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The Barracuda Bites Back

In last night's debate, Sarah Palin gives the best interview of her career.

By 10.3.08

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Palin did well in last night's debate. It is because of three things. One is that the scrutiny of moderator Gwen Ifill's ethics forced her to blunt any harder questions. I'd be curious to see what got scrapped. Two is that Joe Biden had to be careful what he said to a woman. He handled that well. Third is most important: expectations were low, thanks to a condescending Charlie Gibson interview, and most definitely thanks to a condescending Katie Couric interview. This last is most interesting, because it points to a larger failure of Couric and other reporters to "get the story." So Katie Couric deserves gratitude for allowing her own airs to win a debate for the GOP. More on that in a moment.

Prior to last night, the bipartisan conventional wisdom (such as it is in the beltway) was that Palin had energized the base, but after a few bad interviews, was about to be the McCain campaign's albatross. Yet it was fairly clear from the start of the show that the Alaskan governor has put to rout all the claims on both sides that she is an embarrassment. She, a hockey mom, small town mayor, and amateur governor, was able to compete with the biggest mouth in the Senate, a lawyer, a 35-year politician. There's nothing embarrassing about that. (Not for her, anyway.)

Biden himself avoided the major gaffes and policy detours that are his hallmark. Shockingly, he never went after Palin, sticking only to McCain. Smart.

NOW, DEBATES don't decide anything, especially the vice presidential debate. They're not even real debates. From the first primary debate onward, these spectacles have only been opportunities for candidates to expand on the slogans they bandy about on the campaign trail. Strangely, these may well be a better method of getting to know candidates than sit-down interviews with candidates. I have in mind Katie Couric's interview which has been hailed by both sides as an embarrassment for Palin. That could be true, but the debate performance makes me only think that it was more a failure of Couric.

A popular theme is that the press alone is in a position to vet the presidential candidates, particularly in sit-down interviews. (MSNBC's David Shuster said so to me in one TV exchange.) Of course, it's primarily circulated by the press, so at least killing the messenger also kills the source. This is tempting, because whenever I consider that my own decision-making process hinges on Katie Couric's reportorial know-how, I feel a little ill.

From Ann Althouse:

Couric: Are there Supreme Court decisions you disagree with?

Biden: You know, I'm the guy who wrote the Violence Against Women Act. And I said that every woman in America, if they are beaten and abused by a man, should be able to take that person to court - meaning you should be able to go to federal court and sue in federal court the man who abused you if you can prove that abuse. But they said, "No, that a woman, there's no federal jurisdiction." And I held, they acknowledged, I held about 1,000 hours of hearings proving that there's an effect in interstate commerce.


How did he do that? He continues:
Women who are abused and beaten and beaten are women who are not able to be in the work force. And the Supreme Court said, "Well, there is an impact on commerce, but this is federalizing a private crime and we're not going to allow it." I think the Supreme Court was wrong about that decision.

Althouse points out: "'Federalizing a private crime'? Huh? Where are the follow up questions?" Read her post for an explanation as to why his experience seems more boneheaded in light of this phrase. Suffice to say that spousal abuse doesn't immediately offend me on the grounds that it affects interstate commerce. Call me insensitive.

I'm no big fan of Katie Couric (see my article of one year ago, "Katie Couric At One Year; Somebody Fire Her" for a nuanced perspective), but I'm especially not a fan when I see someone who has an upside-down journalistic sensibility. You're supposed to question authority and get an understanding of the common life. A side by side comparison of these interviews shows quite a bit of respect for authority, and a bucket of contempt for common life.

One could not glean from the questions Couric offers that she has any sense of perspective. Citizen-politicians' stock in trade is more character and aptitude than expertise and political clout. Couric's used to establishment types. But they're different animals that should be handled differently, just as it would be strange to ask a man what it's like to be a woman.

Obama's been treated as a citizen-politician, for example, but as David Freddoso's book has shown, he's far more establishment. If the interviews he's done treated him that way, he might have fared worse, as he would have had to address the small bits of his career that have raised eyebrows, from Jeremiah Wright onward.

