By Michael Isikoff
The McCain team has hastily assembled a team of former Bush White House aides to tutor the vice-presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, on foreign-policy issues, to write her speeches and to begin preparing her for her all-important Oct. 2 debate against Sen. Joe Biden.
Steve Biegun, who once served as the No. 3 National Security Council official under Condoleezza Rice at the White House, has been hired as chief foreign-policy adviser to the Alaska governor, campaign officials told NEWSWEEK. After taking leave from his job as vice president for international affairs at Ford Motor Co. last Friday, Biegun flew to St. Paul and, together with McCain’s foreign-policy guru Randy Schuenemann, began briefings for Palin on national-security issues—an area where her resume is conspicuously thin.
Biegun is hardly the only Bushie to be tapped for Palin duty. Among others:
Matt Scully, a former Bush White House speechwriter who helped draft some of the major foreign-policy addresses during the president’s first term, is working on Palin’s acceptance speech to the convention Wednesday night.
Mark Wallace, a former lawyer for the Bush 2000 campaign who served in a variety of administration jobs including chief counsel at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and deputy ambassador to the United Nations, has been put in charge of “prep” for the debate against Biden.
Wallace’s wife, Nicolle Wallace, the former White House communications director, has taken over the same job for Palin.
Tucker Eskew, another senior Bush White House communications aide, is serving as senior counselor to Palin’s operation.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the former chief economist at the Council of Economic Advisers who has been serving as top economics guru for the McCain campaign, has moved over to serve as Palin’s chief domestic-policy adviser.
The proliferation of former Bush White House aides in the Palin team may strike some as ironic—and could even provide some fodder for the Democrats—given the McCain camp’s efforts to distance itself from the unpopular president. (It has been widely noted, for example, that while the president is addressing the convention tonight by satellite, neither the president nor Vice President Cheney will be coming anywhere near St. Paul. And when Palin's selection was announced last week, McCain aides touted it as an example of the senator returning to his "reformer roots" and rebelling against the GOP establishment.)
One administration critic, Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, said today that while he personally liked Biegun and viewed him as “extremely competent,” his retention as Palin’s foreign-policy tutor could have unpleasant consequences. Describing Biegun—a Russia expert who once served as staff director for Sen. Jesse Helms at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—as a “big gun” in conservative foreign-policy circles, Clemens said “he will turn her into an advocate of Cheneyism and Cheney’s view of national-security issues.”
But another former colleague, Matthew Waxman, said that he saw Biegun as more of a pragmatist than ideologue when they worked together at the NSC under Rice. “Steven Biegun was one of the steadiest hands I worked with in government,” said Waxman. “He was kind of the chief of staff of the NSC. He was running day-to-day operations, and he did so extremely effectively.”
How effective he is in instructing Palin on the fine points of national-security and foreign-policy issues may now turn out to be one of the biggest questions of the campaign.