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Hiding Palin behind 'deference'

CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE : ON THE MEDIA
/ JAMES RAINEY

September 09, 2008|JAMES RAINEY

John McCain's campaign essentially confirmed over the weekend what some had suspected: Media access to Sarah Palin, would-be vice president of the United States, will be tightly controlled.

Troublemakers need not apply.

And how will we know those troublemakers? They will be the ones unwilling to treat the governor of Alaska with what campaign manager Rick Davis called "some level of respect and deference."

Deference?

The dictionary definitions I find begin with "respectful submission" and "yielding."

That might be the right approach for a reporter lucky enough to interview McCain's 96-year-old mother, Roberta. (If only our politicians were so plain-spoken.)

But it would be wrong -- and, dare I say it, even sexist -- to suggest that Sarah Barracuda is too meek for a little back-and-forth with the denizens of the Fourth Estate.

Early this year, voters (and a certain "Saturday Night Live" skit) rightly smacked news outlets for falling captive to the Barack Obama "rock star" narrative. They demanded to know more about the Democrat than that he had a knack for drawing big crowds and delivering inspiring speeches.

Those complaints and a time-honored primary season tradition -- reporters boring in on candidates after they become front-runners -- helped spur a tougher look at Obama. Stories examined his fundraising, picking over his ties to shady fundraiser Antoin Rezko; detailed his apparent comfort in the bare-knuckle world of Chicago politics; and described his awkward attempts to downplay his opposition to the military "surge" in Iraq, even as it appeared to be having some success.

The Alaska governor is helping McCain attract boisterous crowds. Her convention speech last week drew sparkling reviews, even from the mainstream media organizations that Republicans claim are so unfair. Plenty of TV talking heads say Palin revived McCain's maverick profile -- and that doesn't seem to be hurting his poll numbers.

The sound you hear in the distance is the wailing of liberals, desperately afraid that Palin won't be forced to answer serious questions.

Maybe. But I think the McCain-Palin camp can only play hide-the-candidate for so long before they'll look like they don't think their vice presidential pick is ready to lead on Day One.

The first test of Palin, untethered (to the campaign or a prepared text), will come later this week when she sits down with ABC News anchor Charles Gibson for an interview in Alaska. It will air on Thursday's evening news.

Gibson can't stand too much on deference, can he? He's the guy, after all, who at an April debate put Obama in a full-nelson. The crowd that night in Philadelphia groaned, and commentators torched Gibson and co-moderator George Stephanopoulos.

But the debate did answer questions, as the TV men said, that were "out there" in the electorate. Obama was forced to discuss his association with a onetime member of the radical 1960s group the Weathermen; his statement that poor voters "bitter" about their lot turn to guns and religion for solace; and his failure to more quickly disassociate himself from the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., his racially polarizing former pastor.

Those issues "came in," as the lawyers like to say, because the people needed to know, Gibson told the Democrat.

The ABC anchor, for example, asked Obama about his "bitter" comment, saying that Pennsylvanians "find that patronizing and think that you said actually what you meant."

Gibson also aired a tape of a Latrobe, Pa., woman who asked Obama (who did not always wear a flag pin) about his patriotism: "I want to know if you believe in the American flag?" Gibson defended the question by pointing out that such queries were "all over the Internet."

Even without that flimsy standard, Gibson should have no trouble finding the justification to ask Palin a few of these questions:

* You have been skeptical that global warming is caused by humans. On what basis do you reject the scientific consensus that fossil fuels and human activity have contributed to climate change?

* You asked the librarian in your town about the policy for banning books. Are there books you think should be kept from the public?

* You have claimed credit for killing the "bridge to nowhere," the $398-million link between Ketchikan and Gravina Island. Didn't you support it until it was clear Congress was not willing to pay for the much-ridiculed project?

* You have said students should be allowed to "debate both sides" of evolution. Should creationism be taught alongside evolution in the public schools? Do you believe in evolution?

* What's at the root of the terrorist problem in Pakistan? And how would you make progress, which has eluded the Bush administration, in that dangerous country?

* Your opponents claim you and McCain would just extend the Bush administration for another four years. Cite three instances in which you have differed with the president.

That's just a start. I'm not sure how much time Gibson is going to have, but he can turn to his own viewers for other questions, posted by the hundreds on ABC's website.

During that April debate, Gibson set another standard. He interrupted when he thought his question wasn't being answered. He called Obama out, for instance, when he thought he was not clear enough about gun control.

Hardly deferential, but appropriate -- both for the Democratic star of the first half of the campaign season and the Republican star just stepping to center stage.

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

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