The moment when Nikki Haley peaked

A number of times recently when I’m being interviewed — informally at a cocktail reception, or formally on radio or the tube — I make reference to the fact that Nikki Haley peaked on May 14, 2010. I was there; I saw it.

It was the Friday evening when Sarah Palin came to call.

It was also the moment, three-plus weeks out, when it first became evident to me that she was going to win the primary.

I don’t think I wrote about that particular epiphany at the time. Instead, I wrote about how disturbingly alienated I felt at that Tea Party event. There was something really unpleasant going on, something different from the usual obnoxious nonsense one hears at political gatherings — that is to say, something that was obnoxious in a different way — and I felt compelled to analyze it. Nikki’s political fortunes weren’t so much on my mind at the moment, although I did remark on the startling change in her:

A little over a year ago, Nikki Haley was just an idealistic sophomore legislator who was touchingly frustrated that her seniors in her party didn’t roll over and do what she wanted them to do when she wanted them to do it. It didn’t really worry me when I would try to explain to her how inadequate such bumper sticker nostrums as “run government like a business” were (based in a lack of understanding of the essential natures not only of government, but of business, the thing she professes to know so well), and she would shake her head and smile and be unmoved. That was OK. Time and experience would take care of that, I thought. She was very young, and had experienced little. Understanding would come, and I felt that on the whole she was still a young lawmaker with potential.

I reckoned without this — this impatient, populist, drive for power BASED in the appeal of simplistic, demagogic opposition to experience itself. It’s an ugly thing, this sort of anti-intellectualism of which Sarah Palin has become a national symbol. This attitude that causes her to smile a condescending, confident smile (after all, the crowd there is on HER side) at protesters — protesters I didn’t even notice until she called attention to them — and tell them that they should stick around and maybe they would learn something. If a 65-year-old male intellectual with a distinguished public career said that to a crowd, everyone would understand it was ugly and contemptuous. But Sarah is so charming about it, so disarming! How could it be ugly?

Whenever I had met with her in the past, she had been so … demure. She was the idealistic young lady who was just deeply shocked that those mean old men at the State House didn’t understand that she was trying to do the right thing and that they should just be gentlemen and help her do it…

Which perhaps was her reading of what I wanted her to be, so she played that part. But I had thought it was real. And we endorsed her — twice.

Anyway, I didn’t write “Nikki’s going to win this thing” at the time, but it was on my mind. One reason I didn’t come out and SAY it, I guess, was that, well, that was Brad the INTP at his most intuitive. It would have driven the engineer types like Doug nuts, and when they demanded the geometric proof, I would come up a little short on evidence.

But personally, I had sort of learned over the years to trust that impression. I first experienced it covering my first statewide race, in 1978 in Tennessee. All the experienced reporters at the big papers were saying the race between Lamar Alexander and Jake Butcher was too close to call. But I had been closely covering both of them — I had spent a full week with each, sometimes 20 hours a day, riding in the cars and campaign planes with them, eating with them, standing right next to them when they interacted with voters, being right there in their good moments and their bad… (We used to do that sort of thing in the old days. It was called “covering an election.” News organizations don’t spend that kind of money any more, and campaigns don’t allow that kind of access to candidates. Now, most people follow the “Nixon in ’68” approach. That’s why the media loved John McCain — he let the walls down.) Anyway, I had seen in Alexander a candidate who was winning, and in Butcher a furtive, uncomfortable guy who couldn’t possibly be winning.

It was a look in the eye, a note in the voice, a certain energy.

And it turned out I was right.

Anyway, Nikki had that on May 14. Just watch and see if you see it. Sure, there were rough spots — such as the Freudian-sounding slip when she says “You know, I’ve spent the last six years trying to get people to understand the power of my voice,” then hastily corrects, “the power of their voice” — but on the whole, you’re looking at a candidate who is in the zone.

When you watch this, you will hear most of the things you’ve now grown tired of hearing her repeat. Only back then it had a freshness, magnified both by her confidence and the uncritical cheers of the crowd — a crowd that did not and never would challenge her self-shaped myth of the great businesswoman who had much to teach government as she chastised it.

Nikki defenders will say, “She’s still GOT that energy, and you’ll see next Tuesday.” But no, not really. That was her peak, back then. The only question since then has been the rate at which the air would run out of that balloon. She was flying so high then, the issue ever since has been how much altitude she could afford to lose by Election Day. She’s been losing air all along; her bumper-sticker sound clips have seemed a bit staler, a bit more brittle, with each repetition. (You’ll note some really sharp ironies, such as when she calls for income disclosure for legislators, or talks about what a great accountant she is…)

Right now, it looks as though she has enough altitude left to make it through Tuesday — although for all the many reasons cited on this blog the eventual crash is inevitable. (What worries me, as I wrote back here, is that the crash will come in early 2011 instead of before Election Day, leaving us with 3-plus years of a lame-duck governor, when SC needs so much more.)

But whatever happens Tuesday, this was the day on which she was flying the highest.

12 thoughts on “The moment when Nikki Haley peaked

  1. Kathryn Jean Braun Fenner

    Gee, thanks, Brad. Haley needs you to remind us of her “finest hour.”

    You and I see how scary this is, but how many other people will just drink the Kool-Aid?

  2. Patrick

    Maybe you should have written that passionate piece back then. Four more years down the drain for South Carolina.

    Harrell, McConnell, Leatherman and Cooper will remain in their positions. Not enough SC Policy Council/teabagger/libertarians to oust them. They’re going to unwind the B&CB for sure – to consolidate and maximize legislative control over the state.

  3. a tired old man

    For me that moment was when Rep. Jim Clyburn said that if he were Nikki Haley, he would have already been indicted.

    That’s coming from a man who has no problem arranging a quiet breakfast meeting with the man who controls the US Department of Justice.

    To this point, all of Nikki’s temptations (and her obvious inability to put them behind her) have altogether been no more than a few drops coming off a closed garden hose. After Tuesday, she will be at the epicenter of a wide-open fire hydrant.

    It’s like watching a train wreck.

  4. Joanne

    She might have been ready for this in the next 8 years, but she’s not ready now.

    That’s the problem.

  5. Ralph Hightower


    I saw many banana peels that Nikki Haley slipped on. Asking for transparency for all legislators; yet she failed to reveal her $42K consulting fee with a civil engineering firm that she, with an accounting degree, has no knowledge of vectors. Then there is the custom hand-crafted position that was created for her by Lexington Medical Center.

    Thank you for when you mentioned about hearing my voice; Oops, your voice. She is as narcissist as her mentor, SC Governot, Mark Sanford. Sanford has a “Bill Clinton problem”, problem with zippers. He also wanted to impeach Clinton for Monica Lewinsky, but he lawyered up after he got lost on the Appalachian Trail and ended up in Argentina.

    Hypocrisy in action, like mentor/mentee, Sanford and Haley. Do as I say, not as I do.

    Okay, precedent has been set with President Richard Nixon’s resignation and he was still called President Nixon. Alaska Governot, Sarah Palin, quit when the going got rough for her, so she could still be call Governor Palin, instead of Quiter Palin.

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