Palin meets the press, and the reviews aren't good

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 26, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Sarah Palin finally fielded some off-the-cuff questions from the media this week _ a campaign first _ but it was her interview with CBS's Katie Couric that drew the attention, and the reviews weren't good. One conservative columnist suggested she should do what's best for the country and resign from the campaign.

The media exposure was a long time coming — 28 days and not a single news conference since John McCain plucked the first-term Alaska governor out of relative obscurity to be his running mate on the Republican presidential ticket.

McCain's campaign has been trying to talk up her resume, but the reviews from a variety of quarters of the Couric interview — the latest of her three television interviews — were less than stellar.

In the CBS interview, Palin claimed that the U.S. had gained "victory" in Iraq.

Explaining her earlier comment that living close to Russia gave her foreign-policy experience, she needed translation. "As Putin rears his head," she said, referring to Russian prime Minister Vladimir Putin, "and comes into the airspace of the United States of America, where do they go? It's Alaska. It's just right over the border. It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right next to, they are right next to our state."

Her campaign later explained to The New York Times what she meant: "Russian incursions near Alaskan airspace have occurred, and when they do, she is briefed on them by the adjutant general of the Alaska NG (National Guard). Jets scrambled would likely be active duty, possibly Guard."

And after Couric asked repeatedly for examples of when McCain pushed for more regulation, not less, over the financial industry, Palin said, "I'll try to find you some and I'll bring them to you."

Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker wrote, "No one hates saying this more than I do," but Palin's "clearly out of her league" and should "bow out."

Broadway shows close after friendlier reviews.

The McCain campaign's kept Palin in a bubble and has been slamming the news media. It claims coverage has been unfair. The strategy plays well with the Republican base.

But with Election Day little more than a month away, a cultural war might not be the best political strategy when the economy is in meltdown and voters believe Democrat Barack Obama would handle it better.

Two publications suggested the McCain campaign might be part of Palin's problem.

"The fact that Palin's responses to questions are becoming increasingly incoherent rather than rapidly more polished is interesting," Ezra Klein wrote on the Web site of The American prospect. "Rote memorization should have all but eliminated the overlay of nonsense in her answers by now. Matt Yglesias offers a decent hypothesis, saying, 'It's possible that all this cramming is causing Palin to become less coherent — instead of just parrying questions she knows she doesn't have good answers to, she's trying to remember canned lines but it's too much all at once to actually get right.' "

The New Republic's Christopher Orr offered this take on the interview: "The obvious implicit message her preppers and coddlers and protectors in the campaign are giving her is: You're not ready. We don't trust you. You have no idea what you're talking about. Don't ever open your mouth unless you've cleared it with us or you might destroy the whole campaign. . . . When I compare Palin's performance with Gibson to her performance with Couric, the biggest difference I see is confidence."

The cocoon around the Alaska governor has become so tight that the some reporters, unable to get answers to the questions they lobbed at her, would chronicle the questions anyway.

Late-night comedians weighed in, too.

"And all this week, the McCain campaign is trying to prevent Sarah Palin from talking to reporters covering the news, you know?" said Jay Leno. "They said, 'You can take her picture, but you can't ask her any questions.' What is she running for, vice president or 'America's Next Top Model?'"

CNN anchor Campbell Brown got so frustrated that she accused the McCain campaign of sexism.

"Free Sarah Palin," she proclaimed, as if marching with a bullhorn.

Some Democrats apparently liked the sound of that. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a prominent Obama ally, jumped to Palin's defense, blaming McCain for keeping her under wraps.

Suddenly belittling Palin was out. Empowering her was in.

"Why is it that every man who has ever run for president or vice president can go out and give speeches and talk to the press and handle themselves?" McCaskill said in an interview. "I think the men have decided they have got to keep her under wraps. Well, how insulting to women. I think she's plenty capable of doing this.

"If she's strong enough to go toe to toe with Putin or (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad . . . she needs to go toe to toe with John McCain and say, 'Set me free.'"

Janice Crouse, senior fellow at Concerned Women for American, a conservative public-policy group, dismissed it as an "obvious" ploy.

"At first they thought, 'Who is this yahoo from Alaska and religious right extremist?'" Crouse said. "The backlash was so strong. Now, 'These men around her won't let her go. She can handle herself. Let her be her.' It's laughable."

However, Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said, "It's challenging Palin to be the maverick. It's very clever."

Lost in all this, perhaps, is Obama's running mate, Joe Biden. In the tradition of most running mates, the veteran Delaware senator draws few headlines, content to ply the political backroads in battlegrounds such as Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Except, of course, when he makes news, as he does with his penchant for the occasional verbal blooper. Like when he said that Franklin Roosevelt was president when the stock market crashed in 1929. He meant Herbert Hoover.

Or that it was "patriotic" for the rich to pay higher taxes as he defended Obama's plan to raise taxes only on people earning more than $250,000 a year.

If McCain's campaign in his more media-friendly days deserved the tag "Straight Talk Express," Biden's road show might be called the "Nonstop Talk Express." He's done nearly 90 interviews since he joined the Democratic ticket.

"It's hard for the press to . . . appear even-handed," said Jay Rosen, a media critic who's author of the blog "PressThink" and teaches journalism at New York University. "Biden is constantly available."

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