THE PLANK SEPTEMBER 26, 2008
Ezra Klein (and pretty much anyone else who's watched the Palin-Couric interviews) asks, "What's happened to Sarah Palin?"
The fact that Palin's responses to questions are becoming increasingly
incoherent rather than rapidly more polished is interesting. Rote
memorization should have all but eliminated the overlay of nonsense in
her answers by now.
I don't pretend to have any first- (or second- or third-) hand knowledge of why it is that Palin's performance in the Katie Couric interviews was so much worse than her performance with Charlie Gibson just a couple of weeks ago. But I've been wondering for a while now just how Palin would hold up under what amounts to a constant, emphatic vote of no confidence from the McCain campaign.
Put yourself in her shoes for a moment. She was an ambitious, confident young pol with some impressive political accomplishments in her home state who, one can guess, had aspirations for taking her brand national at some point but not for at least a few more years. Though versed in the issues facing Alaska, she'd spent vanishingly little time considering the issues facing the rest of the country. (And, as someone who's been to Alaska a few times and even co-owned land there for a while, I think I can say that issue terrain is very different.)
She's unexpectedly plucked from obscurity by the McCain campaign and, after a couple of rough days of media vetting, she gives a speech at the GOP convention--the first speech she's ever given with anything approaching this level of prominence--and is universally declared to have hit it out of the park. She is anointed a "political superstar" by every talking head who can get to a microphone.
Now, I don't know Sarah Palin (obviously), but at this point I suspect she envisioned the next several weeks as a continuation of her coming-out-party/victory-tour. She'd do packed events before cheering members of the GOP base (something she has in fact done), but she'd be a superstar in all the other typical ways, too. She'd be ubiquitous on the tube, doing the "Tonight Show" and "Good Morning America," and, who knows, maybe even the political shows. She'd be so forthright and funny and charming and genuine that the whole country would fall in love with her. She'd be followed by a media throng that hung on her every word.
Instead, she hasn't been allowed to give them a word to hang on: no press conferences (until one yesterday that hardly merited the term), a couple of scripted, softbally interviews, and an ongoing effort by the McCain campaign to have her vice presidential debate postponed indefinitely. 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. These are not pleasant things to hear, and Palin has presumably been hearing them (again, by implication) every day for weeks now.
When I compare Palin's performance with Gibson to her performance with Couric, the biggest difference I see is confidence. With Gibson, she obviously lacked the knowledge one expects at this level, but she seemed to have a glib faith that she could bluff her way through. She may not have answered many of his questions directly, but her evasions were, for the most part, perfectly articulate and comprehensible. In the Couric interviews, by contrast, she often seemed to be stringing along buzz words and sentence fragments that even she recognized to be gibberish. With Gibson, she was tap dancing; with Couric she was drowning.
I'm reminded of the situation you see every now and then in sports, when a talented athlete--which, conveniently enough, Palin was--gets a taste of heavy duty coaching and, rather than being built up, is broken down, losing confidence in his game, becoming tentative, second-guessing himself even to the point of paralysis. I don't know whether that's what's happened to Sarah Palin. But from where I sit, it sure looks like it.
-- Christopher Orr