All the while, Palin was coping not only with the crazed life of any national candidate on the road but also with the young children traveling with her. Some top aides worried about her mental state: was it possible that she was experiencing postpartum depression? (Palin’s youngest son was less than six months old.) Palin maintained only the barest level of civil discourse with Tucker Eskew, the veteran G.O.P. operative who had been made her chief minder. A third party had to shuttle between them to convey even the most rudimentary messages. “She started to hedge her bets,” the same McCain friend says. “Frequently, she would be concerned about how something would play in Alaska. What? You’re worried about your backside in Alaska when there are hundreds of millions of dollars being spent?” One longtime McCain friend and frequent companion on the trail was heard to refer to Palin as “Little Shop of Horrors.”…

More than once in my travels in Alaska, people brought up, without prompting, the question of Palin’s extravagant self-regard. Several told me, independently of one another, that they had consulted the definition of “narcissistic personality disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—“a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy”—and thought it fit her perfectly. When Trig was born, Palin wrote an e-mail letter to friends and relatives, describing the belated news of her pregnancy and detailing Trig’s condition; she wrote the e-mail not in her own name but in God’s, and signed it “Trig’s Creator, Your Heavenly Father.”…

As Palin has piled misstep on top of misstep, the senior members of McCain’s campaign team have undergone a painful odyssey of their own. In recent rounds of long conversations, most made it clear that they suffer a kind of survivor’s guilt: they can’t quite believe that for two frantic months last fall, caught in a Bermuda Triangle of a campaign, they worked their tails off to try to elect as vice president of the United States someone who, by mid-October, they believed for certain was nowhere near ready for the job, and might never be. They quietly ponder the nightmare they lived through. Do they ever ask, What were we thinking? “Oh, yeah, oh, yeah,” one longtime McCain friend told me with a rueful chuckle. “You nailed it.” Another key McCain aide summed up his attitude this way: “I guess it’s sort of shifted,” he said. “I always wanted to tell myself the best-case story about her.” Even now, he said, “I don’t want to get too negative.” Then he added, “I think, as I’ve evaluated it, I think some of my worst fears … the after-election events have confirmed that her more negative aspects may have been there … ” His voice trailed off. “I saw her as a raw talent. Raw, but a talent. I hoped she could become better.”