Sarah Palin made her unscripted debut tonight on ABC News. Those who already love her will probably think she was smashing, but anyone viewing her performance objectively will probably come away deeply concerned, if not aghast.
Deprived of the witty, biting speech she's been delivering in one form or another for the past week, Governor Palin had to rely on her own knowledge and political instincts. Generally speaking, the latter did not fail her, but the former came up woefully short.
Charlie Gibson grilled a nervous Palin on foreign policy and energy. Tomorrow, his series of interviews continues, presumably on domestic issues and questions about her family, and her record in office. I thought he was tough and persistent, in a calm, understated way, but certainly fair.
It became clear, fairly quickly, that Palin really is in over her head. She displayed little grasp of major international issues, even the simplest ones. Admittedly, American foreign policy is incredibly complex, but one would expect the governor of our country's vastest state, one that borders two foreign countries, to know the basics. Having traveled with Governor Schwarzenegger to both China and Mexico, I can guarantee you he knows far more about foreign affairs than his Alaskan counterpart does, and less than five years ago, he was a Hollywood actor (of course, he was born in Austria, which gave him a head start).
What stunned me the most was that Governor Palin had no idea what the Bush Doctrine was. It seemed as if she'd never even heard of it. Granted, most Americans probably couldn't explain it on demand, either, but they're not governors and they're not running for vice president. I'm sure most American high school students could though, since they've probably had to write about it on social studies tests, just as we had to explain the Monroe Doctrine or the Truman Doctrine once upon a time.
Considering that President Bush outlined his radical shift from previous American policies of deterrence and containment - to one of unilateral, pre-emptive strikes - in a major speech to a joint session of Congress after the September 11th attacks, a speech that millions upon millions of Americans watched, I was flabbergasted to see Sarah Palin stare blankly at Gibson when he asked if she agrees with it. She stammered through an answer that laid her ignorance bare, to the point that Gibson finally had to explain it for her. The McCain spinmeisters can play this however they like, but few unbiased viewers will see it their way.
Now, in all likelihood, most American voters probably won't be bothered by Palin's shaky answers on this and other key questions (when asked by Gibson what insights into recent Russian policies Palin has gained from Alaska's proximity to Russia, the governor gushed, "They're our neighbors! You can actually see Russia from some of the land in Alaska!"
Maybe she mind-melds with potato farmers while gazing out from the Aleutians towards Kamchatka). The voters already inclined to like Sarah Palin don't care about the Bush Doctrine, haven't met any foreign heads of state either, and probably don't have passports. They will respond to her confidence and spunkiness, and will probably get mad at Charlie Gibson for being mean to her. So it remains to be seen if media criticism, and the negative headlines that will no doubt be generated by the blistering attacks I assume the Obama campaign will unleash tomorrow, will dull any of Palin's sudden sheen.
In fact, the timing of this may work against Obama, because he plans to start ignoring Palin, and to refocus his campaign against McCain. Now the next 24 hours will be dominated by reaction to the Palin interviews instead, not to mention the landfall of Hurricane Ike.
But any American who cares about this country should watch these interviews, with deepening worry. Palin came off as an ill-informed hawk, someone who will be forced to rely on the knowledge and judgment of others when it comes to critical matters of national survival. That sounds an awful lot like the president 80% of the country thinks has done a terrible job, and considering that Palin's being advised by some of the same architects of his foreign policy - the one she'd never heard of - it's going to take more than lipstick for the McCain campaign to pretty this one up.