Nicolle Wallace Talks Bush, Palin, and Re-imagining the White House
By 2008, the writer and political commentator Nicolle Wallace had had, by any measurement, a fruitful career inside the Republican political world: press secretary for Florida Governor Jeb Bush in 1999, followed by a two-term stint as communications director for the Bush administration. But she may be best known for her subsequent role as a senior adviser to the McCain-Palin presidential campaign, a time during which she first became the subject of newspaper headlines (she was directly blamed for spending $150,000 on clothing and accessories for Palin and her family) and later a presence in a book and motion picture. Game Change, written by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann in 2010 and this year adapted into a HBO film with the actress Sarah Paulson playing Wallace, memorialized Wallace’s many encounters with Palin.
When Wallace began her career, however, she didn’t intend to become a political operative—or a Republican, for that matter. Initially, she studied journalism and worked as an on-air reporter for local television. She considered herself apolitical and was most comfortable occupying the narrow center of the American political debate. This is perhaps why, during her tenure in the Bush administration, Wallace was praised by the Washington Post as “a voice for more openness with reporters.”
Wallace left politics after the McCain-Palin campaign and spun her own version of events from the Bush presidency into two novels, Eighteen Acres and It’s Classified. Though these narratives of a controversial presidency are entirely original, they parallel her own experiences in unmistakable ways.
Construction: I was surprised to learn that you come from a politically mixed family. You’ve said that your siblings are liberals and your parents fall between independent and libertarian. You also went to UC Berkeley, which is not exactly a bastion of conservatism. When did you become interested in Republican politics?
Nicolle Wallace: I grew up thinking that a good journalist was trained in objectivity, so I was kind of apolitical. I always felt more comfortable toward the center of political debates and still do. After I went to journalism school, I actually interviewed with both Democrats and Republicans in the California state capitol, but I was hired by Republicans and I was very comfortable in the kind of role that I had—I wasn’t creating policy; I was a communicator, so I always felt it was my job to take whatever the Republican message was and to help them sell it.
When I went to work for Governor Jeb Bush, I started to really appreciate and internalize some of the conservative principals. The first policy I remember specifically was Jeb Bush’s education reform. When he won in 2000, the first thing he did was to take on Florida’s education establishment and bring in charter schools. He really tried to turn the education establishment upside-down. That was the first policy campaign I remember being involved in where I was very emotionally and intellectually invested in conservative ideas.
Construction: You have said that you are like the “Forrest Gump” of American politics, in the sense that you’ve witnessed many of the historic occurrences of the past 12 years, beginning with the 2000 presidential election and the Florida Recount. What was it like to be on the ground in Florida at that time?
Nicolle Wallace: It was like the Forrest Gump scene where he is in the Oval Office to receive the medal for his ping pong championship. There I was, on the front lines of the Florida Recount. The morning after the election I got on an airplane and flew down to Palm Beach to try to help. It was surreal.
[pullquote_right]I can’t think of much that President Bush did or said or fought for after 9/11 that I wasn’t emotionally invested in.[/pullquote_right]
There are maybe a dozen stories in my life that are like this, where every morning the kaleidoscope would shake and it would look totally different. The recount was something like that. I’d never been through something like that in my life, where the people on the ground were more important than the people in central command. We were on the ground in Palm Beach where the now-famous butterfly ballots had confounded voters, and one of my assignments was to go find voters and to try to understand whether they were confused by the ballot, and whether they intended to vote for George W. Bush, Al Gore, or Pat Buchanan. It was totally infectious, too, to be part of that, and then to be asked to come into the White House. It was like being on a rollercoaster—there was no way I was getting off.
Construction: How did your training as a journalist aid you during that time?
Nicolle Wallace: What was so great about that job was that the journalists were standing shoulder to shoulder with political professionals. Some of the greatest political journalists in the country were roaming around Palm Beach and eating at the same diners and restaurants as me and there really wasn’t a lot of separation between us and them, so I was very cognizant of how my information was being consumed. When you lose that, when you’re just answering the phone in a room and the journalist you’re speaking to is far away, you have no sense of how the things you are saying are being used. I think that’s a dangerous thing. I was 28, it was close to the beginning of my political spokesperson career, and it was a very important thing to learn.
