Nicolle Wallace knows her politics. She served as White House communications chief under George W. Bush and also worked as a senior advisor on the McCain-Palin 2008 campaign. Her second novel, It’s Classified, explores what would happen if a woman were plucked from relative obscurity and elected Vice President of the United States — only to find herself completely unprepared for the job. Wallace talked to TIME about the problem with likable politicians, why everyone in the White House eats constantly and her character’s obvious similarity to Sarah Palin.
This novel reads like a lighthearted novel for people interested in politics, but it’s also a pretty big indictment of how the political process works. Where were you going for with this book?
I was very much inspired by the things that I’d seen and done in politics, but I was also desperate for a complete departure from the reality of my political experience. It’s Classified and my previous book Eighteen Acres are both works of fiction, but if they do seem realistic, it’s by design.
In the book, the vice presidential character, Tara Meyers, is completely unfit for her job.
The idea of a mentally ill vice president who suffers in complete isolation was obviously sparked by the behaviors I witnessed by Sarah Palin. What if somebody who was ill-equipped for the office were to ascend to the presidency or vice presidency? What would they do? How long would it take for people to figure it out? I became consumed by this question.
When you were working on the McCain campaign, what about Sarah Palin alarmed you so much?
Well, first let me just say that the novel is by no means meant to build a case against Sarah Palin. However, to the extent that the people around [the fictional vice president] Tara watched in this troubled state of confusion, despair and helplessness as she flailed around — that was something I experienced. Palin vacillated between extraordinary highs on the campaign stage — she ignited more enthusiasm than our side had seen at any other point [EM] to debilitating lows. She was often withdrawn, uncommunicative and incapable of performing even the most basic tasks required of her job as McCain’s running mate.
The decision to relocate debate prep from the campaign trail, which is where McCain did his prep, to Sedona, was to isolate her and help her overcome the shock of becoming an overnight celebrity. There certainly were discussions — not for long because of the arc the campaign took — but certainly there were discussions about whether, if they were to win, it would be appropriate for her to be sworn in.
You have a line in the book where the vice president is talking about why the American people love her. And she says, “The person they admire isn’t me, it’s the idea that I’m them.” Why do we need to have our politicians to be just like us? Do we really need to drink a beer with the President?
It’s an absurd standard. The two pillars of winning the Presidency are being a strong leader and being someone who understands us and our problems. I think Clinton might have been the last President who fit that. People always related to President Bush, but in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War his numbers collapsed because people didn’t feel like he handled those properly. Obama is the inverse. He was elected because he was an extraordinary guy, but the fact that he isn’tordinary has turned out to be politically damaging. People just can’t fathom sitting down and playing Yahtzee with the guy.
It’s also what’s going on in my party right now. Rick Perry feels like the guy you could eat a burger with, wipe the grease off your chin and not feel messy. But Romney is the one with the skill set to get the economy in a better place. So he has to fight to be more ordinary by tweeting about Wendy’s and whatnot.
There are so many women in these high-powered positions in this book, but they’re talking about men and clothes and food. The female President was eating a bowl of fat-free yogurt. Why were they eating all the time?
The men I worked with in the White House ate cookies and brownies all the time. It’s a workplace where everyone I knew had an Ambien prescription. People ate when they could and slept when they could. It was sort of like being a new mother. You figured you’d rest when it was all over. George W. Bush had fat-free yogurt after lunch every day.
But I also think many women struggle with their weight. The scrutiny that women are under when it comes to their appearance is something their male counterparts simply don’t experience. Gore gained about 40 lbs before anyone did a story about fat Al Gore. But if Condoleezza Rice changed her hairstyle, that was news.