The ABCs of Sarah Palin

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 12, 2008 9:31 AM

Anyone who said that Charlie Gibson might go easy on Sarah Palin might want to quickly delete those comments.

What the ABC newsman conducted yesterday was a serious, professional interview that went right at the heart of what we want and need to know about the governor: Could she be president? Does she understand the nuances of international affairs? Does she have a world view?

He was all business, respectful but persistent.

When Palin said she was ready to be president, Gibson said: "Doesn't that take some hubris?"

Had she traveled anywhere beyond a single trip to Iraq and Kuwait? Had she met any world leaders? Should Georgia and Ukraine be admitted to NATO? Did she believe the Iraq war is a task from God? When Palin demurred, Gibson said those were her "exact words." No fancy footwork, no long-winded setups, no gotchas. Just a solid, straight-ahead interview.

Even Palin's critics should admit that, in terms of demeanor, she handled herself well for someone who three years ago was worried about the books in the Wasilla library. She projected confidence and was not openly rattled.

Substance was another question. She seemed unfamiliar with the Bush Doctrine. She seemed to endorse any nuclear strike Israel wants to make (and should have dodged the question). And she came pretty close to saying she'd declare war on Russia for invading future NATO member Georgia. Palin might want to spend more time with McCain's foreign policy gurus.

After switching to Fox, I learned that part of the interview was controversial.

GIBSON: You said recently, in your old church, "Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God." Are we fighting a holy war?

PALIN: You know, I don't know if that was my exact quote.

GIBSON: Exact words.

PALIN: But the reference there is a repeat of Abraham Lincoln's words when he said -- first, he suggested never presume to know what God's will is, and I would never presume to know God's will or to speak God's words.

On Fox, Newt Gingrich called this "a sad commentary on the growing anti-religious hostility of the news media." I would call it asking the governor about her own words.

Interestingly, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis earlier told radio host Hugh Hewitt that the media's coverage of Palin amounts to an "attack on Christianity" itself.

In the portion aired on "Nightline," Gibson got Palin to acknowledge that human activity was "contributing" to global warming, or "potentially causing" it. When he said he might be cynical but suspected she was tailoring her position to match McCain's, Palin said he was a cynic. He was certainly aggressive on that point.

Boston Globe: "Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin said yesterday that she had no hesitation about becoming John McCain's running mate, confident that she has the experience in world affairs to take over the presidency despite acknowledging that she has never met a foreign head of state."

New York Times: "At times visibly nervous, at others appearing to hew so closely to prepared answers that she used the exact same phrases repeatedly, Ms. Palin most visibly stumbled when she was asked by Mr. Gibson if she agreed with the Bush doctrine. Ms. Palin did not seem to know what he was talking about. Mr. Gibson, sounding like an impatient teacher, informed her that it meant the right of 'anticipatory self-defense.'

". . . There were no obvious gaffes during the grilling by Mr. Gibson, who was facing pressure of his own to move Ms. Palin beyond her stump speech to reveal more about her readiness for high office and knowledge of world and domestic affairs."

L.A. Times: "The Alaska governor also reversed her stand on the cause of climate change, telling ABC News that she believes 'man's activities certainly can be contributing to the issue of global warming.' Less than a year ago, she said the opposite."

New York Post: "Vice-presidential hopeful Sarah Palin saw her eldest son off to war yesterday as she took a hard line on Russia, Iran and terrorists 'hellbent on destroying America and our allies.' "

Now for some insta-reactions.

Jonah Goldberg: "There was a lot in the interview she could -- and should -- have waved off as hypothetical or said it would depend on the context. Because A) that's what 90% of seasoned politicians say and B) because 90% of seasoned politicians say that sort of thing because it's the right answer . . .

"Politically, I think she seemed a bit nervous and offered some phrasing that will cause the people who already hate her irrationally to irrationally hate her some more. Beyond that, she did herself little to no harm and came across as a real person put in an unreal situation which is pretty much the reality of things."

Slate's Jack Shafer: "Without being smarmy about it or unfurling gotcha questions, ABC News anchor Charles Gibson demonstrated that he knows volumes more about national security and foreign policy than does Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin . . .

