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Would-be vice president's on-air job interview tells us too little, way too late

September 12, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Television Critic

Those hoping that Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin would burst into tears or start speaking in tongues during her interview with ABC's Charles Gibson were no doubt disappointed by her much-heralded "first interview" that ran on "World News" and then in a slightly expanded form on "Nightline" on Thursday. (She did consistently mispronounce the word "nuclear," but then so do Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.)

It was a fascinating and unsettling interview nonetheless, first and foremost because it's been nearly two weeks since Republican presidential nominee John McCain announced the Alaska governor as his running mate and these are the first unscripted words the American people have heard from her.

For days now, the media have obligingly reacted as if J.D. Salinger had suddenly decided to break his decades-long silence. Caught up in an anticipatory frenzy usually reserved for damage-control celebrity sit-downs -- Paris Hilton on "Larry King Live," Tom Cruise on "Oprah" -- everyone seemed to forget that this is a vice presidential candidate, a public servant who should not be playing hard-to-get with reporters and whose main job it is to articulate the positions and policies of her ticket.

Even Gibson acted as if he feared this might be the one shot the entire Fourth Estate gets, conducting what was essentially a high-level, high-pressure interview with a job candidate who quickly revealed that her skill set is heavy on can-do-attitude, and light on company policy comprehension.

Appearing momentarily stricken by some of the almost professorially pointed policy questions -- and embarrassingly baffled by his reference to the Bush Doctrine -- she never missed a beat, though in fine political style she managed to avoid more questions than she answered, or at least answered in a way that had little connection to the question.

An early question about her experience on the international stage led to a wonky description of her attempts to free America of its foreign oil dependence.

Increasingly specific questions about Iran and Pakistan were answered with carefully vague though inarguably aggressive phraseology: America must never blink or second-guess Israel. It should "keep an eye on Russia" and exercise all options regarding terrorism, but work to create a world in which war was not the first option. "War," Palin said with seemingly utter sincerity, "is hell."

Palin seemed to relax a bit during the "Nightline" interview when, as she and Gibson strolled along the trans-Alaska pipeline, Gibson grilled her about her disagreements with McCain on global warming and drilling.

She seemed willing to concede that human activity may be contributing somewhat to the effects of global warming, but stuck with her support of drilling on 2,000 acres of now federally protected wilderness.

"I'm going to keep working on that with him," she said with a smile.

Still, the inevitable parsing and analysis of Palin's answers and performance in this interview, however tempting, are almost beside the point. In this case, her actions, or inaction, have spoken much louder than any words. She didn't blink, she told Gibson, when McCain asked her to join his ticket. But she certainly blinked afterward. What sort of reform-minded politician waits two weeks before giving an interview?

Since when it is OK that the American people have to wait in breathless anticipation for its nominated candidates to speak to them en masse? Since when do we have to rely on a single interview, from a single source, to introduce us to a woman who claims she would be privileged to lead us?

In a world that is measured by milliseconds, a broken-up hour is too short to offer; a week is simply too long to wait. Such manipulation of a public moment is simple exploitation.

If Palin was trying to prove that she's just a sense-talkin' hockey mom from Alaska, she couldn't have gone about it in a more wrongheaded way.


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