Palin and the Charlie Gibson Strategy

gibson Palin and the Charlie Gibson StrategyIn theory, Charlie Gibson has the power to expose Sarah Palin as the fantastically uninformed foreign policy thinker that most Democrats—and, if primed with a healthy dose of truth serum, probably more than a few Republicans—believe her to be.

The ABC newsman, who scored the first of what will surely be scant few major media sit-downs with John McCain’s running mate, could very easily do what a mischievous Boston television reporter did to George W. Bush in 1999 and spring a pop quiz on the unseasoned politician, measuring her knowledge (or lack thereof) of some elementary facts about global hotspots.

There’s no shortage of possible questions that could be asked, and while the ethics and relevancy of playing gotcha would be debated endlessly after the fact, the sight of Mrs. Palin flailing to answer such a basic question—or even providing an incorrect response—would instantly and powerfully drive home to millions of voters the Democrats’ contention that a person who has been governor of Alaska for 20 months (and, before that, mayor of a town with fewer people than the average Arena Football League game attracts) is frighteningly ill-prepared to assume the presidency of the United States.

But this—almost certainly—is not how it will go when Mr. Gibson interviews Mrs. Palin, nor is it how it will go if and when Mrs. Palin, acting under the strict supervision of Mr. McCain’s brain trust, consents to any similar sessions before Election Day.

From the instant Mr. McCain tapped her, his campaign leadership has schemed, with remarkable effectiveness, to minimize the obvious threat posed by Mrs. Palin’s inexperience—and, more specifically, how the media portrayed that inexperience. The road to her looming interview with Mr. Gibson is a perfect example of how deftly they’ve handled this challenge.—Mrs. Palin’s selection was announced on August 29 in Dayton, whence she proceeded almost directly into what Rick Warren might call “a cone of silence” as a rash of potentially harmful revelations—many policy-oriented, a few personal—emerged. Reports of her voracious appetite for federal earmarks and past support for the notorious “Bridge to Nowhere,” ties to the equally notorious Ted Stevens and possibly even the banning of books from public libraries exploded, but Mrs. Palin stayed quiet.

Meanwhile, an army of Republican surrogates, led by Mr. McCain’s campaign manager, aggressively hawked a victimization narrative, invoking charges of sexism, conflating the legitimate policy questions about Mrs. Palin with illegitimate personal accusations made by a blogger, and accusing the press of being “on a mission to destroy” the Republican V.P. candidate.—Fomenting this hysteria proved invaluable. It rallied the previously apathetic Republican base against its old foe, “the liberal media,” and distracted from the revelations about Mrs. Palin. (Most news outlets covered the McCain campaign’s charges of unfairness more intensely than, for instance, her reliance as mayor on the earmarks she now claims to revile.) But most importantly, it built suspense for Mrs. Palin’s carefully scripted, and tightly managed re-emergence at the Republican convention, where she masterfully read from a teleprompter and ad-libbed a few lines—skills she honed as a television sports anchor early in her career—in a command performance that surely dazzled many of the nearly 40 million Americans who tuned in expecting, based on all of the media noise they’d heard, a far shakier presentation.

That convention speech achieved two important things for the Republican campaign. First, it validated—in the eyes of many voters, and not nearly all of them Republicans—the G.O.P.’s charges of media bias. Why on earth, many casual viewers surely wondered, would the press be making so much noise about such a poised, confident and impressive woman? Not surprisingly, a poll released this Monday found that by a 54-10 percent margin, voters believe the press has been harder on Mrs. Palin than on her opponents.

This, in turn, bought the McCain campaign time and latitude in scheduling interviews for Mrs. Palin, which they used to set up this week’s relatively risk-free encounter with Mr. Gibson. Officially, no question is off-limits. But Mr. Gibson, more so than most major television personalities, has shown little interest in pursuing questions about Mrs. Palin aggressively. And the interview will be taped sporadically over two days. Surely, he won’t be playing hardball in the early sessions.

The result is close to a no-lose situation for the McCain campaign. In the unlikely event that Mr. Gibson pulls a pop-quiz surprise, they will rush to portray the interview as a hit-job—perhaps even equipping Mrs. Palin with a pithy retort ahead of time. Not everyone will buy it, but the G.O.P.’s handling of these past two weeks has won Mrs. Palin more of a cushion than anyone would have imagined when she was picked.

But most likely, Mr. Gibson will be deferential and Mrs. Palin will come off quite well. Then the public will be even less inclined to pay much attention to the media’s hectoring for more face time with the candidate and the McCain campaign will be able to be even more sparing in making her available.

Think they can’t keep this up through November? Think again.