Election 2008: Sarah Palin's Cheerful Aggression

Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 1, 2008; 1:00 PM

The wrinkled nose, the "Fargo"-esque accent, the self-assuredness and mom-isms ... what is it in Sarah Palin's speaking style that draws so many in (and sends a shudder through others)? Washington Post writer Libby Copeland was online Wednesday, Oct. 1 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her article examining the rhetoric and mannerisms of the Republican vice presidential candidate.

The transcript follows.


Libby Copeland: Hey everyone. I first got the idea for this piece after watching Palin at the GOP convention in St. Paul last month. Her delivery was fascinating, and I particularly was interested in how expressive she is. Of course, since then, we've seen much more of her -- in rallies and town halls and in a few heavily promoted interviews. She evokes very strong reactions from people -- good and bad -- and I wanted to explore that.


Central California: This weekend we had Palin's fashion sense. Today, we have her cheeky smile? I don't like this woman, don't mistake me ... but I find these two Washington Post articles more than offensive. Where are the articles about Joe Biden's dimples and John McCain's ties? Here's Robin Givhan's article on McCain's style.

Libby Copeland: I'm so glad you asked! Here's yesterday's piece about Biden's rhetorical style.

To be serious, the article I wrote was not really about her smile, though you might presume that if you don't read past the headline. Palin's style of speaking and connecting to her audience is absolutely essential to her appeal. We'd be remiss if he didn't write about it.


Miami: What is it about the GOP that makes them such great marketers ? Reagan, Bush, Palin -- shills and frontmen for the plutocracy that runs the GOP, who behind the smiling, folksy facades sell American Fascism Lite. GOP politics seem to be based on the twin pillars of P.T. Barnum's famous dictums: "There's a sucker born every minute" and "you can't go wrong overestimating the stupidity of the American people."

Libby Copeland: Republicans certainly have had a number of really great communicators on their tickets in recent decades. People have at times mocked our current president's style of speaking, but from a purely rhetorical point of view, he has evidenced an ability to connect with people. Palin does, as well. She connects with people -- and she alienates others. Her style is quite polarizing.


Bradford, Vt.: I presently live in a remote, northern state but grew up and was educated in North Carolina. Among people who are not exposed to more progressive areas, old survival skills -- hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, etc., (conquering the elements) are seen as traits of the leaders and strong members of the community. There is never any discussion of national or world affairs. "Who shot the largest deer," "will there be an early ski season," "will the maple sap run good this year" ... it is assumed that locals who "do good" in the important local scene can just start running the country's business. Educated people couldn't see over the top of their books to shoot the side of a barn. Words and books "don't git 'er done." Sarah Palin looks like a deer in the headlights.

Libby Copeland: The Palin supporters I've spoken to put their emphasis on what they see as her solid character and their impression that she's a quick study. This notion, of course, drives her critics crazy. They worry about what they see as her lack of knowledge about the world. Maybe this reveals a divide in our culture between people who want to see evidence of a person's knowledge and worldliness, and people for whom "git 'er done" actions, as you put it, provide tangible proof of the ability to lead. I don't know how developed that idea is ... I'm just throwing it out there.


Zionsville, Pa.: Assuming you saw the recent CBS News interviews with Gov. Palin, what do you think Katie Couric's rhetorical style, use of facial expressions, etc., convey about her personality, character, abilities and feelings toward Gov. Palin?

Libby Copeland: She does a lot of blinking.

No, seriously, that was more Amy-Poehler-as-Couric. I think she has been really good in her Palin interviews -- at once respectful and persistent, sometimes asking the same question up to three times when Palin hasn't fully answered the first few times. And, of course, Couric has been incredibly well-prepared. That's the key to asking those great follow-up questions.


Winfield, Pa.: All this talk is so offensive. If she had anything to offer but her left over looks from her beauty queen years we would be discussing that, not her smile.

