I tiptoed right up to it but I wasn’t allowed to cross it. But when I walked back into the communications room I got a round of applause. There was a lot of support among the rank and file; I think it was obvious to anyone that seriously followed the campaign what was going on there. I can’t tell if people were being willfully ignorant or if they generally don’t believe that [Obama] associated with those kinds of people. But that was a mistake from a communications standpoint.
KK: Do you think McCain was wrong with that call?
MG: It’s not for me to second guess how the candidate felt about any particular issue. There are obvious mistakes that were made throughout the campaign. The Rev. Wright issue is of some concern. It was frustrating, because if McCain never mentioned it, the media was going to act like it didn’t exist.
KK: If you had to do it again, would you do it differently?
MG: It was what it was. I don’t have any regrets about the campaign. It was a moment of incredible entertainment for my colleagues. I went home for Thanksgiving and everyone I know said they saw me on CNN. But this kind of shit happens to everyone in a communications position at some point.
KK: Did you think of going back on CNN and redeeming yourself?
MG: I don’t think it would have been in anybody’s best interest to go back on with that. I thought [Rick] Sanchez embarrassed himself, but the whole thing was great for him. That’s the only time anyone has talked about his show outside of his show. Same thing with Tucker [Bounds] and Campbell Brown. Obviously, in retrospect, you wish Sarah Palin didn’t do ten straight nights on the Katie Couric show, but you just move on.
KK: So now you’re back at The Weekly Standard. Can we expect to see something from you with the inside scoop on the final days of the McCain campaign?
MG: I don’t think there’s an appetite for it. I think the truth will out at some point. If the media was remotely competent, it would have reported that story by now. It’s a great process story, which is what the media loved most.
KK: Now that you’re back in journalism, is there a conflict of interest in covering anything relating to the McCains and the campaign?
MG: We have an agenda at The Weekly Standard. It’s overt. McCain was fairly well in line with that agenda, out of all the candidates. I think it’s ridiculous when you see the stuff on the other side. Jay Carney is going to be the communications director for the vice president. I mean, Time is not supposed to be an ideological magazine. I don’t have a problem with that, either, but when people got bent out of shape with me going over there—this wasn’t a major shift for me. This was the same thing as before.
KK: Think you’d ever go back to a campaign?
MG: It was brutal work, but it’s hard to say no to a presidential campaign. Plus it was something I was good at. I was a cudgel. I pissed off the media. They were furious about it. That was the effect the campaign was looking for.