My new book "Wild Card: The Promise & Peril of Sarah Palin" hit bookshelves Wednesday -- the same week that a book written by a former Palin aide with a purportedly devastating portrayal of the former Alaska governor also arrives in stores. Its author worked very closely with Palin while I've only met her once and very briefly after she spoke at an event I happened to be at.
Although I haven't read his book, from the reports I've read it appears to follow the same pattern I've noticed when it comes to people's reactions to Sarah Palin: people either love her or hate her.
My book fits neither of those niches and as the subtitle indicates, the story of Sarah Palin is one that is fraught with both great potential and great danger both for her and for the Republican party which she would like to lead. And the way the story unfolds will largely depend on how Sarah Palin chooses to conduct herself in the months and years ahead.
I had written a great deal of the book when I attended a speech by conservative commentator Ann Coulter during which she provided perhaps the most cogent analysis of Palin which I've ever heard.
Keep in mind that Coulter is an admirer of Palin's, and has defended her on any number of occasions from attacks from her political enemies.
Speaking to an admiring audience at the Nixon Library in Southern California in 2008, Coulter said the following of Palin: “She has natural skills that can’t be acquired but what she does need is more book smarts and that can be acquired. Ronald Reagan wasn’t ready when he was 44 either."
It could be argued that John McCain did Palin no favors when he plucked her out of obscurity and put her on his ticket before she had had a chance to really blossom as a governor and a national political figure for both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin are examples of a peculiar micro-wave culture that we find ourselves in today in which we expect politicians with little or no national experience to suddenly master the skills of leadership that have traditionally been learned over many years of on-the-job training in various high offices.
In President Obama's case we may be witnessing in our economic stagflation and the mishandling of several foreign policy situations the effects of this phenomenon just as surely as we've experienced it in some of the ways Palin has handled her time in the public eye.
It may indeed take a certain audacity to run for high office, but it also takes wisdom to pull back, realize that leadership skills are learned over a lifetime and spend time preparing for one's moment of impact.
Ronald Reagan first got the notion that he could be president in 1968 when he half-heartedly attempted to run for the office at the ripe old age of 57 years old, but he was 13 years away from his moment of maximum impact but it was in those intervening years that he discovered the great issues he would run on in 1980 and spent thousands of hours reading, writing radio commentaries in long hand, giving speeches, developing a cohesive political philosophy and yes, governing a state for eight years.
If Palin follows a similarly disciplined path and re-emerges some years in the future she too may have the kind of profound impact that Reagan had. If she chooses a different path-filled with reality shows and 140 character messages, the result is likely to be very different and unsatisfying to her fans. Whichever path unfolds, it still makes for a fascinating story about a fascinating person who has inspired strong feelings pro and con.
The first reporter given a crack at the newly minted Republican nominee for vice president was ABC’s Charles Gibson whom the McCain camp somehow thought would be sympathetic to their cause. Gibson traveled to Alaska and spent a few days with Palin, interviewing her at her home, her old high school and later as the two walked around the Alaskan landscape. For most of the interview the two were seated, with Gibson looking down over his glasses at Palin, playing the role of concerned headmaster interviewing a potential teacher whom he just wasn’t sure was up the job he was thinking of offering her. Gibson was two decades Palin’s senior and he acted it as he asked his first question:
“Governor, let me start by asking you a question that I asked John McCain about you, and it is really the central question. Can you look the country in the eye and say ‘I have the experience and I have the ability to be not just vice president, but perhaps President of the United States of America?’”
“I do, Charlie, and on January 20, when John McCain and I are sworn in, if we are so privileged to be elected to serve this country, will be ready. I’m ready,” Palin responded.
It’s not altogether clear if Palin meant “Charlie” as a crack to show her disrespect for the tone of his questioning, since Gibson had lately begun to use the moniker “Charles” after switching from the Good Morning America set to the venerated evening broadcast, "World News Tonight," or whether it was just to show her familiarity with him from his GMA days. In any event, throughout the interview she would continue to refer to him as “Charlie.”
“And you didn’t say to yourself, ‘am I experienced enough? Am I ready? Do I know enough about international affairs? Do I — will I feel comfortable enough on the national stage to do this?’” Gibson pressed.
”I answered him yes because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can’t blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we’re on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can’t blink,” Palin responded. “So I didn’t blink then even when asked to run as his running mate.”
Most observers agreed that the chink in Palin’s armor was her lack of foreign policy experience, an ironic problem since Republicans had long made sport of candidate Obama’s inexperience, making it one of the centerpieces of the campaign against him. The GOP had constructred a narrative of the wise old foreign policy-smart Senator, John McCain versus the callow upstart Barack Obama whose entire foreign policy experience consisted of growing up in Southeast Asia, a narrative which was severely disrupted by the Palin choice. Palin was aware of her limitations as was Gibson as the reporter quickly went in for the kill:
“This is not just reforming a government. This is also running a government on the huge international stage in a very dangerous world. When I asked John McCain about your national security credentials, he cited the fact that you have commanded the Alaskan National Guard and that Alaska is close to Russia,” Gibson said. “Are those sufficient credentials?”
