Palin: A mystery woman comes into focus

Scrutinizing Sarah Palin

I watched Sarah Palin’s first national TV interview last week with mixed emotions: “sorrow, pity, incredulity—and fear,” said Fred Kaplan in Speaking variously in platitudes, non sequiturs, and rote-memorized talking points, the woman asking us to put her a heartbeat away from the presidency—“and a 72-year-old cancer survivor’s heartbeat, at that”—gave the impression of someone who “had never given a moment’s thought to these matters before two weeks ago.” The most excruciating moment, said Ellis Henican in Newsday, came when ABC’s Charles Gibson asked the Alaska governor whether she agreed with “the Bush Doctrine.” Staring back “like a moose in headlights,” Palin first fished for hints—“In what respect, Charlie?”—and then lamely offered up, “His worldview?” I’m not saying our presidents need advanced degrees in international relations, but is it asking too much that Palin at least have heard of the “basic underpinning of American foreign policy” in the 21st century?

That’s utterly unfair, said Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post. The term “Bush Doctrine” in fact has had several meanings over the years—from Bush’s threat to treat states that harbor terrorists as harshly as states that sponsor terrorism, to the goal of spreading democracy. So Palin was totally within her rights to ask Gibson for clarification. Palin probably could have “answered some things better,” said Kathryn Jean Lopez in National Review Online. But all in all, she “did just fine.” On the land-mine-laden topics of Pakistan and Israel, she gave diplomatic answers; she refused to be cornered into either denying global warming or conceding it’s entirely the product of human activity; and she impressed many with her “no-surrender, take-no-crap conservative sense.” Besides, at the end of the day, it’s Palin’s refreshing attitude, not any wonkish command of detail, that “might just take McCain/Palin to victory in November.”

To many Alaskans that’s a disquieting prospect, said Jo Becker, Peter Goodman, and Michael Powell in The New York Times. Palin’s supporters describe her as a crusading reformer who “lifted Alaska out of a mire of corruption.” But her own style of governing has often “marred” her reform credentials. A review of her record found a striking tendency to use the power of her office to reward friends and punish enemies. She appointed several high school classmates to important posts, including an old pal to head the State Division of Agriculture whose only qualification was “a childhood love of cows.” She also displayed a paranoid style and a penchant for secrecy, deliberately conducting state business via her personal Yahoo e-mail account, so it wouldn’t be subject to Freedom of Information requests.

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Reformers are often prickly and driven, said David Frum in National Review Online. If you’re going to take on the establishment, a little “messianic zeal” comes in handy. Such figures sometimes have a tendency to be “paranoid and vindictive—because, after all, their enemies are enemies of the great cause.” But if properly channeled, their vision and passion “can accomplish great things.”

But some of Palin’s claims to be a pork-busting fiscal conservative are also crumbling under scrutiny, said Laura Meckler and John Wilke in The Wall Street Journal. We already knew that her claim to have said “thanks but no thanks” to the notorious Bridge to Nowhere pork project wasn’t quite accurate. It now turns out that, contrary to John McCain’s assertion that as governor Palin had never requested federal earmarks, she did ask for $453 million over the last two years—including funds for “a study of seal DNA.”

It’s not Palin’s record as governor that’s starting to concern even some conservatives, said David Brooks in The New York Times. Rather, it’s the growing sense that she simply hasn’t acquired enough experience, enough “wisdom,” to take on the critical role of vice president. Palin has been presented as “the ultimate small-town renegade rising from the frontier.” I would be more seduced by such a prospect “if I hadn’t just lived through the last eight years.” Palin, like President Bush, exhibits a worrying tendency to “compensate for her lack of experience with brashness and excessive decisiveness.” Experience isn’t everything, of course, but it does create prudence—the ability to wade through complexities and make smart decisions. And remember, “democracy is not average people selecting average leaders. It is average people with the wisdom to select the best prepared.”

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