The recount was almost the worst thing that could happen to somebody at the beginning of their career, because there’s really nothing else as exciting that could ever top it.
It was tragic, too. I’d say after the recount, the next big story I was a part of was 9/11. It had the same kind of importance as the recount. Your information had to be accurate and you had to be fast, and you had to balance the tension between getting people information as quickly as you could and making sure it was accurate.
Construction: When you went to work for George W. Bush, you initially handled regional press. This was just before 9/11. What was the climate like inside the White House when you first came in?
Nicolle Wallace: Any first-term president runs a pretty big and productive legislative offense, so we passed two tax cuts and we did Bush’s education reform with Kennedy. We were working on the Energy Task Force, which was controversial even then. This is when Cheney was allegedly having secret meetings.
The things that the administration was consumed by in the beginning were totally different than the things we ended up focusing on for the rest of the first term. There’s always a crisis before a crisis, and when the real crisis happens you look back and the things that you thought were a crisis really weren’t at all. I have my notes from September 10. I was sitting in a big strategy session trying to figure out how to communicate and pass the President’s big energy reform, but obviously 9/11 changed all of that.
If there was a turning point, when my work in the administration became deeply personal to me and I no longer felt that it was something I did and not something that was really near and dear to me, it was after 9/11. I became much more devoted to the things I was fighting for and helping to communicate. I really can’t think of much of anything that President Bush did or said or fought for after 9/11 that I wasn’t completely emotionally invested in.
Construction: Can you give some examples of the post-9/11 efforts that you supported?
Nicolle Wallace: The most glaring one for me at the moment would be Bush’s attempts to do something comprehensive on immigration reform. Bush essentially shared the position of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, which was to acknowledge that the ten-plus million people that were already here were not going to come out of the shadows of our society if they were to be considered criminals. You have to do something to put them on line to become citizens. We’ve now got a Republican party—including Senator McCain’s transformation on the issue; he once shared the position of George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy, but now he’s a little more strident in his views on the topic—that is largely viewed as being pretty hostile to people who are in this country illegally. That wasn’t the position of the Republican president that I worked for. Frankly, the current president hasn’t been as courageous on immigration politics as George W. Bush was and Senator Kennedy was.
The other thing that will stand out when you look back at the evolution of the Republican Party is that Bush did believe that the federal government could be a force for good. He believed in spending on things like national education policy. Whether you agree with No Child Left Behind or not, George W. Bush felt there was an important federal role in trying to achieve something better for the education of young people. The prescription drug benefits would be in the same category. President Bush believed that it was good to have federal spending for seniors in enacting Medicare Part D. So the Republican Party that George W. Bush led is markedly different than the Republican party of 2012.
[pullquote_left]My relationship with the press didn’t work out that well for me internally.[/pullquote_left]
Construction: After it became clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, did you still support the Bush administration’s stance on Iraq?
Nicolle Wallace: It’s largely irrelevant what Nicolle Wallace thinks about the war in Iraq. What I saw was a president who acknowledged his mistakes at every turn. I worked on a speech he gave in 2005 where he acknowledged his mistakes in diplomatic efforts, mistakes in the war efforts, and mistakes in communication about the war in Iraq and here at home. Working for a war-time president, I saw someone who was willing to acknowledge that it wasn’t perfect, but that in the end we were better off in a world without Saddam Hussein.
Every person can see quite clearly now that the reasons that were given for going to war in Iraq were not realized. It’s obvious to anyone who was paying attention to foreign policy at the time. But while France and Russia and the United States and Great Britain and every intelligence agency in the world agreed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, that complicates the effort indefinitely, and it twists and pains everything and everyone who was involved.
But it’s not for me to say, and it’s a little egotistical for the lowly staff people to sit around and contemplate whether they were involved in something ill-conceived. What I saw was a president who was deeply pained by the loss of life. I think Bush has paid the price over and over again for the complicated and costly nature of the decisions he made. He wrote a book about it; Decision Points is about how he came to make some of these politically unpopular decisions.
Construction: What do you see as the ideal relationship between the press and presidential administrations’ spokespeople?