Libby Copeland: Do you think people are drawn to her, then, solely because she is pretty? That may figure into people's larger impressions of her, but to suggest it explains everything underestimates your fellow American, I think.


Near Russia: I challenge you to answer everythin' on this chat without ever once endin' a word that's supposed to end with "-ing" with the g. I'm thinkin' you'll wind up drivin' yourself crazy.

Libby Copeland: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.


Phoenix: I have been watching Gov. Palin since her nomination. I know that she has been coached repeatedly about questions/answers for interviews and the debate. What do you expect tomorrow night? I don't see much change.

Libby Copeland: I think the key to how well Palin does may be how many follow-up questions the moderator, Gwen Ifill, is able to ask. In interviews thus far, Palin sometimes has had trouble when asked to clarify or expound upon her original answers.


Zionsville, Pa.: How do you keep yourself from seeing what you want to see, and missing what you'd rather not acknowledge?

Libby Copeland: I can't. In fact, I didn't even see your question.

Just teasin' a little there.

Oh, I don't know. I try to talk to people with a wide range of opinions. I try not to devalue anyone's opinion.


Washington: Libby, thanks so much for trying to pin down just what it is about Palin that makes her such an effective communicator. I am not a supporter of hers, but I don't have to be to see that she is an extremely warm and charismatic presence ... she conducts herself like no other woman I've seen on the national political stage. I wish that her presence could be backed up with deeper knowledge, but overall, I can't say that having a diversity of women's voices on the national stage is a bad thing -- even if I disagree strongly with her views. (And, just to pre-empt the comments I'm sure you're getting about your daring to write about "trivialities" -- these are politicians. What they say, how they communicate, how they choose to present themselves to the world, matters.)

Though obviously she isn't running for anything, I wonder if you see some similarities between Michelle Obama and Gov. Palin -- just in how they present themselves to the world? Maybe it's just me, but it seems like Michelle isn't a "standard" politician's wife, just like Palin isn't quite your standard vice presidential candidate.

Libby Copeland: Thanks for the kind words.

Michelle Obama is also an expressive speaker, though not so much as Gov. Palin. She also leaves the impression of directness -- of straight talk, if you will. But I think that they are unlike in the sense that, while Palin tends to speak more in terms of black-and-white, yes-and-no, right-and-wrong, evil-and-good, Obama tends to speak somewhat more with shades of gray -- with nuance, with reflection.


Re: Winfield, Pa.: Her looks certainly have a lot to do with her popularity! If she looked like, say, a moose, I don't think she would have been picked in the first place -- but even if she was, I don't think her supporters would be quite so supportive. And if she were a man, she'd be getting hammered seven days to Sunday.

Libby Copeland: Yeah, it's part of the appeal, as I point out in my story. Her supporters have worn buttons called her "hottest." It's not the entire package, though -- far from it.


Eugene, Ore.: Hi, Ms. Copeland. Do you think that there's something more than meets the eye? Specifically, do you feel that the McCain camp chose Gov. Palin -- knowing her evasive style and her poor command of international affairs -- because they can use her as a scapegoat if the Republicans lose the election? Thank you for considering my question.

Libby Copeland: Uh, no. That wouldn't make any sense. They want to win.


Detroit: If one is of a conservative bent and one likes to believe in the idea that anyone can become president, it is easy to understand the appeal of Palin. However, if one is either conservative or liberal, but one also would like to see someone more competent, and perhaps brighter, than oneself to possibly become the leader of our country, it is also easy to understand how Palin can cause shivers down one's spine.

Libby Copeland: Thanks for the opinion. Part of what I wanted to get at in the article, and I hope I did, is the "shiver" you write of -- the way that she sets some people's teeth on edge through a combination of her politics and her style. (To others, that style is the whole appeal. Fascinating. One of those Rorschach tests.)


