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ON THE MEDIA / JAMES RAINEY

Surprise! McCain pulls a fast one

August 30, 2008|JAMES RAINEY

John McCain, you sly dog, you did it.

You kept political reporters and cable television chatterers in the dark for weeks.

Most awoke Friday morning still weary from the Democratic National Convention, only to be sent scrambling when you picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as your running mate.

You gave the media what it always claims it wants: Surprises. Original thinking. News.

What a mistake.

In trying to reclaim your maverick brand, you appear to have pushed an unknown, unformed and under-vetted politician onto the world's biggest political stage.

Reporters like new faces because the status quo is tiresome to write about. They also like new faces like a lion likes a baby wildebeest -- fresh meat on the hoof, not much energy to make the kill.

Before noon Friday -- just after McCain grinned woodenly through Palin's coming-out rally in Ohio (Why did he keep fiddling with his fingers and wedding ring?) -- some of the nation's biggest news organizations had reporters winging to Anchorage and nearby Wasilla, the town Palin led as mayor just a couple of years ago.

Journalists' BlackBerrys buzzed with leads: What about that state trooper, her former brother-in-law, who Palin was accused of having fired? What about those charges from a local paper of cronyism in her career as a local politician?

What's known about her policy positions and public statements has been tremendously reassuring to conservatives, who issued numerous statements Friday praising the 44-year-old governor.

But one person's solid conservatism -- opposing abortions, even in the cases of rape and incest; denying human contributions to global warming; supporting the teaching of creationism in public schools -- is another's extremism.

Fairness dictates that Palin's record be measured. She has been credited with admirable fiscal discipline and with standing up to corruption that seems endemic to her state's government.

You have to wonder how deeply McCain's team delved into any of these issues, though, given that even political hands in her own state say they had no inkling she would be the vice presidential designee.

The rush to judge the governor promises absurdities from both sides of the spectrum.

Democratic operatives worked Friday to brand Palin a tax-and-spendthrift because of an apparently modest tax assessment she helped impose to pay for an arena and convention center.

Republicans peddled their deep respect and admiration for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (Wasn't she the GOP antichrist just a few weeks ago?) and said it was certain Clinton Democrats would want to support Palin.

That last tortured political construction was appearing more unlikely by midday Friday, when video surfaced of Palin calling the New York senator "a whiner."

You have to wonder why McCain went to such lengths to surprise the media and the world.

Operatives for two of the vice presidential also-rans -- Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty -- groused they had been "manipulated" and strung along to shroud the real choice.

And why this endless yammering about the vice presidential picks? Some of the coverage is valid of Palin and Democrat Joe Biden. After all, the vice presidential picks stand a reasonable chance of ending up in the Oval Office. But the wall-to-wall coverage seems grossly out of proportion to the significance of the office.

The 24-hour cable stations, in particular, remind their audiences that even vice presidential nominees as shaky as Dan Quayle seldom affect the outcome of an election.

Then, scarcely pausing to catch their breath, they plunge ahead with another round of speculation about what it all means.

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

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