"Palin can't blame her muddled responses on Gibson, who treats her fairly and conducts himself professionally. Never mind about her not being ready to be president. She wasn't even ready for this interview."

Andrew Sullivan: "It's very clear that Palin has never heard of the Bush doctrine on pre-emption, perhaps the most significant element of his disastrous legacy in foreign policy. She is clearly out of her depth."

New Republic's Eve Fairbanks: "I have no doubt Palin is intelligent, but she sounded like someone who had simply never had to think about many of the things Gibson asked and had just crammed for a test."

Meanwhile, assorted lefty pundits are just begging Obama to take the gloves off and start swinging. This reminds me of the period last fall, when he was trailing Hillary by 20 and journalists said if he didn't start attacking her he'd be seen as a wuss. Obama did ratchet up a bit, though never as aggressively as his media cheering section wanted. And that turned out all right for him in the end.

Arianna Huffington demands some "righteous rage":

"Obama has demonstrated a laudatory levelheadedness -- the ability to keep his head while those around him were losing theirs -- over the long haul of the '08 campaign, always presenting a cool and unruffled image. And it has served him well.

"This is clearly part of Obama's lifelong attempt to present a nonthreatening persona, what Shelby Steele has dubbed the 'iconic Negro.' Think Oprah, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods. Now picture them in your mind . . . they're smiling aren't they?

"Being likeable is obviously a good thing in politics. So is being analytical and thoughtful and composed. But the last seven-plus years demand more than a detached analysis -- and certainly more than a beaming smile.

"They demand indignation. Outrage. Fury.

"Obama has often said that he is running because of what Dr. King called 'the fierce urgency of now.' He needs to show that fierceness and that urgency."

At the Root, Terence Samuel says Obama has the wrong weaponry:

"This is not a civics seminar; it's a knife fight, and the McCain camp is bringing automatic rifles.

"Right now it is not about the American people getting it. It is about Obama getting it. He's getting hit over the head with a baseball bat and looking like he wants to file an amicus brief about it.

"It would be silly to count out the Obama strategists; they have defied every prediction and surpassed every expectation thus far. But watching the Obama response to the Sarah Palin frenzy, conjures up sad images of John Kerry, Al Gore, or, dare we say it, Michael Dukakis.

"Once again, we have Democratic dignity on display. They are taking the high road, constantly acknowledging John McCain's honorable service to the nation and saying that Sarah Palin is a tough and talented politician.

"Meanwhile, on the low road and on their high horse, Republicans are making minced moose meat out of Obama. In 30 brutal minutes during the Republican Convention last week, Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin took Obama's anti-elitist, street cred and turned it against him."

Samuel then makes this remarkable statement: "Maybe it would have been better for Obama to have called Sarah Palin a pig, rather than to have spent a day explaining why he didn't. Voters actually respond to that kind of jibe, if they think you're fighting the good fight against people who don't have their interests at heart."

I don't think such piggish behavior would do anything other than show he can roll around in the mud.

Even across the Atlantic, the Times of London sees the lipstick incident as revealing:

"The character question it raises is not that he is a sexist or that he lacks courtesy. It is that he folds under pressure.

"Obama has looked amazingly uncomfortable under the pressure that Palin has put him under. He relies on his cool -- it is a core part of his appeal. So he looks bad when he loses it. During the Hillary contest he rarely came under any pressure from the media. When he did he reacted badly.

"So the problem caused by Palin isn't really about Palin -- it's about Obama."

O is in something of a box, says CQ's David Corn:

"The McCain Mafia seems committed at throwing whatever it can at Obama: from falsehoods about taxes and earmarks (example: Palin opposed the Bridge to Nowhere) to silly and unsupported charges about sexism and sex-ed. Their strategic goal, obviously, is to keep Obama pinned down. Should the Obama campaign waste time knocking down these purposeful errors and excessive spin? That would be letting McCain shape the debate to his advantage.

"But if the campaign allows this stuff to hit the wall -- and maybe stick -- the McCain mob wins. Should it sling crap back at them? Perhaps Team Obama ought to stick to the ground game campaign manager David Plouffe has designed and not be distracted by the cable news noise. But at some point does that noise affect the ground reality? I suppose the only answer is, the Obama camp has to do it all: swat the flies, make its own case (for Obama and against McCain), and keep moving ahead.

