The vice presidential debates are still two and a half weeks off, yet Governor Sarah Palin has already demonstrated a toughness under pressure that bodes well for her performance that night and throughout the remainder of the campaign.
As someone who has done some public speaking (and bear in mind that most people fear speaking in front of others more than they fear disease or death), I have some familiarity with pressure. I vividly recall one engagement in which my hosts had requested that I lecture for 45 minutes "no more and no less." With rising panic, I realized about 30 minutes into the address that I was speaking at the podium more rapidly than I had in rehearsal and would soon be left with 15 minutes to fill and 500 expectant faces tilted my way! Somehow, I don't know how, I ad-libbed anecdotes and spliced impressions into the final few pages of text and departed the stage with only a minute or two left on the clock.
The pressure on Sarah Palin to perform well in her interview with Charlie Gibson was monumental. The country was almost literally panting to see it. And Gibson, as we have all noticed, felt obliged to play the role of inquisitor and prosecutor far more than interlocutor. One's first primetime network interview would be terrifying under the best of circumstances. In this case, when she presented herself for questioning, the mainstream media had been in full bay for two weeks. Under these conditions, it's a triumph that she didn't tremble and stumble all the way through.
As it is, she did fine. She wasn't perfect. Who is? Gibson's patronizing instruction on the meaning of "the Bush Doctrine" has been exposed as phony. The term has gone through several iterations and most foreign policy experts couldn't have answered that one without clarification. Governor Palin may have been weak on specifics a couple of times (though notice Gibson never asked her about energy policy), but thematically she was solid. She favors reduced government spending, a strong defense, and is unapologetically pro-life.
Her weakest moment, in my judgment, was not the answer to the supercilious "Bush Doctrine" question, it was her unconvincing justification for hiring a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., when she was mayor of Wasilla. She said it was cheaper than traveling back and forth. No doubt. But the theme of the McCain campaign, as I understand it, is to eliminate (or at least radically reduce) that kind special pleading. Score one for ABC.
But Gibson shamelessly shilled for the Obama team. He challenged Palin several times on the change motif. In what three ways would your economic policies differ from those of the Bush Administration? When she gave a conversational response, he seemed to scold her and held up three fingers demanding that she tick them off. Just by the way, Gibson's assumption that someone promising change must necessarily be departing from Bush Administration policies is not right. A reformer might want to change Congress' refusal to permit domestic drilling, or inability to resolve the immigration problem, or desire to increase spending faster than the Bush Administration.
The Democrats and the press are not crazy for arguing that Palin's experience is a bit thin. On the other hand, the experience she has had is far more relevant for the presidency than either Obama's or Biden's. Her leadership of Alaska is the kind that makes lots of Americans stand and cheer. Before becoming governor, she had the guts to file an ethics complaint against a fellow member of the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission who was also the Republican state party chairman. When he pleaded guilty and paid a $12,000 fine, she was amply vindicated. As governor, she vetoed 10 percent of the spending proposed by the legislature. And as Newsweek magazine reported (before she was picked for VP), "In Alaska, Palin is challenging the dominant, sometimes corrupting, role of oil companies in the state's political culture. For Palin, that has meant tackling the cozy relationship between the state's political elite and the energy industry that provides 85 percent of Alaska's tax revenues -- and distancing herself from fellow Republicans, including the state's senior U.S. senator, Ted Stevens Palin said it's time for Alaska to 'grow up' and end its reliance on pork-barrel spending."
Sarah Palin is not perfect -- she's just the most exciting, authentic, fresh, and talented politician to debut in a generation.