"When I asked John McCain about your national security credentials, he cited the fact that you have command of the Alaskan National Guard and that Alaska is close to Russia. Are those sufficient credentials?" asked Charlie Gibson.
Mr. Gibson was just a few short minutes into his high-stakes interview with Sarah Palin, and he was already hitting his stride. He gazed toward the vice presidential candidate through a pair of gravitas-amplifying reading glasses and waited for the answer. He did not smile.
About a week earlier, in a clip heard round the political world, CNN’s Campbell Brown had asked McCain campaign spokesperon Tucker Bounds a similar question, sending the surrogate into a frenzy of petulant defensiveness, and later inspiring the campaign to cancel a subsequent CNN interview as payback for the audacity of questioning Ms. Palin’s credentials.
But this time there was no shield of surrogates to take umbrage at the question. The flack field had been lowered. Ms. Palin would have to answer the questions on her own.
She responded, in part, by touting her time as chairman of the Alaskan Oil and Gas Conservation Commission overseeing the oil and gas development in a state, which she noted, produces nearly 20 percent of America’s domestic energy supply.
"National security is a whole lot more than energy," said Mr. Gibson, cutting to the point.
And then: "Have you ever traveled outside the country prior to your trip to Kuwait and Germany last year?"
And later: "Have you ever met a foreign head of state?"
(The short answer: no).
Thanks to ABC’s multi-platform, multi-show rollout of the Gibson-Palin tapes, we won’t have a full picture of how Ms. Palin fared in her meet-the-press moment until late Friday night. But one thing was certain just a few short minutes into the first interview on Thursday night’s "World News with Charles Gibson"–ABC News had drafted a savvy game plan for day one, and Mr. Gibson was following the strategy to a tee.
Going into the interview, there were risks on all sides. Ask hard questions on the wrong subjects in the wrong tone, and Mr. Gibson could come across looking preening and patriarchal, condescending and self-serving. Ask soft questions on the wrong subjects in the wrong tone, and he could come across as a weak-kneed patsy for the powerful, playing patty-cake on demand in return for his access to Palin.
But somewhere along the way, Mr. Gibson and his prep team made a smart calculation: on the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, stick to dead serious questions on topics of dead seriousness. "On this day, when national security is on everyone’s mind, we wanted to talk about her view of the world," said Mr. Gibson at the outset.
The topics he then proceeded to ask Ms. Palin about—the war in Iraq, diplomacy in the middle east, military operations on the Afghan-Pakistani border—played well to his strength as a journalist. He was sobriety in a blazer, and on day one (to borrow a talking point from Ms. Palin) he did not blink.
Heading into day two, Mr. Gibson will now face a much trickier task: how to question Ms. Palin on her personal life without making the questions seem way too personal?