Nicolle Wallace: After 9/11, the needs of the press were subverted for a while because the security of the country came first and foremost. I think a lot of members of the press feel that that is why good information about WMDs in Iraq wasn’t leaned. It’s a balance.
There were other times after 9/11 that our sources and messages for preventing another attack—you really can’t argue with this—had to have something to do with the fact that we weren’t attacked again. We know that Al Qaeda tried. But things like the TSP, where we were monitoring phone calls, when that was on the front page of the New York Times, that hurt the program. So there are examples where it gets out of balance on both sides.
[pullquote_right]The White House is a place that pulls you in physically.[/pullquote_right]
I think on any given day it’s like dancing on a knife blade. It’s really hard to land right where it’s perfectly in balance, but every day both sides try. It’s inspiring to have that balance; it is what gets you through the days and the weeks and the months and ultimately the years. Sometimes I can’t believe I did a job like that for twelve or thirteen years, but it’s not that you ever have it in perfect balance. You’re always trying, and that is when you are seen as a goodwill ambassador for both sides. You also have to be trusted by your boss, who in my case was the president. You know that his interests come first, they always do, but you have to be seen by the press as being his best and most earnest and effective advocate. It’s not that I ever achieved that, it’s just that I think both sides saw me as always trying.
Construction: You were praised by the media for making the Bush administration more press-friendly when you came in as chief of communications. Was that your goal?
Nicolle Wallace: Well, I was hardly the first journalist-turned-flack. When you get on the other side, you feel like your highest and best calling for your new employer is to help them understand the needs of the press. That was something that I certainly set out to do for my boss, and there were days that I did a good job at that and there were days that I didn’t do a very good job. I think that any former journalist—the expression is “who goes to the dark side,” but I think it’s probably debatable which side is darker—tries to do that.
After Vice President Cheney accidently shot his friend in the face, I was desperate for him to do an interview to explain his side of the story and for us to be able to move beyond that story.
One of Vice President Cheney’s advisors said, “Oh, you just love them.” I said, “Who? Who do I love?” “You just love the press.” “Right, I love the press so much, that’s why I want the Vice President to talk to them after shooting his friend in the face.” It was a ludicrous accusation, so somehow my relationship with the press didn’t work out that well for me internally.
I felt that when the gates closed behind me there was nobody else on the premises thinking about our press corps getting their information. It didn’t make me unique in my orientation; it was just that I considered my constituency to be the press.
Construction: In Decision Points, President Bush wrote that one of the low points of his tenure was hearing the response to his handling of Hurricane Katina in the media. You were working for him then. Was his disappointment something that you sensed at the time?
Nicolle Wallace: I was getting married when Katrina hit, so I actually wasn’t inside the White House, but I called from my honeymoon and offered to come back. Dan Bartlett, who I worked for, said, “Oh no, everything’s fine.” I said, “Anderson Cooper is crying on television. Everything is not fine.” But he insisted that I not come back early, though ultimately I did.
[pullquote_left]Women are presented with higher hurdles for likability and attractiveness.[/pullquote_left]
If you remember that hurricane season, it was Katrina for K, followed by L, M, N, O, P, all the way to Wilma. I ended up travelling to every hurricane after that. I did have a sense that Bush was obsessively consumed by the small details of rebuilding New Orleans in a way that I hadn’t seen him as involved at such a micro level before. He was always the most knowledgeable person in the briefing room when it came to how to rebuild the levees. He was so intensely focused on doing right by New Orleans. He had a really good relationship with Mayor Ray Nagin, and really was extremely aware of all the things that make a city whole again. It reminded me that he had been a governor and had come out of much smaller government than the one he had ended up presiding over. All of that came back after Katrina. He went back to his roots as being someone who was very in touch with not just the big problems.
Bush spent much of his presidency focused on the big decisions. As a war-time president, he’d been really focused on pretty philosophical debates about the preemption doctrine, but Katrina just called on such a different set of powers of the president. Katrina was government failing in the little ways, but the little ways being the most important—as important as protecting the country from Al Qaeda. Katrina exposed the little ways that the government was incapable of things like evacuating people with their pets. Bush was someone who understood the importance of a thing like that; he would never leave without his dogs Barney and Beazley. The situation brought out the best in him, in the aftermath of Katrina.
