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Sarah Palin takes the interviewer's seat on NBC

April 02, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, left, is set to be a "special guest host" on NBC's "Today" show Tuesday as Katie Couric, right, fills in as host on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, left, is set to be a "special guest… (Associated Press )

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin hasn't ruled out running for president, but her next job will be a bit less challenging: doing a stint as a "special guest host" on NBC's"Today Show" on Tuesday.

It's easy to understand NBC's motivations: not only is Palin a star in the political firmament, she has a unique ability to draw viewers to "Today" this week. That's because Katie Couric, former "Today" star and "CBS Evening News" anchor, is spending the week as guest host of a rival morning talk show,ABC's"Good Morning America."

In the TV ratings sense, the Palin vs. Couric showdown is a rematch of their interview on CBS during the 2008 presidential campaign. Palin's verbal stumbles in response to some of Couric's questions became the stuff of caricature, raising questions about her suitability to be the proverbial one heartbeat away from the presidency.

But what about Palin's motives? Like a number of other politicians and political professionals, she's played a recurring role as a talking head on TV news shows. Yet "Today" feels less like news and more like entertainment -- a gig closer to "Sarah Palin's Alaska" than a spot analyzing election returns for Fox News. Rather than offering expertise, she'll be the one asking questions -- presumably friendly ones, given that it's "Today."

Maybe that doesn't matter. Maybe the line between celebrity and leader has become so blurry that there's no real distinction any more. If Arnold Schwarzenegger can go straight from "Terminator" to Governator, maybe the biggest threat to political viability is lack of name recognition.

Granted, I can't imagine Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) sitting in as a guest host on morning TV, sipping from a coffee cup and bantering with guests about the book they've just published or the fitness regimen they're promoting. Nor can I see New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Govs. Haley Barbour of Mississippi or Jeb Bush of Florida or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in that role, or anyone else who's been mentioned as a future presidential candidate. Hosting a daytime talk show doesn't seem to fit that resume.

But if the bottom line is putting one's face and message in front of the largest number of people, then is the venue relevant? Candidates have dutifully made the rounds of late-night talk shows for more than a decade. Is an hour or two on "Today" that much less elevated than playing saxophone on"The Arsenio Hall Show"?

And make no mistake, Palin will be using the "Today" platform to deliver a political message, albeit with a lighter touch perhaps than she would on Fox News. Calling in to "Today" on Monday to discuss her appearance, Palin said she hoped "we won't bore viewers with too much in-depth political talk." But when asked what issues she might raise, she mentioned two that the GOP hopes to campaign on in November -- energy prices and national security -- and added, "I think no matter what it is that we discuss, somehow it's going to turn into a bit of a political discussion because it's absolutely paramount that people are paying attention to what's going on in our country in order get it back on the right track."

NBC may already be planning to drown out any news Palin makes. Tuesday's "Today" broadcast is scheduled to feature a "big announcement" from Ryan Seacrest, the"American Idol" host and TV impresario behind the Kardashian reality TV franchise. But if Palin can work the words "socialist" and "Obama" into the same sentence during her brief tenure as "Today" host, she'll probably grab more headlines.

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