Washington: Did you see Couric's expression last night as she was pushing Palin to name just one newspaper or magazine she reads? When Palin went off about Alaska not being a foreign country, they get newspapers, ha ha ha, Couric looked down and toward the camera like she honestly didn't know how to respond. So is Palin going to debate by anecdote, do you think?

Libby Copeland: I read a very interesting column yesterday by an Alaska Republican who has debated Gov. Palin. Check it out:

He writes that she's "a master of the glittering generality. ... She can turn a 60-second response to a query about her specific solutions to health care challenges into a folksy story about how she's met people on the campaign trail who face health care challenges."

I think stories can connect with people in a way facts and figures may not. The danger for Palin, though, is that people might be left with the impression that she doesn't grasp the facts and figures -- and to the extent that feeds into the already existent narrative of who she is, it accentuates her problem.

Does it become John McCain's problem? Historically, people smarter than me have said, people don't vote on the basis of who the vice presidential nominee is. But this year, McCain's age may alter that. Or not.


Midlothian, Va.: How do you think she compares to Bill Clinton, who famously has the ability to make his female supporters declare (aloud) that they want to sleep with him (etc.)?

Libby Copeland: I certainly have heard praise for Palin's looks from guys. I'm not sure if they vote on that basis.


Dayton, Ohio: Ms. Copeland, That was a very intriguing article that you wrote. A couple questions: How do you think Palin will do versus Biden in tomorrow night's debate? Would you agree that a lot of the hostility from the left is because Palin is a self-proclaimed "feminist" who doesn't share their beliefs and their history?

Libby Copeland: I am so intrigued to see tomorrow night's debate. I've discovered I'm really bad at predicting who "wins" these things. I frequently come away thinking so-and-so did great, only to see the polls afterward and discover that voters were more impressed by the-other-so-and-so.


Arlington, Va.: Comment heard from a Republican colleague (disclaimer: I'm a life-long Republican who questioned the Palin qualifications to succeed McCain if necessary): "I don't give a [expletive] how qualified she is as long as McCain is elected, and as long as she's qualified the day she takes office. And she can read up on everything she needs to know to be vice president by then. Anyway, McCain won't be out of office for eight years, and she'll know enough by then to be elected on her own."

Libby Copeland: Just posting this one.

Have you decided whom you'll vote for, Arlington?


Arlington, Va.: Do you think this likability factor will be at all helpful in getting those crucial swing votes that are needed to secure the presidency? So far she really has not proven herself educated on domestic or foreign policy issues. And Bush was the nominee that people would want to have a beer with. Do you think this likable, folksy persona is going to be enough to at least hold her base together? (My hope is that we have moved past this as a country and want an articulate intellectual in the White House -- and as full disclosure, I am 150 percent in Obama's camp.)

Libby Copeland: Just posting this one as well. I don't have to ask who you are voting for.


Ruby, Alaska: Your "smile with the kicking boots on" article was right on the mark with its political analysis of Sarah's style. I was wondering if you had any comment on her accent. It is not typical "Alaskan." Her parents are from northern Idaho and she moved to Alaska while only months old. Her father doesn't have the same manner of speech or "accent" (based on a few interviews I've heard). They settled in the Matanuska Valley -- where many farmers with Scandinavian roots from lower 48 (i.e.: Minnesota, etc.) were relocated by the government. She grew up as Texan, Oklahoma oil workers flooded Alaska during '70s and '80s pipeline building, and some stayed. Oil companies headquarter in Anchorage, and Wasilla is just outside.

So was she influenced by peers? Too much '70s TV? And where did the fast-as-a-New-York-minute speed of talking and use of hand motions come from? It's an odd blend of rural and almost East Coast urban, if you ask me. It takes one to know one. The sense of fashion ain't all Alaskan either, even if it does have a '50s twist. In answer to Katie Couric's question of what reading sources she grew up with, I betcha it wasn't Woman's Day and Country Woman only -- try the city-slicker fashion rags! I highly doubt it was newspapers beyond The Frontiersman (Wasilla). I won't even start on her political stands.

