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This Debate's Biggest Loser

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Reading William Kristol's column in yesterday's New York Times, I discover that Sarah Palin and I have something in common. Kristol, who was once Dan Quayle's chief of staff and therefore, shall we say, has a Mister Rogers approach to certain politicians, got Palin on the phone and reported that "she doesn't have a very high opinion of the mainstream media." This is where we are in agreement. On account of Palin, neither do I.

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In her debate against Joe Biden last week, she mischaracterized Barack Obama's tax plan and his offer to meet with foreign adversaries of the United States. She found whole new powers for the vice president by misreading the Constitution, if she ever read it at all. She called one moment for the federal government to virtually disappear and a moment later lamented the lack of its oversight of the financial markets. She asserted that she "may not answer the questions the way that either the moderator or you [Biden] want to hear" because, apparently, the rules don't apply to her on account of her being a hockey mom. Fer sure.

Not enough? Okay. Palin also said that she "and others in the legislature" had called for the state of Alaska to divest itself of investments in companies that do business with Sudan. But, as the indefatigable truth-hunter at The Post found out, the divestiture effort was not led by Palin. In fact, her administration opposed the initiative, and Palin herself only came around to it after the bill had died.

In spite of it all, much of the media saw a credible performance. I could quote the hosannas of some of my colleagues, but I spare them the infamy that will surely follow them to their graves. (The debate's moderator, Gwen Ifill, used the occasion to catch up on some sleep.) Many of my colleagues judged Palin simply as a performer and inferred that her performance would go over well in homes with aboveground swimming pools.

A perfect example is the Wall Street Journal, whose (conservative) editorial page has been absolutely fixated on a strict (Scalian) reading of the Constitution. Did it wonder what in the world Palin meant by the authority she found in the Constitution to increase the role of "the vice president if that vice president so chose to exert it in working with the Senate"? What? Oh, never mind. The Journal chivalrously ignored the matter. Palin is excused from knowing the limits of the office she seeks.

In effect, columnists, bloggers, talk-show hosts and digital lamplighters have adopted the ethic of the political consultant: what works, works. It did not matter what Palin said. It only mattered how she said it -- all those doggones, references to her working-class status (net worth in excess of $2 million), promiscuous use of the word "maverick," repeated mentions of "greed and corruption on Wall Street" (Who? Be specific. Give examples. Didn't anyone here go to school?) and, of course, that manic good cheer. Palin knows that the standard is not right or wrong, truth or lie, but the graph that ran under both debaters on CNN, measuring approval, disapproval or, maybe, the blood sugar levels of certain people in their focus group. Things have changed. Might used to make right. Now a wink does.

Since I began with the Times' conservative columnist of the moment, I will end with its conservative columnist of years past -- the estimable William Safire. In 1996, he called Hillary Clinton "a congenital liar." It was a head-snapping characterization that, alas for Clinton, has defined her for the ages and that she stubbornly vindicates from time to time.

But what about Palin? Can you imagine the reaction of the press corps if Clinton had given the audience a "hiya, sailor" wink? Can you imagine the feverish blogging across the political spectrum if Clinton had claimed credit for stopping a bridge that, in fact, had set her heart aflutter? What if she had shown that she didn't know squat about the Constitution, if she could not tell Katie Couric what newspapers or magazines she read or if she had claimed an intimacy with foreign affairs based on sighting Russia through binoculars?

Ah, but the scorn, approbation and ridicule that would have descended on Clinton -- I can just imagine the Journal editorial -- have been withheld from Palin. Much of the mainstream media, grading on a curve suitable for a parrot -- "greed and corruption, greed and corruption, greed and corruption" -- gave her a passing grade or better. I agree with Palin. It's the mainstream media that flunked.

cohenr@washpost.com


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