Construction: Your two books, Eighteen Acres and It’s Classified, parallel aspects of your career as a journalist and a communications director. When did you decide to write fictional accounts of life inside the Executive Branch, and how useful were notes that you kept while you were in the White House?
Nicolle Wallace: I did not keep a journal when I was in the White House. I was given that advice by someone in the Clinton administration, so I never did. I think if I had set out to write non-fiction it would have been very difficult. But to write fiction, to recreate the inside of Air Force One and the inside of the Oval Office, and to recreate the rooms that I spent every day in for years, that was easy enough to do.
To the question about when I decided to write: I read The Devil Wears Prada and became really intrigued by the idea of taking a place that is opaque to the outside world and turning it inside out and spilling all of its secrets It was after reading that—and I’d say Sex and the City does this too—that turning a place into a character was something that I wanted to do. Sex and the City obviously does that with New York City, and The Devil Wears Prada does it with Runway magazine. I set out to do it with the White House complex. That is why the first novel is called Eighteen Acres, because the most important and the only irreplaceable character is the White House.
If you talk to White House reporters who are on the beat, the White House beat is sort of its own jealous lover. It’s a place that pulls you in physically. There are things that you just cannot do at home on your BlackBerry. You can’t do a live shot about what happened to the president from home. You have to physically go there and stand in front of the building because the image of the White House in the background is so important. You can’t cover the president without getting on a plane and following him all around the world, even if you know you will never see him.
Journalists who go on foreign trips get on a plane that leaves the day before the president and come home on a plane that lands the day after him, and they can be gone 12 days without seeing him. They can watch him from filing centers for 10 days in 15 countries. The White House, and the White House beat, is so singular. A lot of people don’t understand that the White House press corps doesn’t go to work at NBC or ABC news; the corps goes to work at the White House and they sit in a cramped filing room underneath the White House briefing room that used to be a swimming pool. There are all these things about life in the White House and White House reporters that I wanted to bring to life and reveal, and getting to do that in the subtle way of fiction storytelling is one of the most fun things about the books.
Construction: You’ve said that what attracted to you to working for both Jeb and George Bush was that both administrations prominently featured female staffers. Then, when you finally went to work for a campaign that was groundbreaking for selecting a female vice presidential candidate, the media attention immediately circled around her limitations—her limitations as a person who had a family, who was trying to balance work and family—that became the dominant narrative.
Nicolle Wallace: That’s what inspired my career as a writer. I’d originally thought about and started writing a novel with a male president and some female staffers. It was the cumulative coverage of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin’s candidacies that made me wonder if there were certain things that were written about politicians simply because they were female.
For Hillary it was the whole “likability” narrative. I’m not sure how personally “likable” Obama is, we’ll never know, but with Hillary Clinton it was a story because her opponents made it a story and the media believed it should be a story. Women are presented with higher hurdles for likability and attractiveness. Sarah Palin had to answer a lot more questions about how she would juggle family and work than any male politician with children has ever had to answer, so I became obsessed with this double standard. I don’t think it’s the sort of thing you can rail against because it’s not just a media construct, it’s something people wonder. People wondered how Palin would take care of her special needs infant and be vice president. It is a part of our culture.
Construction: In It’s Classified, Dale Smith is someone who goes through a professional and personal crisis, working for and possibly colluding with a vice president who is unfit for office. That was a fascinating storyline to read, knowing that you worked for Sarah Palin. How much of Dale Smith’s story do you share, and at what point did you begin to realize that Palin might not be fit to be vice president?
[pullquote_right]Hillary Clinton is one of the more extraordinary politicians of our time of any gender.[/pullquote_right]
Nicolle Wallace: I would never burden any of my characters with my experience or perspective, but I also wouldn’t shield them from it. All of the indignities and abuse that Dale is subjected to by Vice President Tara Meyers were things that I was very much able to draw out of my experience working for Palin. When Tara Myers screams at Dale and accuses her of having divided loyalties, well, Palin writes about that in her book. It’s devastating; you’re not working for money, you’re not working for fame or fanfare, you are working because you believe in these people. When they accuse you of anything other than extreme loyalty it’s devastating.