Palin, accustomed to being on the other end of such hunting expeditions, quickly changed the subject-sort of:
“But it is about reform of government and it’s about putting government back on the side of the people, and that has much to do with foreign policy and national security issues,” she said. “Let me speak specifically about a credential that I do bring to this table, Charlie, and that’s with the energy independence that I’ve been working on for these years as the governor of this state that produces nearly 20 percent of the U.S. domestic supply of energy, that I worked on as chairman of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, overseeing the oil and gas development in our state to produce more for the United States.”
Despite Palin’s best attempts to move Gibson toward equating foreign policy experience with energy policy, Gibson would not be fended off that easily. Before moving to the anchor chair he had spent decades interviewing people on GMA and become something of an expert at analyzing human behavior in interview settings. Perhaps sensing her weakness, he moved to another area that would highlight-for the lay person-Palin’s lack of experience on the world stage:
“Did you ever travel outside the country prior to your trip to Kuwait and Germany last year?” he asked.
“Canada, Mexico,” Palin began somewhat sheepishly before quickly adding, “and then, yes, that trip, that was the trip of a lifetime to visit our troops in Kuwait and stop and visit our injured soldiers in Germany. That was the trip of a lifetime and it changed my life.”
Gibson wasn’t buying it, zeroing in this time on whether Palin had met a head of state. Palin had no choice but to answer no, but attempted to turn that into a positive:
“I have not and I think if you go back in history and if you ask that question of many vice presidents, they may have the same answer that I just gave you. But, Charlie, again, we’ve got to remember what the desire is in this nation at this time. It is for no more politics as usual and somebody’s big, fat resume maybe that shows decades and decades in that Washington establishment, where, yes, they’ve had opportunities to meet heads of state …these last couple of weeks…it has been overwhelming to me that confirmation of the message that Americans are getting sick and tired of that self-dealing and kind of that closed door, good old boy network that has been the Washington elite.”
As Gibson pivoted into even more probing foreign policy questions of Palin, it was difficult to tell whether he was trying to coach her into cogent responses by providing her with hints of the answers or merely trying to point out her lack of knowledge and as Gibson zeroed in, Palin grew visibly nervous:
“Let me ask you about some specific national security situations,” Gibson began. “Sure,” Palin replied cheerfully. “Let’s start, because we are near Russia, let’s start with Russia and Georgia. The administration has said we’ve got to maintain the territorial integrity of Georgia. Do you believe the United States should try to restore Georgian sovereignty over South Ossetia and Abkhazia?”
“First off, we’re going to continue good relations with Saakashvili there,” Palin began, tossing off the name of at least one foreign leader with whom she had spoken. “I was able to speak with him the other day and giving him my commitment, as John McCain’s running mate, that we will be committed to Georgia. And we’ve got to keep an eye on Russia. For Russia to have exerted such pressure in terms of invading a smaller democratic country, unprovoked, is unacceptable and we have to keep…”
Sensing an opening, Gibson, interrupting, pounced: “You believe unprovoked?”
“I do believe unprovoked and we have got to keep our eyes on Russia, under the leadership there,” Palin shot back. “I think it was unfortunate. That manifestation that we saw with that invasion of Georgia shows us some steps backwards that Russia has recently taken away from the race toward a more democratic nation with democratic ideals. That’s why we have to keep an eye on Russia. And, Charlie, you’re in Alaska. We have that very narrow maritime border between the United States, and the 49th state, Alaska, and Russia. They are our next-door neighbors. We need to have a good relationship with them. They’re very, very important to us and they are our next door neighbor.”
Whether or not Russia was provoked into a conflict with Georgia was certainly up for debate, but Palin’s assertion of proximity to Russia as an apparent foreign policy credential was too good for Gibson to pass up. Like Dan Quayle who had for months used a line comparing his length of service in the U.S. Senate to that of John F. Kennedy thus alerting his vice presidential rival Lloyd Bentsen to be ready with a quip, Gibson had been alerted to the proximity argument by a similar comment Cindy McCain had made earlier in the week and pounced:
“What insight into Russian actions, particularly in the last couple of weeks, does the proximity of the state give you?”
Trapped, Palin did her best to find a way out of the line of questioning by restating the obvious: “They’re our next door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.”
Gibson was relentless: “What insight does that give you into what they’re doing in Georgia?”
