Capital Commentary: Sarah Palin’s Time in the Spotlight

By: Garrett M. Graff

Just days after leaving Denver and the Democratic National Convention, I was sitting in Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe listening to rising singer/songwriters audition during the weekly Writer’s Night tryouts. This is where the stars of tomorrow come, hoping to make it big. The selection process is rigorous—only 10 out of every 100 people who try out for Writer’s Night will get to take the tiny stage in the 100-seat cafe—but the payoff can be huge: The audience is filled with record executives, producers, and other industry types, and the walls are covered with signed headshots of country-music stars who have performed there before.

Last Sunday, the new artists were introduced by the emcee with a joke in which they were asked about the latest person to become an overnight sensation in a different field: Alaska governor Sarah Palin, John McCain’s vice-presidential pick. Who, the joke went, would be your Alaskan running mate? The answers ranged from Chinook salmon to walrus to singer/songwriter Michael McDonald to the fictional “Dwight Adirondack of Nome, Alaska.”

This was the evening before the story of Palin’s pregnant 17-year-old daughter became public and days before Palin’s electrifying speech at the Republican convention in Minneapolis—which was so full of red meat for delegates that it was the rhetorical equivalent of throwing the bloody carcass of one of the moose Palin likes to hunt into a pit filled with Alaskan wolves.

But the mere fact that John McCain’s running mate is a subject of discussion onstage at a place like the Bluebird Cafe shows that her selection was what McCain hoped it would be: a game-changing choice that will take weeks to play out. It certainly got people talking, and the crowds after her Wednesday speech were clamoring for her as much as—if not more than—the nominee himself.

Now, though, the McCain camp faces a more difficult challenge: how to get Sarah Palin herself talking. What are the right venues? Who are the right questioners?

The initial approach last week seemed to be to withhold her from any substantive press interviews—especially the opinion-shaping Sunday shows—an approach that was only the latest by the Republican Party and the McCain campaign to delegitimize the press and its role in elections.

It’s not a new strategy. As Ken Auletta reported in 2004, President Bush was once asked at a press barbecue whether he actually reads news and he answered no. The nosy reporter then said, “Well, how do you then know, Mr. President, what the public is thinking?” Bush shot back: “You’re making a powerful assumption, young man. You’re assuming that you represent the public. I don’t accept that.”

As Auletta said at the time, “When you ask the Bush people to explain that attitude, what they say is, ‘We don’t accept that you have a check-and-balance function. We think that you are in the game of ‘gotcha.’ Oh, you’re interested in headlines, and you’re interested in conflict. You’re not interested in having a serious discussion . . .  and exploring things.’ ”

Ever since John McCain’s relationship with the press started to sour over the last year—this was the man who, after all, was once so beloved by the press that he referred to it as his “base”—his campaign has adopted the same approach. Last week it seemed to say, Sarah Palin can convince the American people she deserves their trust without doing the Sunday shows, without sitting down with the New York Times editorial board, and without being grilled by experienced White House reporters.

There have certainly been some powerful questions and tough interviews from regular voters on the campaign trail this cycle—Hillary Clinton teared up in New Hampshire during a Q&A with voters, and it was the questions during the two YouTube debates last fall that elicited some of the most interesting answers of the campaign. However, at this point in the race, with someone as virtually unknown as Palin on the national stage, that strategy couldn’t work. There are fewer than 60 days until the election—a far cry from the 19-month presidential marathon we’ve had to get to know the other players.

The original McCain strategy also proved untenable as it only fueled chatter that Palin was unprepared for the job possibly ahead of her—a fear exacerbated by the age of McCain, who would pass the average life expectancy of a US male in his second year as president. As press critic Jay Rosen joked this weekend, “You do realize that the three guys on the ticket will be on the Sunday shows while the woman is thought too frail, right?”

Palin’s Democratic counterpart, Joe Biden, yesterday raised the bar for her further. “She’s a smart, tough politician,” Biden told Experienced National Reporter Tom Brokaw in a Meet the Press interview live from Biden’s home in Wilmington, Delaware. “I think she’s going to be formidable. Eventually, she’s going to have to sit in front of you like I’m doing and have done. Eventually, she’s going to have to answer questions and not be sequestered. Eventually, she’s going to have to answer on the record.”

While it appears that Palin will sit this week with Charlie Gibson of ABC in her first foray in front of the national media as the number two on the GOP ticket, that alone won’t satisfy either the public or the press. How and when she continues that national conversation—letting the public proxy of the national press corps test her thinking, knowledge, and approach to governance—will determine whether she ends up seeming like a stateswoman capable of leading the nation, should tragedy befall John McCain, or whether she ends up just another punchline in places like Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe.

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