'Drill, baby, drill!' almost didn't happen

TAMPA, Fla. -- In the nation's collective memory, it was Sarah Palin who first chanted "Drill, baby, drill!" at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., four years ago.

But the phrase was first coined at the convention by Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland who would go on to become GOP chairman in 2009 -- given a prime-time speaking role as one of the few prominent African-American Republicans in the country. Palin and the party's 2008 presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, went on to popularize the phrase throughout the fall campaign.

In an interview yesterday, Steele, now a commentator on MSNBC, said he did not mind when Palin appropriated his line.

"I feel great that Sarah Palin is associated with something I said," he said.

But the phrase -- which many Republicans and oil and gas industry backers have repeated often in the years since -- almost never saw the light of day.


Steele said he was writing his speech at 2 a.m., the morning before he was due to give it, and felt he needed something catchy. He came up with "drill, baby, drill" -- which brought to mind a phrase associated with the Black Panthers in the late 1960s, "Burn, baby, burn!" -- but fretted that it might not be appropriate for a nationally televised speech.

"I was worried about how it would be received in the convention hall," Steele recalled. "It's a little colloquial -- it's not a typical convention speech."

Steele said he believes voters understand that "drill, baby, drill" doesn't apply just to oil and gas drilling but to a wide range of energy exploration, including coal, nuclear, solar and renewables.

"I thought it crystallized the 'all of the above' argument that Republicans were making about energy at the time -- and are still making today," he said. "It's not just about drilling for oil. It's about doing all you have to do to make us energy independent."

This election year, Republicans are pushing a pro-drilling agenda more aggressively than ever. But with their convention being held just a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico, they've been careful to avoid publicly uttering the "drill, baby, drill" mantra after the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf two years ago (Greenwire, Aug. 27).

Steele said he never for a minute regretted coining the phrase, even when oil was spilling into the Gulf for several weeks.

"Accidents happen -- natural disasters and human disasters," he said. "How you deal with it, how you learn from it, is the real issue."

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