Libby Copeland: The accent question is a good one. I have been told that her mother had a similar accent. To my undereducated ear, it sounds somewhat Minnesota-ish, and I know there's a sizeable Minnesota population in Alaska.

Any Alaskans (or Minnesotans) out there wanna take a stab at this?


Arlington, Va.: The reason people are drawn to her is that God's light shines from her eyes. She is a true Disciple of Christ and it shows.

Libby Copeland: Yet another I'm just posting.


Dallas: I've been thinkin' that the whole droppin' the "g" at the end of the word habit has the makin' of a great drinkin' game: Every time a "g" goes missin', participants could start raisin' their glasses. No one ought to be headin' to a car afterwards, though.

Libby Copeland: Dallas, I urge you to be cautious. That way lies alcohol poisoning.

That reminds me of a piece I did last month on John McCain's favorite phrase, "my friends." That has indeed become a drinking game.


Backlash: Just this morning I received an e-mail forward from a religious-right elderly relative, an editorial cartoon depicting a circle of hungry wild dogs with the names of the major "left-wing media" feasting on the hapless Palin family. How many likely voters do you think really buy into this stereotype? Candidates who can't take a little scrutiny maybe shouldn't be running for such high office.

Libby Copeland: The media is a frequent scapegoat, and we probably shouldn't complain. It comes with the territory, and by now folks probably are used to it.

I will say that the people I work with are scrupulous about being fair to both sides. This is an ethics issue, really. I continually am impressed by the high ethical standards of my colleagues.


Rockville, Md.: Libby, wanted to say, first, that your article from a few years ago on the Jersey shore guidos was my favorite piece in The Washington Post ever. My friends and I still reference it to each other (being of the big-haired community ourselves). Just wanted to add support for the type of journalism that you (and Robin Givhan) do -- you are so right that it is critical to understanding what the candidates are about. The idea that we can move to some idealized world where we only evaluate candidates/leaders on their positions and activities is bogus at its core; the world where Biden is judged by his gaffes and Palin is judged by maverick-ness is how politics is and always will be.

Libby Copeland: How could I not post this one? Flattery will get you everywhere. And here's that old article, for anyone who cares about Seaside Heights.

I agree that it's essential to analyze not just what politicians say but how they say it.


Portland, Maine: I just watched an entire four-minute clip from Palin's sportscaster days. It's interesting to me that her speech patterns have changed a bit since the '80s. There might have been one dropped "g," but generally her words had final consonants that were sounded. I wonder if Palin intentionally has acquired speech habits that make her sound more like Joe Six-Pack. Don't think I'm being classist! Palin twice referred to herself as Joe Six-Pack during a radio show interview with Hugh Hewitt yesterday.

Libby Copeland: Interesting.


Minneapolis: Hi Libby -- Thanks for taking questions -- great subject. Maybe it's just me, and while I'm not a fan of Gov. Palin and I don't want to sound sexist, but isn't there also a ... vulnerability that some voters find appealing? Though it seems to work well in some ways, but not others. Even though it seemed a little staged, when she held her baby after her speech it got to me a little bit, and I found it very hard to dislike her. On the other hand, when she was interviewed by Katie Couric and McCain was alongside it sent an opposite message ... I'm here to make sure that she's treated okay, and so I can step in if need be. I don't think that served her very well. What do you think?

Libby Copeland: I talk about "cuteness" in my article, but vulnerability might be part of it. Vulnerability and toughness, together -- that feisty gal persona.


Louisville, Ky.: Hello, Libby -- thanks for taking questions. I loved your analysis of Gov. Palin's body language and nose wriggles. I agree that there is a sort of pre-sexual revolution, all-American "good" woman aspect to her. I find your analysis right on, and I see worthy analysis in observing body language with the mute button. However, I would add that I find great personal insight into Sarah Palin by doing the opposite of what you have done: I read the transcripts of what she says to examine the substance of her comments instead of watch her say them. Frankly, the transcripts are mangled, talking-point nonsense. I read an article this week that examined Palin's overuse of "very, very," and used that as one example to critique her as lacking substance.