It took me years to get over the 2008 campaign, and so Dale Smith’s emotional turbulence during her tenure as Tara’s counselor is certainly something that tracks pretty closely with my emotional turbulence working for Sarah Palin. I couldn’t help Sarah Palin any more than Dale Smith could help Tara Meyers. It exceeds your capacity. It’s not someone who needs a communications counselor, it’s someone who needs something bigger and different, and you’re not sure what it is. And then the betrayal of this person whom you protected, fought for, and worried about completely turning on you and shutting you out. Those things obviously track pretty closely with what I experienced with Sarah Palin, but Tara Myers is entirely fictional and Dale ends up in front of a grand jury because the stakes are so much higher in the White House.
Construction: Another interesting parallel from It’s Classified and your life is that you were trained to be the bearer of political news, but while working for the McCain-Palin campaign in 2008 you became the subject of the headlines, like your character Dale Smith. What was that experience like?
Nicolle Wallace: I offered to resign on half a dozen occasions after Fred Barnes of Fox News said, “We now know who bought all the clothes for Sarah Palin: it was Nicolle Wallace.” I heard it and I called McCain and I said, “I don’t have a credit card that would cover all those clothes, but I’m happy to take the blame.” Actually, I’d offered to resign before that; I’d offered to resign the morning after her Katie Couric interview. I said, “Turn the page; say I messed it up. I’m happy to go.”
Construction: How did the McCain campaign respond?
Nicolle Wallace: I called Senator McCain, and he said, “No, no, no, it’s not you.” He just didn’t accept my resignation. At other points when I offered—I think I offered to Rick Davis and Steve Schmidt—they almost brushed it aside like it was an unserious offer, but it was always offered very seriously. I certainly would have been willing to follow through.
Construction: In both of your novels you thank Katie Couric. In Eighteen Acres you thank her specifically for being “one of the first people to encourage [you] to make lemonade out of lemons.” What is your relationship with Couric, and how was it affected by her interview with Sarah Palin?
Nicolle Wallace: Katie Couric was one of the first people to reach out to me after I left the White House to find out what I was doing and whether I was interested in being a part of her team at CBS as a Republican political analyst. She’s extremely committed to being fair and understanding and to explaining stories from all perspectives, so I went to work for her in 2006. She really nurtured and formed my efforts in broadcast punditry, and I learned a lot from her.
[pullquote_left]If you care about reproductive freedom first and foremost, you’re not going to be attracted to a Republican president.[/pullquote_left]
When I went to work for McCain there was this suggestion by some of the right that I had turned, that I’d been a Republican analyst for a decade but when I went to work for Katie Couric for 18 months that somehow changed my orientation. It ignored the reality that it would have been of no use to Katie Couric if I wasn’t a devoted and loyal Republican advocate, which I was. That was the only value I had to her or to CBS news. Then she and I became friends, and obviously our paths will be tied together in political history forever because of her interview with Sarah Palin. But the notion that Katie did anything but her job—she did it extremely well—no one could watch that interview and suggest that I passed along any inside secrets for Katie’s use. She tripped up Sarah Palin with questions like “What do you read?” and “Name a single Supreme Court decision that you disagree with.” I had a sensitivity to it for a while, but now I find it mostly amusing that anyone would suggest that there was any sort of collusion between me and Katie. This evokes a gender question: is it because we’re girlfriends? Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams have plenty of friends on the Democratic side, but nobody suggests that they’re in cahoots when they interview Democrats.
Construction: If it is the reality that the media is going to ask different questions of female candidates, how might female candidates prepare for that scrutiny?
Nicolle Wallace: There were plenty of things wrong with Michele Bachmann, and that’s why Republican primary voters ultimately settled on someone else as their nominee, but Michele Bachmann didn’t suffer politically because of her gender. She actually built on the legacies of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin better than anybody in the Republican primaries. She took notes on the values of preparedness; she showed up at the debates knowing exactly what she wanted to convey; and she embraced being an attractive, well-dressed mother. She was able to talk about being a mother and a wife. There was no hoopla or scandal about her wardrobe. She wasn’t the chosen nominee because she was out of step with the majority of the Republican Party; she didn’t lose because of any media treatment doled out because of gender.
