By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Sarah Palin is fighting back against the "jerks."
Cooking moose chili and slicing sandwiches for Matt Lauer and Greta Van Susteren, chatting up Larry King and Wolf Blitzer, the Alaska governor is denying, deflecting and denouncing the worst her unnamed critics have thrown at her. She has called them "cruel," "mean-spirited" and "immature," renounced her designer wardrobe and insisted that she is not geographically challenged.
Again. And again. And again.
"She wants to rehabilitate her image and get everyone to love her again," says Larry Persily, a former Palin aide. "If I were advising her, say it once and then stop. You protest too much. You start to look a little foolish."
But Dan Schnur, who runs the University of Southern California's Institute of Politics, says the challenge is simple: "Feed the media beast or it's going to feed on you."
"In a remarkably short period of time, Sarah Palin has become the most polarizing American politician since, well, Hillary Clinton," says Schnur, a former GOP strategist. "Some people will watch her and roll their eyes, but those aren't the people who vote in Republican presidential primaries."
For a vice-presidential nominee who never held a news conference, Palin is on one heckuva television blitz. Media organizations, stoking the buzz that she might make a White House run in 2012, can't get enough of the woman who was both hailed as a moose-hunting maverick and blamed for John McCain's defeat. Van Susteren's "On the Record" drew its biggest audience of the year, 3.8 million, for Palin's interview Monday; the next night, viewers saw Van Susteren riding on a snow machine with Palin's husband, Todd.
Palin is clearly in need of some image rehab. Her stumbling interview with CBS's Katie Couric, mocked by Tina Fey on "Saturday Night Live," sent her stock tumbling, and by Election Day, polls showed that a majority of Americans felt she was unqualified to be vice president. Palin now insists that she wasn't muzzled and that, despite evidence to the contrary, there was no tension between her and the McCain team.
"I don't think this woman is afraid of anyone or held back by anyone," Van Susteren says.
Whether Palin is holding forth in her Wasilla kitchen or doing interviews, as she did yesterday at a gathering of Republican governors in Miami, she appears far more relaxed than she did during the campaign. Drawing on her considerable reserves of charm, she is using the media to complain about unfair media coverage. And she has a point.
Journalists have been vacuuming up leaks from former McCain campaign aides who have depicted her as stubborn, uninformed and unprepared -- all from behind a curtain of anonymity. One unnamed adviser told Politico's Mike Allen that Palin was a "whack job." Fox News correspondent Carl Cameron quoted sources as saying that Palin didn't know the countries involved in the North American Free Trade Agreement and thought Africa was a country, not a continent.
Palin says it is difficult to respond to anonymous sources and their "false allegations." She told NBC's Lauer, for instance, that she is "flabbergasted" that anyone could say she was responsible for the $150,000 worth of clothing and accessories paid for by the Republican Party.
Van Susteren says she is "scandalized" by the way journalists are using blind quotes to denigrate Palin. "I think anonymous sources have a place in journalism, on government malfeasance and whistle-blowing," she says. "But when did we become the National Enquirer that we're reporting gossip? It's very unfair."
Cameron, her Fox colleague, says he stands by what sources told him on condition that he not report it until after the election. "This was a circular firing squad, and they let me watch," he says. "To the degree people thought I was enjoying my reporting -- some thought I looked overenthusiastic -- I may have blown the execution."
Politico's Allen says of the whack-job quote: "I found it illuminating because it came from an extremely senior McCain person, clearly reflecting the views of others in the inner circle. I would not have used it from the peanut gallery, internal or external."
Palin did not use these forums to back off her harshest campaign rhetoric. Asked by Blitzer about her charge that Barack Obama was "palling around with terrorists," she said: "Well, I still am concerned about that association with Bill Ayers. And if anybody still wants to talk about it, I will, because this is an unrepentant domestic terrorist."
The onetime sports anchor told King last night that the media need to "get back to who, what, when, where and why. . . . If I can help restore that credibility in the press . . . I want to be able to help."
While taking swipes at bloggers -- "probably sitting there in their parents' basement, wearing their pajamas" -- Palin also misstated some facts. She complained to Lauer about "the rumors, the speculation, even in mainstream media, that Trig wasn't actually my child, that Trig was somebody else's child and I faked a pregnancy," calling that "absolutely ridiculous."
In fact, no mainstream outlet published the Internet rumors until the McCain campaign issued a statement, during the GOP convention, that Palin's teenage daughter Bristol was pregnant. McCain officials told reporters they were putting out the news because of inquiries about whether the governor was really Trig's mother.
Palin told Lauer she found it "annoying" when Couric asked, "What do you read up there in Alaska?" as if it were a remote corner of the Earth. But although Lauer did not point it out, Couric, his former "Today" co-host, had simply asked Palin what newspapers and magazines she regularly reads "to stay informed," with no reference to her state. In response, the governor declined to name a single publication.
Palin told Van Susteren that "mainstream media" kept publishing questionable stories "instead of just coming to me and, you know, setting the record straight." She said of critical female journalists: "I just would have loved to have the opportunity to have sat down and spoken with them." In fact, after her encounters with Couric and ABC's Charlie Gibson, the campaign all but cut off media access to Palin and rejected most interview requests.
David Zurawik, the Baltimore Sun's television critic, says Palin has "run rings around" those questioning her.
"I was really disappointed in Matt Lauer," he says. "I thought he was so accommodating and letting her get away with stuff without following up." Zurawik calls the Van Susteren interview "beyond friendly," saying: "Greta Van Susteren is totally sympathetic to her and makes no secret about it."
With the campaign over, Palin seems more than happy to fill the media void. "Being in the limelight is good," says Persily, a former Anchorage Daily News editor. "She's smitten by it, just like McCain was smitten by her. She loves the attention."
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."