In Ron Howard’s movie adaptation of the play “Frost/Nixon,” a researcher on David Frost’s interviews with Richard Nixon marvels at television’s “reductive power” — the way the close-ups left behind an indelible image of those key moments that people remember, while the rest falls away.
Television anchors/hosts spend more time interviewing people now than at any time in the medium’s history. Amid the revolving door of talking heads, however, rarely does this parade of blather yield a truly significant, lasting exchange.
Such a seminal event did occur in the run-up to the 2008 election, during CBS News anchor Katie Couric’s chat with Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin — a scorching burst of clarity that will likely haunt the Alaska governor well beyond this year’s campaign.
Palin has engaged in her own extended post-election tour, with an obvious eye on rehabilitating her reputation and establishing her future viability on the national political stage. Yet looking through the TV lens as articulated within “Frost/Nixon,” television has already rendered its reductive verdict on Palin, and no matter how attractive she is — or how much breath Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity squander in her defense — the etched-in-video picture isn’t a pretty one.
It’s difficult to engage in such analysis, of course, without being instantly embraced or condemned on partisan grounds. Even so, millions came away from the much-replayed “CBS Evening News” interview with a hard-to-shake sense that Couric exposed the real Palin — a self-proclaimed “hockey mom” who stumbled into politics, had been propelled into the election spotlight for the most cynical of reasons and appeared to be in way, way over her head.
Interestingly, even some Palin defenders haven’t improved much on this perception. For example, National Review editor Rich Lowry (no relation, mercifully) quoted an anonymous McCain aide as saying of the campaign’s internal rift regarding Palin, “It’s the difference between considering her someone who lacks knowledge and someone who is incompetent, and they (the communications aides) treated her as the latter.”
At best, though, that sounds like splitting hairs. When auditioning for a job like “next in line for President of the United States,” one would theoretically hope the alternatives would be a bit better than “incompetent” or “lacks knowledge.”
Lowry’s chat with McCain campaign manager Rick Davis also support the theory that Palin and her people misjudged Couric — rather stunningly, given Couric’s track record of being able to conduct tough interviews, despite her fluffier morning-show credentials. According to Davis, they approached the interview as if “The CBS Evening News” was “Rachael Ray” or something, saying that Palin “was under the impression the Couric thing was going to be easier than it was” — a pretty demeaning assumption, especially coming from a candidate whose media allies cried “sexism” in response to those who concluded that she was incompetent, or lacked knowledge.
During a recent appearance on “Late Show With David Letterman,” Couric acknowledged that Palin was “struggling” with some of her answers. Letterman was characteristically less diplomatic about it, alluding to the Couric-Palin interview and the resonant image of the candidate as a deer (or if you prefer, moose) in the headlights.
“She did these interviews where they asked her to pick a letter in the alphabet — couldn’t do it,” he later quipped, to big laughs from his audience.
Time will pass, but first impressions do matter, and Palin has left behind a video record likely to dog her aspirations well into the future.
Post-campaign, meanwhile, the TV interview is quickly reverting to its short-term and more unsavory bag of tricks, almost literally. Diane Sawyer plays a minor role in “Frost/Nixon,” enjoying a front-row seat to history as a young aide to the former president. Now an ABC News heavyweight, her latest big “get” was a sit-down with Ashley Dupre, the photogenic former call girl featured in the scandal leading to New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s resignation.
Both Sarah Palin and Katie Couric will move on, but each carries a mark from Campaign ’08’s signature moment. For the at-times beleaguered and still ratings-challenged Couric, it offered if nothing else a bit of redemption. As for Palin, it may be only slightly better in the public consciousness than proclaiming, “I am not a crook.”