George W. Bush was pitched as a citizen-politician, but the son of a dynastic political family is no such creature. Clinton, in all his conniving and Machiavellian devices, might be considered one. Reagan, whose career was made elsewhere from politics, might be too.

Citizen-politicians are different from populists. They serve because they have a vision, but they understand the limitations of public office. They can be jarring to elites because they lack expertise and provincially (but most times wholesomely) tend to prefer to stay away from the leisure activities of the powerful.

SOMETIMES elites can favor the citizen-politician or the common man image. Thomas Jefferson certainly did, as did Andrew Jackson. When politicians run for office, they go out of their way to show us how they're just one of us. Jon Grinspan, in an article in the October issue of The American Spectator, discusses how William Henry Harrison defeated Martin Van Buren by deploying hard cider to the masses to show just how down to earth he could be.

It's puzzling to see, however, that the moment a person does walk onto the stage with that genuine, down-to-earth flair, she's dismissed as gimmicky and stupid. This is probably because those speaking to her haven't really tried to talk to someone like her in years. Katie Couric, who is a sort of common fun girly-girl caught up in this thing called a news show, reveals that sensibility when she shrinks from every opportunity to challenge Joe Biden.

When you interview such a person, obviously you don't do so with a feather duster for a microphone. But if you're really after the measure of the man (so to speak), you don't look to nail her on foreign policy stuff that no reasonable person would expect her to know as an Alaskan governor. Would you do that with Bill Clinton in 1992? Would you flunk him if he didn't have as firm a grasp? One looking for a better sense would ask about past experiences, and allow the audience to glean from the candidate's past judgment what that candidate might do in the future. Interviews have become an absurd exercise in careerist gotcha moments -- they serve more of a political purpose than they do give voters an opportunity to flesh out the views of a candidate.

Hence a senator of 35 years can assert nonsense and avoid a criticism Couric lobbed at Palin, that she was "not always responsive when asked questions," and sometimes slipping back to talking points. Really, Katie? Hooey. Senator Biden is a politician, as is Governor Palin, and he certainly slips back to talking points because he is a politician. Start with any phrase that begins with, "I'm the guy who..." and you have yourself a talking point. Memorize that.

THE REASON Governor Palin has performed badly up until last night is, by all accounts, because she's been cramming for a test. What is revealing is not that she had to study, but that her advisers were bulls-eye correct that reporters would quiz her rather than interview her. I would like to think that the idea of "letting Sarah be Sarah" is probably the best strategy (and Thursday night's debate is a perfect argument for it), but the advisers she has are bright people, particularly aware of how reporters behave. If you put Sarah Palin in an interview with Katie Couric, Couric's going to use it as an opportunity to show how she's probably more qualified to be the veep choice. That would be silly, of course, because as it is, she's barely qualified to be the anchor on CBS. Heck, look at this:

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the dispatch from Iraq of a person following in the footsteps of Walter Cronkite. Say what you will about that man's objectivity, but I'll understand if you weep softly.

The facts themselves show that Governor Palin has acquired a certain amount of experience that rises to a level a touch higher than host of a morning talk show. To wake up in the morning and pursue an agenda that involves the business of the largest state in the United States is something worth talking about. Oddly, it didn't really come up in that interview. Maybe it's on the cutting room floor. Perhaps this is an example of ambitious women tearing down ambitious women. After all, wasn't the emotive question about being a working mom with kids conspicuously absent from this interview? Would Couric be playing to her own base by asking such a question? Then why not ask it?

Whatever it is, I'll have a hard time buying the line that Palin's a disaster until someone qualified enough to interview her does so. Last night's debate showed that McCain made a solid choice, one who shares a characteristic of his. She's at her most interesting when she's in a fight.

J. Peter Freire is managing editor of The American Spectator.

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About the Author

J.P. Freire is a writer in Washington and a former editor at the Washington Examiner and The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jpfreire.