"But so much for an honorable campaign from an honorable man."

Not to worry. American Prospect asks that "Everybody Calm Down!":

"Quit the hand-wringing, Democrats, and don't believe the hype. Barack Obama is a lot of things, but he isn't John Kerry and he's not Al Gore. Obama's campaign has been the most disciplined and aggressive Democratic effort of the last eight years. If he loses, it won't be because he didn't hit back . . .

"Obama is making a simple case, one that he has been making for a while now: John McCain is George W. Bush. Each of his recent ads reflects this message. And look at his stump speeches and the remarks of his running mate, Joe Biden. Obama has carefully cultivated his campaign themes of change and reform since 2007, with specific examples of what that change would be, while forcefully demonstrating that John McCain represents more of the same. If Obama switched tactics now, no doubt the same folks criticizing him for his lack of reaction would criticize him for his lack of message discipline."

Who says we have to be consistent?

Obama might not be venting publicly, but this WSJ piece suggests he's aware of the problem:

" 'We're simply not going to let this happen anymore,' Sen. Obama told his close friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett during a phone call Wednesday, Ms. Jarrett said in an interview. Sen. Obama 'used as firm and commanding voice as I've ever heard him use' in expressing a plan to 'stay focused on John McCain rather than be distracted' by the Palin phenomenon, she said."

But you can't score points if you're not on offense. Former GOP operative Patrick Ruffini warns Obama that "to control the agenda, you have to unleash new, original, unprovoked attacks.

"The media favors new narratives. If your whole frame is simply responding to the other guy's narratives, he controls the agenda, not you.

"The meta-narrative behind every Democratic campaign is 'No more swiftboats.' Obama seems obsessed with this. His acceptance speech was a paranoid rebuttal of McCain's attacks and a even a few non-attacks -- from Celeb to 'Country First' (the subtext of which -- honestly, guys -- is more about McCain putting 'party second' than about Obama) . . .

"Obama seems to be falling into the trap of response-centrism. If only they could respond the right way, they figure, all will be well. But it won't be. Because the game they are playing is reactive. Instead of changing the subject off Palin by launching some explosive new attack on McCain, all they do is respond, respond, respond. And the story, day after day, is Democratic Presidential nominee responds to Republican Vice Presidential nominee. The optics of that stink for them."

I was surprised that I was among the first to mention Hillary, but lots of people are running with that ball, including Fred Barnes:

"Obama sacrificed a stronger ticket by rejecting Clinton. Absent Hillary, the contest between Obama-Biden and the Republican ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin is throwing the Democrats into disarray. The consequences of Obama's veep decision appear mostly to favor McCain. And if Obama had picked Hillary? Here are a few of the differences.

"No Palin. Okay, McCain might have picked her anyway. He was looking for a running mate who would help him shake up the campaign. And Palin has delivered spectacularly on that. But choosing her would have seemed far less of a game-changer had Obama picked Clinton. Palin would have been merely the second female running mate in 2008. And her appeal to those who had voted for Clinton in the primaries would have been reduced if not nullified altogether . . .

" Ohio and Pennsylvania. Republicans figured these states, notably Pennsylvania, were all but goners if Clinton won the Democratic nomination. Even as veep, she'd have had a favorable impact. When she was passed over by Obama, Republicans jumped for joy. Ohio, which a Republican presidential candidate has to win, now leans McCain. Pennsylvania, which is crucial to a Democratic candidate's chances, has become a ripe target of opportunity for McCain.

" Arkansas. As a Southern state, Arkansas is inclined to vote Republican in presidential races unless there's a compelling reason not to. One of those reasons: a Clinton on the Democratic ticket. Without Clinton, Arkansas moves into the leaning (strongly) McCain camp.

" Vice presidential debate. This is a no-brainer. Who would be the easier opponent for Palin to face in the nationally televised debate on October 2? Clinton or Biden? The tough woman or Senator Windbag? Biden will have to be on his best behavior and treat Palin gingerly. Clinton wouldn't have had to."

Lots of conservative ridicule for this sentence in a Wendy Doniger piece on Palin for WP/Newsweek's On Faith blog:

"Her greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman."

Does Doniger know something I don't?

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