Libby Copeland: That's an interesting take.


Chattanooga, Tenn.: I think you represent the left media trying to make this candidate look bad. Sarah Palin is very capable, smart and a leader -- not a puppet like Obama.

Libby Copeland: Thanks for the input. I'm getting criticism and kind words from both sides of the aisle, which suggests (I hope) that I was fair and struck the right tone.


Columbus, Ohio: Does Sarah Palin remind you of a "valley girl" on steroids, or is just me?

Libby Copeland: What kind of steroids?


St. Paul, Minn.: The Minnesota "accent" is the dialect of major news anchors -- the reason being that most of them came started their careers in the Twin Cities originally. Her "accent" sounds farther south to me ...

Libby Copeland: Thanks.

Farther south -- like where?


Toronto: Hi, Libby. I suggest that instead of turning off the sound so as to see Palin's gestural distractions more clearly, people turn away from the screen or use the radio so as to evade those distractions, the better to hear what she says and how she uses her voice, her stealth weapon. Better yet, read a transcript of her remarks so as not to be distracted at all.

Now here is my question. Todd Gitlin wrote the other day about mythical types in the American psyche; you refer to "hot chicks with guns" as one such type. But you go on to quote people who compare Palin to various characters in TV sitcoms. That is closer to the mark, I think, because what Gitlin calls "myths" I would call "comic books." What I and many other people wonder, especially outside the U.S., is why so many American voters cast their important votes on the basis of comic books or TV shows they took on board between ages nine and 12.

Libby Copeland: Very insightful. You have stumped me there. I will say that we tend to jam many -- if not all -- of our political types into one archetype or another, or some amalgam of more than one. Sometimes those archetypes (or, to put it another way, the narratives we believe about those people) become more true than the truth. Sometimes we ignore things that don't fit into those narratives so we can maintain an easy handle on Who This Person Is.


Washington: A comment more than a question. I hear people who argue that Palin lacks the education and/or experience and/or qualifications for the job of vice president. Personally, I look at today's banking crisis, Wall Street's wild swings, the mischief at Enron, and think about all the Stanford/Harvard/Wharton MBAs and JDs who contributed to that mess ... and think that maybe it's time to give an allegedly "unqualified" person a chance. She hardly could do worse.

Libby Copeland: Interesting input.


Bowie, Md.: I find Palin's accent quite irritating. I was in the military and heard accents from people from all walks of life and from many small towns across America (some so small they didn't even call them towns), but none as irritating as hers. In reflecting on why hers bothers me so much, I think it has a lot to do with the position she's in -- to potentially be the next president -- and the interviews she's done just don't help. I just cannot picture her speaking as a leader of this country, either to the American people or other world leaders. I'm tired of America being a laughingstock across the world, and maybe that's what gets me.

Libby Copeland: More interesting input.


Charlotte, N.C.: Her voice is one of the many things that bothers me about her. I'm not superficial enough to cast my vote based on a person's voice, but I sure hope that I don't have to listen to hers for four years! It's very irritating!

Libby Copeland: And yet more.


Troy, N.Y.: Sarah Palin is the mother-as-elected-official. That is who she is and how she comes across. She has been a part-time politician and mother for a while -- just as Sen. Obama was a part-time legislator and lecturer. In one case we have the mother, in the other the professor. I actually find her persona more realistic than Sen. Obama. She clearly has five children, while he clearly never published anything of academic merit, as expressed in a New York Times article a few months back.

Libby Copeland: We return to archetypes.


Grammar Sheriff: I can't, like, get past the way Palin uses "like."

Libby Copeland: And with that, I will close. There are many more questions and comments and I'm sorry we can't discuss them all. Until next time...


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