The walls of A.B. Culvahouse Jr.’s office are the only remarkable things in it. For a corner perch on the tenth floor of a modern downtown DC building, the space is understated. Surely the man who occupies it—a former White House counsel and the chairman of the international law firm O’Melveny & Myers—deserves something larger and nicer.
But the mementos on the walls are impressive. One photo shows Culvahouse during his first day on the job at the White House with President Ronald Reagan. Another shows him in the Oval Office with Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush, and Reagan chief of staff Howard Baker. Culvahouse says he’s not supposed to have that one—it’s an original print of the meeting that took place the day former national-security adviser John Poindexter testified about his role in the Iran-Contra affair.
There are framed thank-you notes from some of the high-profile figures Culvahouse has helped through vetting and confirmation processes, an area that has become a specialty of his since he left the White House. Supreme Court justice David Souter, now retired, sent along his words of appreciation after he was confirmed to the high court with Culvahouse’s assistance. Current Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote a thank-you after Culvahouse helped Gates become George H.W. Bush’s CIA director.
There is, however, a notable omission.
Few people outside the Beltway had heard of Culvahouse before the 2008 presidential election, when the Republican nominee, Arizona senator John McCain, asked him to vet his vice-presidential contenders. There isn’t a shred of evidence on the walls that would indicate the role Culvahouse played in launching the national career of McCain’s choice, Alaska governor turned queen of the Tea Party Sarah Palin.
Nothing here would indicate that only 2½ years ago, Culvahouse was on the phone in the conference room next door, interviewing Palin until 3 am Washington time to determine whether she would be a suitable running mate.
It was from that conference room that Culvahouse asked Palin, who was in Arizona, what he calls “the stock questions”: Why did she want to be Vice President? Was she prepared to use nuclear weapons in defense of the American homeland? If we had Osama bin Laden in our sights but taking the shot guaranteed civilian casualties, would she give the go-ahead?
Though Culvahouse won’t reveal Palin’s specific responses, he says he was reassured by them.
“She gave a very thoughtful answer to all those questions. People who are more experienced, more savvy—maybe some of them gave less savvy answers,” he says with a look that indicates he’s referring to some of McCain’s other VP contenders.
There was more: “On the phone, it was clear she had a personality that fills the room. A certain aura about her.”
Culvahouse sensed then the charisma that would propel Palin into folk-hero status among the Republican base and allow her to lead a new movement composed predominantly of white, working-class social conservatives—the Tea Party.
Palin’s influence was crystallized last fall during the midterm elections when her endorsements of extreme social conservatives such as Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell and Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle helped them oust more mainstream Republicans in the primaries. Rightly or wrongly, GOP leaders have since cast blame on Palin for costing them control of the Senate in the November election.
Culvahouse, of course, couldn’t have predicted how far that “aura” would carry Palin.
By the time Culvahouse spoke on the phone with then-governor Palin in the early morning of August 28, 2008, the political forces were already in motion. Later that day, Barack Obama, the freshman senator from Illinois, was rallying 84,000 faithful at Denver’s Invesco Field during the final night of the Democratic National Convention.
The Republican campaign needed to announce a running mate the next day. McCain’s closest advisers, Rick Davis and Steve Schmidt, were encouraging the candidate to consider Palin. The campaign was convinced it needed gender diversity, given how well Barack Obama was polling among women.
It may have been too late for Culvahouse to make much of a difference, and unlike Davis and Schmidt, he wasn’t there to dole out political advice. His primary job was to vet the financial and legal records of the vice-presidential hopefuls and to uncover anything that could embarrass the campaign.
Still, the interview was a critical final hurdle for Palin. And despite discussing Palin’s daughter Bristol’s pregnancy and the ongoing investigation into the scandal that would come to be called Troopergate, Culvahouse—with his nearly four decades of Washington experience—says he was satisfied.
Two other lawyers—O’Melveny partner Robert Rizzi and one of the firm’s former attorneys, Ted Frank—were in the room with Culvahouse during that phone call.
Frank, who by that time had left the firm and was working at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, sums up Palin’s performance: “This was somebody who very definitely charmed A.B. Culvahouse. And A.B. Culvahouse, I don’t think, is somebody who is easily charmed.”
Next: A career as a behind-the-scenes Washington player.