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Gibson Trod A Fine Line In Interviews

Sarah Palin's good looks weren't on the agenda last week as Charlie Gibson asked her tough questions about Iraq, abortion and global warming.
Sarah Palin's good looks weren't on the agenda last week as Charlie Gibson asked her tough questions about Iraq, abortion and global warming. (By Donna Svennevik -- Associated Press)

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 15, 2008

For a precious few moments, the presidential campaign wasn't about Sarah Palin's hairstyle or her Naughty Monkey red shoes or her daughter's pregnancy.

Charlie Gibson was all business during three interviews with the Alaska governor last week, pressing her on her qualifications to take over as president and her knowledge of national and international issues. The ABC anchor navigated a minefield in which he would have been slammed for going easy on America's newest celebrity and denounced if he were seen as hectoring her. When he finally got around to asking what everyone in America has been debating -- how can she juggle five kids and the vice presidency? -- Gibson prefaced it by saying, "Is that a sexist question to ask?"

No national candidate in modern history, not even Hillary Clinton, has ever been lambasted and lionized in quite the way Palin is. Why, for instance, do so many journalists feel compelled to mention her looks? Why are her family choices at the center of a noisy, cable-driven debate? Why are some Republicans convinced that the media apply a different standard to conservative women -- and journalists just as convinced that legitimate reporting is being written off as sexist snobbery?

Gibson managed to cut through that static. Instead of the touchy-feely stuff, there were questions about Iraq, Pakistan, Russia, abortion, gun control and global warming. Gibson did no grandstanding, even as he followed up on questions three or four times. And if he seemed like an unsmiling professor peering over his glasses at an earnest graduate student, well, the first time a vice presidential nominee submits to journalistic scrutiny is an oral exam of sorts.

"The headlines are about her answers, not Charlie's interview, and that was our goal from the start," ABC Senior Vice President Jeffrey Schneider says.

The McCain camp decided early that Palin's first interview should go to one of the network anchors, so she would be seen as hitting major-league pitching before a large audience. Gibson, 65, was viewed as fair-minded, McCain aides said, in part because of the way he has handled several interviews with President Bush. The plan is to give CBS's Katie Couric a chance later on, and perhaps NBC's Brian Williams as well.

The McCain team was satisfied with the interviews but found Gibson a bit condescending at times, a judgment that is firmly in the beholder's eye. New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley said he was "at times supercilious."

But when Palin seemed puzzled by a question about the Bush Doctrine -- which has several possible meanings -- Gibson explained what he meant without making it sound like a gotcha moment. Earlier, however, he did follow up on her answer about not hesitating to become McCain's running mate by wondering: "Didn't that take some hubris?"

Some conservatives criticized Gibson for raising religion by asking Palin whether she considers the Iraq conflict a "holy war." But how can it be unfair to ask about her own words, in a church, that "our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God"?

She is likely to have an easier time tomorrow in her second interview, with Fox News's Sean Hannity. The day McCain picked Palin, Hannity declared: "She is a rock star, a rising star, a governor with more experience than Barack Obama ever dreamed of having."

It was conservative pundits who originally talked up Palin. She gained attention last year when a Weekly Standard cruise happened to sail into Alaska, and an aide invited the magazine's top editors, Fred Barnes and Bill Kristol, to lunch with the governor.

"We talked for 1 1/2 hours," said Barnes, who lived in Alaska as an elementary school student. "I was impressed enough to write a story. I wasn't thinking of Sarah Palin as a vice presidential running mate for anyone. Nor did I see the star quality she obviously has. I saw her as a smart, very confident, very pretty governor."


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