Desperately Seeking Sarah

By Gilbert Garcia

In politics as in professional wrestling, much of the important stuff is preordained.

For instance, in the hours leading up to Sarah Palin's acceptance speech at last month's Republican Convention, you just knew that the bowling pins were being lined up for a major triumph. Young, untested Alaska governor endures cruel media attacks on her family and introduces herself to the nation in front of an adoring GOP crowd that despises the news media and desperately seeks a new face for American conservatism. That story wrote itself. How could she fail?

Last night's VP debate had some of the same written-in-advance quality about it. Palin had been dogged so intensely about her interview disasters, and her own party's reps had lowered expectations so far below sea level, any hint of a pulse, any demonstration of a functioning mind, would be spun as a brilliant return to form.

So this morning we're hearing that Palin was feisty, confident, playful, in command, and charming. Pat Buchanan went on MSNBC and gushed that she was "sensational," adding that she "wiped the floor" with Joe Biden. Various Fox and CNN talking heads said that Palin had reminded Americans why they fell in love with her in the first place (it says a lot about the dizzying pace of our current news cycles that you can attempt a comeback only a month after people first heard of you).

Maybe I'm a stone-hearted outlier, but I thought Palin was simply awful last night. Not awful in the easy-to-soundbite (and easy-to-parody) way she was in her Katie Couric interviews, but in a deeper, more troubling way. For the most part, she came off like an eager student-council candidate, determined to prove she's a serious adult, but unable to spew out anything beyond talking-points gibberish.

She avoided questions at every turn, brazenly turning the subject back to Alaska's oil reserves. She filled time with inanities along the lines of "I"m so encouraged to know that we both love Israel," and "John McCain is a maverick; he's known as a maverick." She attacked Barack Obama's voting record on taxes and funding American troops, but when Biden attempted to critique McCain's mistakes on Iraq, she abruptly decided that Americans don't want to dwell on the past and "play the blame game."

It was highly revealing that on global warming she not only continued the same illogical train of thought she introduced with Katie Couric -- that whatever the cause of global warming, it's here and we need to do something about it (doesn't the cause determine what our solution needs to be?) -- she even repeated the same mangled phrase she used then: "I'm not one to attribute every activity of man to the changes in the climate." Obviously, she meant the reverse, that she doesn't attribute every change in climate to the activities of man, but she's so tightly scripted, she can't even fix her own malapropisms from one setting to the next.

Her vaunted folksiness seemed cartoonish and hammy, with multiple winks and eye pops, repeated use of phrases such as "darn right" and "doggone it," and cluelessly incongruous grins (the oddest one came after Biden's emotional reference to the auto accident that killed his first wife and daughter, and left his two sons in critical condition).

Biden was efficient and restrained, avoiding what must have been an overwhelming temptation to smirk. It says a lot about Palin's substance deficit that Biden refrained from correcting her when she twice called Afghanistan commanding general David McKiernan "McClellan," but she found it necessary to inform him that the correct chant of oil-exploration enthusiasts is "Drill, baby, drill."

It's nice to know that she's focusing on the important details.


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