Although it was a profoundly awkward and potentially damaging line of questioning for her, Palin smartly managed to dig herself out of a hole:
“Well, I’m giving you that perspective of how small our world is and how important it is that we work with our allies to keep good relation with all of these countries, especially Russia,” she scolded Gibson. “We will not repeat a Cold War. We must have good relationship with our allies, pressuring, also, helping us to remind Russia that it’s in their benefit, also, a mutually beneficial relationship for us all to be getting along.”
Bruised, battered but still alive, Palin then wandered into another trap carefully set by Gibson who asked whether she favored letting Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. Gibson knew full well that if Palin answered no, she might look weak, while if she answered yes it would have serious implications since the U.S. would be obligated to defend any NATO state against foreign aggression. Palin took the bait, answering yes, then was forced to defend herself against the charge that such a move might require a war with Russia, were it to attack.
“Perhaps so. I mean, that is the agreement when you are a NATO ally, is if another country is attacked, you’re going to be expected to be called upon and help,” she replied. “But NATO, I think, should include Ukraine, definitely, at this point and I think that we need to — especially with new leadership coming in on January 20th, being sworn on, on either ticket, we have got to make sure that we strengthen our allies, our ties with each one of those NATO members. We have got to make sure that that is the group that can be counted upon to defend one another in a very dangerous world today.”
Gibson, as if to underscore for his viewers the magnitude of what Palin had just said, attempted to make sure he had heard her correctly:
“And you think it would be worth it to the United States, Georgia is worth it to the United States to go to war if Russia were to invade?” he asked.
“What I think is that smaller democratic countries that are invaded by a larger power is something for us to be vigilant against,” Palin backtracked slightly. “We have got to be cognizant of what the consequences are if a larger power is able to take over smaller democratic countries. And we have got to be vigilant. We have got to show the support, in this case, for Georgia. The support that we can show is economic sanctions perhaps against Russia, if this is what it leads to. It doesn’t have to lead to war and it doesn’t have to lead, as I said, to a Cold War, but economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure, again, counting on our allies to help us do that in this mission of keeping our eye on Russia and Putin and some of his desire to control and to control much more than smaller democratic countries. His mission, if it is to control energy supplies, also, coming from and through Russia, that’s a dangerous position for our world to be in, if we were to allow that to happen.”
Another major flashpoint in the Palin-Gibson exchange was Gibson’s clever question about the “Bush Doctrine.” Although it was unclear whether, as commentators would later point out, Gibson understood that there was no single definition of it, he nonetheless asked Palin if she agreed with it. Palin fidgeted slightly, appearing flustered, before managing “In what respect, Charlie?”
Appearing as if he had his “gotcha moment,” Gibson impatiently answered, in his professorial manner, “The Bush — well, what do you — what do you interpret it to be?
“His world view?” Palin interjected.
“No, the Bush doctrine, enunciated September 2002, before the Iraq war,” Gibson countered.
Sidestepping the answer of whether or not she understood what the doctrine was, Palin answered: “I believe that what President Bush has attempted to do is rid this world of Islamic extremism, terrorists who are hell bent on destroying our nation. There have been blunders along the way, though. There have been mistakes made. And with new leadership and that’s the beauty of American elections, of course, and democracy, is with new leadership comes opportunity to do things better.”
It was a clever answer, something of a dodge, but Gibson would have none of it, determined to, depending on one’s interpretation of what he was up to, either buttress Palin’s awkward answer or further humiliate her:
“The Bush doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that?”
“I agree that a president’s job, when they swear in their oath to uphold our Constitution, their top priority is to defend the United States of America,” Palin answered, carefully sidestepping a direct response. “I know that John McCain will do that and I, as his vice president, families, we are blessed with that vote of the American people and are elected to serve and are sworn in on January 20th, that will be our top priority is to defend the American people.”
Gibson refused to back down:
“Do we have a right to anticipatory self-defense? Do we have a right to make a preemptive strike again another country if we feel that country might strike us?”
“Charlie, if there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country. In fact, the president has the obligation, the duty to defend,” she countered.
It was a line of questioning that would come back to haunt Gibson however, when a few days later columnist Charles Krauthammer launched a blistering assault on him, quoting a New York Times account of the exchange:
“At times visibly nervous . . . Ms. Palin most visibly stumbled when she was asked by Mr. Gibson if she agreed with the Bush doctrine. Ms. Palin did not seem to know what he was talking about. Mr. Gibson, sounding like an impatient teacher, informed her that it meant the right of ‘anticipatory self-defense.’”
“Informed her? Rubbish,” began Krauthammer, in a column ironically entitled, “Charles Gibson’s Gaffe.” “’The New York Times got it wrong. And Charlie Gibson got it wrong. There is no single meaning of the Bush doctrine. In fact, there have been four distinct meanings, each one succeeding another over the eight years of this administration -- and the one Charlie Gibson cited is not the one in common usage today. It is utterly different.”
“I know something about the subject because, as the Wikipedia entry on the Bush doctrine notes, I was the first to use the term,” Krauthammer noted.