Charles Gibson’s interview of Sarah Palin didn’t end up generating as much buzz as it was supposed to. People who loved Sarah Palin were looking for her to hit another convention-speech style home run. People who hated her were looking for her to embarrass herself. Both sides were wrong, since neither of these happened.

First reaction: bad editing

From the first few moments of the interview, it was obvious that what I’d read about the editing was true. It was quite jumpy and generally awful, and I’m pretty sure I’d have noticed this even if I hadn’t already read about it online. I also noticed that interview was dominated by side-view camera angles of Palin rather than front-view angles. Fox did the same thing with Obama in Bill O’Reilly’s interview, only less often. Gibson’s interview with Obama in July showed Obama from the side for only a few moments.

Interviews with important political figures keep the camera facing the candidate head-on. Side shots show the candidates leaning forward in a way that is not suggestive of control and poise. All candidates lean forward and push their chins out when they appear on television, because this flattens the area behind the chin and beneath the jaw — try it in front of a mirror. Showing candidates looking toward the camera highlights this effect. Showing them from the side just makes them look like they’ve got poor posture.

Second reaction: Gibson is boorish

My second reaction was that Gibson is dour and self-important, from his demeanor to his glasses to his questions. This was obvious before I even saw much of Palin’s performance, prompting me to think, “If she does poorly, then his demeanor will give the voices of the right a lot of wiggle room.”

For example, Gibson started by asking Palin if she was ready to be vice president and president — several times. Gibson followed up by second guessing Palin’s answers. Here are the first 5 questions that Gibson asked Palin:

Gibson Question 1: 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?”


Gibson Question 2: 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 Question 3: Didn’t that take some hubris? [to claim you're ready]


Gibson Question 4: But 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. Are those sufficient credentials?


Gibson Question 5: I know. I’m just saying that national security is a whole lot more than energy.

When Gibson interviewed Obama in July, he asked Obama once, “But do you sense that when I mentioned in the polls earlier, because it shows up continually in the polls that if people have a reservation about you, it is that you are young, you are inexperienced and that you are very new to the international stage.”

Thus, Gibson dispensed with Obama’s experience issue by reducing it to public perception, yet Obama has the shortest resume of any presidential candidate to run on a major party ticket in more than 100 years. I’m not saying this means that Obama is a bad choice; if experience determined performance, then we should never oust incumbents. But one can measure the brevity of Obama’s resume objectively, and Gibson talks in solely in terms of perception and polling.

Furthermore, whatever Gibson himself thinks about Obama’s or Palin’s qualifications, Obama is the one with the biggest experience problem. Here’s an excerpt from a recent AP article on an AP poll:

The poll suggests that perceived inexperience is more of a problem at the top of the Democratic ticket than in the No. 2 spot for Republicans.

Eighty percent say McCain, with nearly three decades in Congress, has the right experience to be president. Just 46% say Obama, now in his fourth year in the Senate, is experienced enough.

Fully 47% say Obama lacks the proper experience — an even worse reading than the 36% who had the same criticism about McCain running mate Sarah Palin, serving her second year as Alaska governor after being a small-town mayor.

“This is his fourth year in the Senate, and two of those four years he spent campaigning for president,” said Arthur Koch, 63, an undecided voter from Wallington, N.J. “I’m not too comfortable with that.” [emphasis added]

The contrast between Gibson’s questioning of Obama and his questioning of Palin is clear, but it’s even more egregious given that there is substantially more discomfort with Obama’s experience than with Palin’s.

Another example: The initial version of the interview that aired on the East Coast contained the following exchange, which ABC News later edited to omit the portions in gray.

Gibson: You said recently, in your old church, “Our national leaders are sending US soldiers on a task that is from God.” Are we fighting a holy war?

Palin: You know, I don’t know if that was my exact quote.

Gibson: Exact words.

Palin: But the reference there is a repeat of Abraham Lincoln’s words when he said — first, he suggested never presume to know what God’s will is, and I would never presume to know God’s will or to speak God’s words.

Gibson really looked bad saying, “Exact words.” Very bad. Bad enough that ABC edited it out.

I learned later that night that Gibson got this wrong. Sarah Palin’s exact words were these:

Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do also what is right for this country — that our leaders, our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God. [The portion in purple is the portion quoted by Gibson in the interview.]

Charles Gibson took a sentence fragment and called it “exact words.” I’d be surprised if he intentionally used the quote out of context. The more likely explanation is that Gibson simply failed to do adequate preparation for the interview, so he simply assumed that Palin’s statement was jingoistic and inflammatory without bothering to investigate the context of her statement.

