Sarah Palin's Charles Gibson Interview—We Know She Can Memorize the Talking Points, but Does She Understand Them?

Before getting in position to be president, you should actually think through the job of being president.


Talking points will only take you so far.

Last night the governor of Alaska sounded less like the Palin-ator (an implacable political force sent to save the Republican Party) than a robot struggling to handle inputs for which it was not programmed. And that illustrates a critical aspect of the "experience" issue—being prepared to assume the presidency involves in part thinking through how to be president in a manner the goes beyond crammed talking points.

It's the difference between teaching students to learn by rote—"teaching to the test"—and teaching them how to think through problems. You can try (clumsily) to bend talking points to face Charlie Gibson, but you're not going to be able to do so to face the real crises of the presidency.

The first parts of the Gibson interviews gave no indication that she has given serious thought to how to run the country. Instead we got talking points about how she's "wired." (I don't need experience, I have leadership pre-programmed!)

There were a few genuinely painful (and perhaps scary) moments.

The Bush Doctrine flub has been widely discussed, though as I wrote earlier (and James Fallows also notes), the media reports understate the depths of her ignorance on the issue.

Less noted was Gibson's asking about her comment that, as governor of Alaska, she hadn't been focused on Iraq. Palin responded:

Of course I've been focused on the war, of course I've been, as every American has been, since 9/11.

Ummm, one problem there, governor: We haven't been at war with Iraq since 9/11. To be fair, John McCain was focused on Iraq from the start. (Side note: Palin, so far as I can tell, has never been to Iraq; McCain spent weeks arguing that Barack Obama's not having been to Iraq recently disqualified him from making judgments about Iraq—since she has never been is she then also not qualified to discuss the topic?)

Then there was the exchange about Russia. McCain has argued that Alaska's proximity to Russia qualifies as foreign-policy experience for Palin.

PALIN: ... 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.

GIBSON: What insight into Russian actions, particularly in the last couple of weeks, does the proximity of the state give you?

PALIN: They're our next door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.

It's almost as if his question—what insight has that proximity given you—was an ignored interruption of her talking point.

She tried to salvage, but did so with a nonsequitur:

GIBSON: What insight does that give you into what they're doing in Georgia?

PALIN: 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. 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.

Watching her grasp for her talking points at times called to mind Spinal Tap ("But this one goes to 11!") This was especially clear when asked about Israel. See if you can pick out her talking point (emphasis mine):

GIBSON: What if Israel decided it felt threatened and needed to take out the Iranian nuclear facilities?

PALIN: Well, first, we are friends with Israel and I don't think that we should second guess the measures that Israel has to take to defend themselves and for their security.

GIBSON: So if we wouldn't second guess it and they decided they needed to do it because Iran was an existential threat, we would cooperative or agree with that.

PALIN: I don't think we can second guess what Israel has to do to secure its nation.

GIBSON: So if it felt necessary, if it felt the need to defend itself by taking out Iranian nuclear facilities, that would be all right.

PALIN: We cannot second guess the steps that Israel has to take to defend itself.

Now we know why they've kept her away from the press for two weeks.