Sep 14th 2008

The crash course that educated Mrs. Palin

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

Sarah Palin, the Republican candidate for vice president of the United States, finally submitted to a television interview after intense coaching from top-level White House advisers. Never in U.S. history has a candidate for high office had to absorb so much in so short a time.

The interview was pivotal to her campaign, which has been ridiculed by many Americans as "a bad Disney movie". Her task was to rise above these critics and display some degree of familiarity with national and world affairs despite her provincial background.

Her performance revealed her weaknesses and strengths in the starkest terms.

To her credit, Mrs. Palin demonstrated her ability to memorize points from briefing papers and tutorials on the fly. Fencing with the interviewer, Charles Gibson, she roamed from tax policy to international affairs to her lack of experience for the ultimate role of the vice president - replacing and succeeding an incapacitated president.

Her performance surprised many people by being more aggressive than defensive. She spoke in a strident voice and repeatedly referred to the interviewer by his given name, "Charlie", to try to control what became a testy and sometimes peevish confrontation. Gibson ignored her attempts to shift the interview to her advantage. She often dodged questions by changing the subject, but Gibson persevered.

Internet blogs were loaded with reaction to the interview, much of it negative. Typical of the comments was this from an American woman, posted on the ABC website:

"She clearly didn't know what on earth Charlie Gibson was talking about. She was giving answers totally unrelated to his questions. She came off as angry, and as programmed as a parrot."

It was the McCain campaign leadership that selected ABC News as the vehicle for her performance and agreed to ABC ground rules that no subject be out of bounds. Gibson was requested as the interviewer because of his avuncular style and credible gravitas. But nothing was left to chance.

To prepare her for her first one-on-one media event since her nomination, the McCain people provided a team with briefing papers and private tutorials. The team was led by Taylor Griffin, who had worked on President Bush's 2004 campaign, Tucker Eskew, a Bush political intimate, and other policy advisers.

On the eve of the interview, Mrs. Palin flew home to Alaska surrounded by three top tutors, Bush economic adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former Bush national security staffer Steve Biegun, and most importantly, Randy Scheuneman, McCain's top foreign policy adviser. Work continued on the flight.

In addition, several communications professionals were on the Alaska trip to prepare her for the televised grilling and coming debates against Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Joe Biden. She submitted to mock interviews tougher than the advisers expected Gibson to conduct - typical training for politicians about to face television cameras.

People who witnessed this crash course say she took in the material by dutifully repeating the main points of each subject but not discussing or questioning the content. Her Alaska aides have said she has a talent for the sound bite, the short distillation of complex subject favored by television interviewers.

Her brash, somewhat unsophisticated style clashes with the tastes of Republican leaders but may appeal to the mass of women voters who feel disaffected by the lack of a woman on the Democratic ticket. In fact Mrs. Palin said at one point, "I think he (Barack Obama) is regretting not picking Hillary (Clinton) now."

Mrs. Palin speaks in a regional accent that has been compared to the singsong Swedish and Norwegian immigrant tones of the upper Midwest as parodied in the movie "Fargo". She also has the habit of dropping the "g" from such words as "workin'" or "writin'" and pronounces "didn't" as "dit'n", another sign of her background but not necessarily a fatal flaw in an election where every vote has equal weight. "Charlie" came out "Chorlie" several times as she appeared to plead for softer questions.

Mrs. Palin faltered worst in her discussion of foreign policy. She played for time when asked whether she subscribes to the Bush Doctrine. "In what respect, Chorlie?" Gibson held he gaze and said, "The right of anticipatory self-defence." She appeared flummoxed before attempting a response, which was, in part, "we have every right to defend our country".

Asked about her foreign experience she said she had visited Canada (which separates Alaska from the United States), and Mexico and had made one organized trip to Kuwait and Germany that she said changed her life.

When the questioning turned to her views on Russia, she first said she was well-placed because the tip of Alaska's Aleutian Islands are within sight of Siberian landfall on a clear day. Finally she said NATO should embrace Georgia and Ukraine and support them if attacked. "Putin won't like it," she said. "We have to keep an eye on Russia."

Asked if she could look her country in the eye and say she was ready to be vice president and possibly president, she said without hesitation, "I'm ready."

The voters will decide on November 4.


Sarah Palin being interviewed by CBS' Katie Couric:

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