Regarding Gibson’s abysmal performance, it’s interesting to note that the immediate (under 2 hours) response by conservative pundits and bloggers tended to focus on Palin while giving Gibson a pass. They didn’t start attacking Gibson until later in the evening, after they’d started to receive responses from regular viewers who objected to Gibson. This tells me that many conservatives pundit-tyes and bloggers are still much more defensive about Palin than regular rank-and-file Republicans.

Third reaction: Gibson’s not the brightest bulb

My third reaction was that Gibson doesn’t seem to be the smartest guy. The best example is when he gets the definition of the Bush Doctrine wrong.

Gibson: 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?

Wrong. If Gibson wanted to ask how Palin felt about preventative war, then he should have asked her that. Instead, Gibson asked Palin about the nebulous and infrequently used term Bush Doctrine and then defined it incorrectly himself. The man who actually coined the term quickly published an article correcting Gibson’s gaffe. Ouch.

Another example: I cringed when I heard Gibson ask, “Doesn’t that take hubris?” because it makes Gibson sound like a philistine. The term hubris intimates the sort of pattern shown in Greek tragedies, connoting pride that leads to downfall — the term hubris is best used in retrospect to describe the self-destructive. What Gibson meant to ask was whether it is appropriate for someone with her background to proclaim her readiness to be president.

Fourth reaction: Palin is very direct

My fourth reaction was that Palin’s answers were shorter than the answers Obama gave in his interview with Charles Gibson. Palin is much more direct than Obama and Biden. Some would say this is because she lacks depth. Others would say it’s because she’s more real. Either way, she’s more direct. One could make a reasonable prima facie case her directness this will help her in debates.

Fifth reaction: Palin answers every question

My fifth reaction was that she tends to take each question at face value and answer it. Politicians have methods of talking around issues and avoiding answering questions that they don’t want to answer or that require uncomfortable commitments. They object to dealing with hypotheticals. They talk about how difficult the issue is, referring to several aspects of it without coming down on any side. They adopt an adversarial approach and question the questioner. They insist that they’ve already answered the question.

Palin didn’t do very much to avoid answering questions. She even answered the same question multiple times. There were two exceptions.

First, Palin did not seem to know what the Bush Doctrine was, and the fact that Gibson also didn’t know doesn’t mitigate that. She seemed to think that the term Bush Doctrine referred to Bush’s general policy, foreign and domestic. It has surely been used in to mean this, but it’s not the normal usage of the political class in Washington, DC. This is where Palin’s lack of acquaintance with Washington, DC spoke loudest, and in an unfortunate way. Viewers aren’t likely to say, “She doesn’t know that because she’s an outsider.” Instead, they’ll probably say, “Everyone else seems to know what it means. Why doesn’t she?”

Second, she engaged in a small amount of indirection when tackling Gibson’s Isreal/Iran question to avoid directly saying that Israel can bomb Iran at its leisure. But even in that instance she was quite direct.

I chalk these problems up to inexperience in interviews and inexperience in Washington, DC.

Overall reaction: Mixed bag: Palin generally did OK. Gibson did worse.

After watching the entirety of the interviews, I found that it represented a distribution of results. Palin did quite well on a few questions, she did OK on most of them, she was just passable on some, and she did poorly on a few (she didn’t really botch any of them). In other words, it was a mixed bag the way that most interviews are.

Overall, Palin did better on the 2nd night of interviews (that dealt more with domestic policy) than she did on the 1st night (that dealt with foreign policy). She seemed to have found her rhythm, and she was on more familiar ground.

Some right-wing pundits are claiming that Gibson’s interview was an attempt at a hatchet job. I disagree. Gibson did a poor job even for a hostile interviewer, and if he’d have wanted to do a hatchet job he would have. In this case, Gibson just didn’t take the interview seriously and he was unprepared. His interview of Palin represents a low-point of personal professionalism for Charles Gibson.

My verdict: Palin did fine. She could have done much worse. She certainly did better than Gibson. But she should have done much better than she did, and hopefully she can do better. You could tell that she’s not as experienced giving interviews as other politicians. You could also sense the recency of her foreign-policy knowledge. In the end, Palin did fine because her basic political instincts are sound. She avoided a debacle, and she successfully maintained her persona under pressure.

Even so, it’s no surprised that those who love her are defending her answers and singing her praises. Those who hate her are attacking her answers and raging in impotent fury. The net effect of this interview on her image will be zero, and it will quickly fade from memory as she continues to make appearances and to campaign for McCain.