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."
His June 2007 profile called Palin "the most popular governor in America," discussed her "Christian faith" and praised her "adherence to principle."
Other conservative commentators took notice; radio host Laura Ingraham called Palin a potential president last summer after meeting her at a luncheon in Alaska. And a number of the men paid tribute to the governor's looks. In February, Rush Limbaugh told a caller from Alaska: "Yeah, plus she's a housewife; before that, she's a babe. I saw a picture. . . . The babe is the icing-on-the-cake aspect, something the Democrats can't claim on their side."
The same month, National Review writer Stephen Sprueill called Palin a "solidly conservative (and ridiculously good-looking) Republican." In the American Spectator, Thomas Cheplick wrote that "the beautiful conservative Republican governor of Alaska would be an ideal choice" for vice president. Last fall, a Wonkette blogger called Palin "the hottest governor in all 50 states" and "my total girl crush."
A similar thread runs through the recent coverage. "To start with the obvious, she's attractive," writes Time's Joe Klein. The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan calls Palin "this beautiful girl." "Large numbers of Americans think she's hot," said Salon's Gary Kamiya, whose piece was accompanied by a photo illustration of Palin as a dominatrix.
"She's sexy. Men want a sexy woman," CNBC's Donny Deutsch told viewers. "Women want to idealize about a sexy woman. . . . She's a lioness. . . . Women want to be her. Men want to mate with her." Slate's David Plotz confessed that he's been dreaming about Palin and that "a couple of conservative men I know have mentioned that they've been having sexual fantasies about the Alaska governor."
What, exactly, is going on here?
"The fact that she's a fairly youthful woman adds to her appeal," San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carolyn Lochhead says. "It has nothing to do with being qualified for vice president. It's a fact of human nature. Women routinely use their looks, and men routinely fall for it."
That, of course, doesn't mean that journalists have to buy into the narrative. "The media should focus on her policies rather than her looks," Lochhead says. "But if her looks are news, I guess that's part of the story."
Peggy Drexler, who wrote a Huffington Post blog about "the babe factor," calls the coverage "demeaning to other women. Most women have tried very hard to be perceived as people who are capable of producing. But the culture is the way it is."
Palin, she says, has played up her appearance with her 1980s beauty-pageant photo and by posing for Vogue: "She is the Playboy fantasy of the nurse with her hair up in her prim little suit, and then the hair comes down and she's the hot babe."
For 18 months, Obama's opponents complained that the media treated him like a celebrity. McCain even aired an ad likening him to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Now Obama is being overshadowed by a new superstar, a woman with an intriguing life story, and liberals are complaining that Palin is getting a pass on the issues.
Palin's defenders haven't hesitated to accuse journalists (as well as Democrats) who question her record of ganging up on a woman. And there has been a degree of piling on, even as she remained secluded from the press. At times, the media hubbub has threatened to drown out the original concern about Palin, voiced when the insta-pundits were calling her selection a reckless gamble: Is she qualified to serve as a potential president? In Alaska, Gibson took the country back to that basic question.Steamy Messages
The Miami Herald is investigating a series of romantic e-mails between its former education reporter and a school official who is now the region's incoming school superintendent.
In one message, Tania Luzuriaga, now with the Boston Globe, wrote Alberto Carvalho: "Will you be completely offended if I leap into your arms the next time I see you (place permitting)? Like in the movies, with arms and legs wrapped around . . . Love, love, love you." In another, Luzuriaga apologized for not properly crediting him in a story, saying, "if it doesn't compromise us professionally, we ought to act in ways that help one another." There are also notes about plans to travel together. Carvalho says he doesn't recall seeing the messages; Luzuriaga did not return a phone call.
"If these e-mails are real, this violates some of the most basic rules of our profession,'' Herald Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal told his paper.