I think that women have to draw from the two highest profile female candidates in recent times, Clinton and Palin, and I hope they will. I said this in front of Chelsea Clinton: I think that until we unpack everything that happened to Hillary Clinton we won’t have a successful nominee for president who is a woman.
Hillary Clinton’s treatment by the entire media establishment is something I still find shocking. From the discussion of “likability,” to the calls for her to get out of the Democratic primary when she was winning states like Texas, which is obviously a huge important state. I don’t think we ever did much to unpack and analyze why she was treated the way she was. She’s one of the more extraordinary politicians of our time of any gender, and the way she was treated in her campaign is something people don’t really talk about. We had a pretty enlightened conversation in ’08 about race, but we had no such enlightened discussion about gender. Until we do, I don’t think we’ll be back where we were in ’08, with a woman almost at the top of the ticket on the Democratic side and another on the Republican side.
Construction: You were outspoken about your desire to see a woman on Romney’s short-list for vice president, and your books of fiction center on a woman president and a woman vice president.
[pullquote_right]My husband and I are both on the record for supporting marriage equality.[/pullquote_right]
Nicolle Wallace: It is in my interest to see a woman at the top of the ticket. I think the times lend themselves to some characteristically female leadership attributes. Incrementalism is a thing that most gender studies show women are slightly more effective at embracing than men. They listen more, they are more diplomatic. These are complicated times; our foreign policy isn’t going to be executed in big, giant, noticeable leaps and bounds forward; it will only be improved by incremental improvements in the relationship between the United States and Pakistan. There’s no wall to knock down anymore. This is a time that lends itself to a leadership style of some of the great female leaders that you see on the world stage. I do think that a woman president would be different, and I do think it will take a woman at the top of the ticket to illustrate how it would be different.
Construction: Ann Romney was outspoken about her desire to see a woman vetted as a VP candidate for Romney. Do you think that choosing a female candidate would have been enough to change the narrative that Romney is out of touch with female voters?
Nicolle Wallace: Doesn’t Palin show us that it is not? Putting a woman on the ticket doesn’t mean that women vote for you. But I think that there are women who are certainly accomplished enough to be considered as the vice president on the Republican side. Meg Whitman is one, Carly Fiorina is one, Nikki Haley is one; there are other women serving in state houses and other places. This is a very secret process, so I have no reason to suspect that isn’t happening, but I think that it’s the job of a campaign to present its presidential candidate with a list that includes qualified men and women.
Construction: Romney has presented himself as very conservative on women’s reproductive rights, and he has refused to say whether he supports the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. What advice would you offer him on reaching out to female voters?
Nicolle Wallace: If you care about reproductive freedom first and foremost, you’re not going to be attracted to a Republican president, period. If that’s your number one issue you’re probably not attracted to a Republican candidate at any level, state or federal. It’s a semantic thing, right? People say “women’s issues” and the Republicans try to translate that as the economy. Democrats translate that almost wholly as reproductive freedoms. If you say “women’s issues” and you hear “reproductive freedoms,” then chances are you’re going to vote for a Democrat. I would say it is both men and women who are put off, so it’s not just a women’s issue. I think the Romney campaign’s strategy is to say that the bigger women’s issue is the economy, and we’ll see how that works.
I happen to believe that the Republican Party is at its best when it pledges not to focus on social issues. I think social issues are extremely divisive, and I was drawn to the Republican Party at a time when George H. W. Bush was the president and social issues were not front and center. McCain didn’t make them front and center.
Construction: In terms of social issues, however, President George W. Bush did make an effort to oppose marriage equality. In 2005 there were reports that he was working to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have banned gay marriage. Was that a priority of his administration? What were your views on that effort?
Nicolle Wallace: I was one of the co-hosts of the AFER Event (American Foundation for Equal Rights); my husband and I are both on the record for supporting marriage equality. I never heard President Bush talk about gay marriage in a way that made me feel that it was a priority for him personally. I was in hundreds of meetings where I remember him talking about the war in Iraq, and toward the end of the administration, people who were there—that doesn’t include me—would have heard him talk about his concerns about the economy, but I never heard him talk about gay marriage being a priority.
