Monday, September 29, 2008

Sarah Palin’s Feminine Wiles Fall Short

A guest post from Sharon Lyle, publisher of the LA Progressive e-newsmagazine at

Shortly after the Katie Couric-Sarah Palin interview, a slew of reports hit the Internet assessing the VP candidate’s performance. Try as I might, I was hard pressed to find a single report that looked favorably on Palin’s delivery. Slate’s Christopher Beam said that Palin resembled, “a high-schooler trying to BS her way through a book report.” New York Times reporter Bob Herbert said “the idea that the voters of the United States might install someone in the vice president’s office who is too unprepared or too intellectually insecure to appear on, say, “Meet the Press” or “Face the Nation” is mind-boggling.” He then likened the election of Palin to “putting an unqualified pilot in the cockpit of a jetliner.

So when I watched the Palin-Couric interview, I wasn’t completely surprised to see Palin fumbling. I suspected this would surface sooner or later. Why else would the McCain campaign shield her from the media for so long? Just two days earlier when Palin was to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, campaign aides told reporters they could not go into the meetings but the photographers and video camera crew were invited in. When a couple of major news outlets reportedly threatened to remove their camera crews altogether, campaign spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt was quoted as saying the reporter ban was a miscommunication.

Still, when watching the events of that day on CNN and MSNBC and reading about them in other media, it was impossible to get a grasp of the dialogue exchanged between Palin and Karzai or any of the other foreign leaders she met that day. The average citizen is still left wondering — who is Sarah Palin?

But as I sat through more of the interview with Couric, Palin’s ability to stay on point was even worse than I’d imagined. Couric seemed to rattle Palin, zooming in on hard-hitting questions while staring with a blank face — looking directly and unwaveringly at Palin as she stumbled and bumbled to find a coherent answer. Palin squirmed in her seat as an apparent uneasiness seemed to rise from within but Couric refused to offer up a smile or a nod. While watching this exchange, it occurred to me that maybe the problem was that one of Palin’s tools was rendered ineffective with Couric.

The Alaskan Governor is an attractive woman – perhaps she is adept at using her charm and beauty to distract from other possible shortcomings. Couric didn’t seem to be biting and Palin was clearly operating outside of her comfort zone.

To see if I was on to something with this theory, I went to YouTube and replayed the Palin interview with Charles Gibson of ABC, carefully observing the way she handled Gibson. Within the first 7 or so minutes into day 1 of the first interview, Sarah Palin addressed Charles Gibson as “Charlie” no less than five times. At one point, when they were on the grounds of her home in Alaska, she touched his arm. These are subtle gestures that can easily be dismissed as personal style but when compared to the way she interacted with Katie Couric, I’m not so sure. In replaying the Couric interview, I never heard Palin refer to Couric as “Katie”. Theirs was a strictly professional exchange and this did not seem to work in Palin’s favor.

According to a recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, “ 62 percent of men questioned have a favorable opinion of the Alaska governor, nine points higher than women.” The poll also indicated that there is a gender gap when it comes to whether Palin is qualified to serve as president. Fifty-seven percent of male respondents said Palin was qualified, 14 points higher than women. I don’t doubt the McCain camp chose Palin for this very reason.

In a piece entitled, “Desperately Searching for Sarah,” NBC National Journal Reporter Carrie Dann asserts that web searches say something about what we really want to know. NBC News uses an online research company, Hitwise, to compile and analyze what people are searching for on the web. According to Dann, “Palin” searches caused web traffic to spike to almost 30 times that of any other candidate by the date of Palin’s convention speech.

Dann says volume fell almost as quickly as it rose but added that searches containing the keywords “Sarah Palin legs”, “Sarah Palin Vogue”, and “Sarah Palin sexy photos” have outranked searches for legitimate policy positions such as earmarks investigation since Palin entered the race. Dann claims that NBC believes that what people search for says a lot about how the campaigns are making their message stick. I don’t know what the Palin searches say about the message the McCain campaign is sending but it seems to say something about how a large percentage of men are thinking.

But, although the polls indicate that Palin is favored by men, it is not all men. Even conservatives such as George Will are saying enough is enough. Fareed Zakaria has asked that she step down and Jack Cafferty’s exasperation over the spector of a Palin presidency can only be given justice by providing you with the video to watch for yourself (see below).


So this takes us to the question of how Palin will handle next Thursday’s debate. Next Thursday, the debate will be moderated by veteran journalist Gwen Ifill. A couple of months ago, there were some who were disgruntled that Ifill had been relegated to moderate the VP debate and not one of the presidential debates considering her senior status and exemplary performances at moderating in the past. But now, I have to admit, it makes me smile just thinking of Gwen Ifill sitting in the moderator seat on Thursday.I predict, that unlike John McCain who avoided eye contact with Barack Obama, Sarah Palin won’t avoid making eye contact with Joe Biden. She knows where her strength lies and she’ll invite it. It gives her an edge over her opponent that all attractive women sense. Biden will be in a precarious position but I trust that he’s up to the task. This Thursday’s debate will be a dance of balance. Biden doesn’t need to sit and memorize talking points but he will have to be mindful that this is not the typical debate.

What’s important to Palin is that she feel comfortable enough to not make a complete fool of herself on this, one of the most watched debates in the history of television, debating a man who has more experience dealing in the matters of foreign policy than she has in every aspect of her life. She is going to need to draw strength from being able to use her charm.

She will likely not avoid looking into Biden’s eyes but looking at Ifill, now that is another thing altogether. We’ll all watch and see how that works for her.

I, like millions of other Americans, will be there watching taping and watching again as this monumental time in American history gets played out.

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