Stem cell research would be the exception to [prioritizing social issues]. Very early in his administration, he was deeply engrossed in the debate about what to do in terms of allowing or disallowing stem cell research. It was a very politically unpopular decision he made, but it was heartfelt. But I never saw him mired in that kind of drawn out personal debate or discussion about any other social issue, including gay marriage.
Construction: From your perspective as a former White House communications director, what do you see as President Obama’s successes and failures so far?
Nicolle Wallace: From Obama’s ideological vantage point, passing health care reform has to be viewed as a massive success. If you believe that there’s a larger role for the federal government—I don’t—then Obama has to be proud of passing health care reform. Catching Osama Bin Laden as well, you can’t pull Obama out of that. It happened on his watch, he made the decision, and he decided to green light the mission, so I give him credit for his role in that mission.
As for his failures, again, a former White House staffer can’t sit and opine on a president’s failures. Being president of this country at this time is so complicated and so difficult that we don’t have the kind of candidates running who we deserve. We actually have people like Chris Christie and Jeb Bush who for whatever reason aren’t even willing to go through what you have to go through to run. I’m not willing to nitpick the President; I just think that the things that he has attempted and accomplished in order to address our problems are very different form the things that my party historically would have prescribed to solve the problems we face. But this doesn’t make them failures.
Construction: What would your dream presidential ticket be?
Nicolle Wallace: I love Governor Jeb Bush. I worked for him when I was 25 and I blame him for my addiction to politics, because he was my first hit at political greatness. His chief of staff was Sally Bradshaw, and she was the first woman I ever worked for. One thing that I find just as perplexing as the fact that we’ve never had a female president is that we’ve never had a female White House chief of staff. Jeb Bush is someone who put women in the most powerful posts in his administration, so while he’s obviously not a woman, I think he’s someone who would be a great president for women.
[pullquote_left]Rush Limbaugh fascinates me at every level: human, entertainer, political guy.[/pullquote_left]
I think that Condoleezza Rice is someone who is incredibly competent and accomplished and probably too smart to ever run for president herself. I’m a Chris Christie fan most of the time; sometimes I find him a little too volatile, but I like him. Ultimately, I think he’s a little too Larry David for me; he sort of says whatever he thinks no matter how appropriate it is, but I like him. And I think that we have to go back to a time when presidents and political figures hailed from all walks of life. It would be great to see some leaders from business and other places coming through our political scene. I think we’re desperate for an infusion from places other than the traditional training grounds for national politicians.
Construction: You’re writing a third book, and it sounds like the main characters from the previous novels will remain at the center of the story. What details can you give us about the book?
Nicolle Wallace: The third book takes place over a 24-hour period, and it’s a day that a domestic terrorist attack takes place in the country. Obviously that is something I experienced on 9/11.
I remember there were things about 9/11 that were so stunningly mundane. I mean, the food service kept going. The country had been attacked, there were four terrorist attacks, and I remember that there were still sandwiches and cookies everywhere. The people who work in the White House had to have had families who were terrified for them, but they never left. So I’m sort of bringing to life what happened on the eighteen acres on that extraordinary day. It is something that captured my imagination from 9/11 on, and I feel like the 10-year anniversary gave us a reflection point.
Construction: Would you consider writing about your experiences in politics in a non-fiction format?
Nicolle Wallace: I would write about other people’s real lives and careers. Hillary Clinton intrigues me; her post-presidential campaign life intrigues me a lot, and to write about her journey from day one of the Obama Administration to whatever she does next would interest me.
I’m also completely obsessed with Rush Limbaugh. He fascinates me at every level: human, entertainer, political guy. Millions of people listen to Rush Limbaugh every day; I’m interested in anybody who attracts millions of people five days a week. Anyone who wants to understand this country would want to understand why millions of people listen to Rush Limbaugh. I’ve heard on many occasions of him using his wealth to reach out to people who don’t have as much, and of him extending kindnesses and generosity to people in times of need. Again, I don’t know him—these are all anecdotes and things I’ve heard from people who know him—but I do think there’s a more complicated human being there than is really completely known and that’s fascinating to me.
I would write about other people’s real lives before I would write about my own. I would never write a memoir. I think that is for people of greatness, and honestly I see myself as a Forrest Gump. I observed these extraordinary things and got to be close to extraordinary people, but I would never propose to write my own tome.