It was the bold Sarah Palin of the Republican convention who appeared last night for her debate with Joe Biden, not the shaky Palin of the Gibson and Couric interviews. But until a few minutes into the evening, it wasn’t clear which Palin would show up.
Those who detested Palin before were highly unlikely to be won over by her debate performance, although McCain supporters breathed a huge sigh of relief. But both groups were in agreement that she did “better than expected.”
The same had been true the night she stepped onto the stage of the convention and began to speak. But the Gibson and Couric interviews had demoralized even Palin’s staunchest supporters, who were puzzled by her lackluster performance and meandering syntax.
Some of the difference between the Sarah of the convention/debates and the Sarah of the interviews was the result of the interviewers’ “gotcha” questions, hostile demeanor, sometime use of unflattering camera angles, and editing designed to accentuate the impression of incoherence. But not all of it. There seemed to be something about those venues that made Palin unaccountably nervous and unusually garbled. In contrast, there was something about the circumstances of her speech before the convention and the debate with Biden that focused her energy and her mind.
Most people would probably find a live one-on-one debate against a seasoned opponent, held in front of a large auditorium crowd and a TV audience of many millions, far more stressful than a pre-recorded interview with a journalist. But Palin is not most people.
This is all the more remarkable because, unlike so many politicians, Palin is not a lawyer. Biden is, and so it stands to reason that he might feel far more comfortable with the type of thinking and argument required for a debate, and that Palin might be better in an interview.
But Palin is nothing if not a driving competitor. Those who like to mock her often hark back to her beauty contest days. But that was a brief endeavor compared to the venue in which she repeatedly honed her skills: basketball. Palin’s claim to fame in her school and college days was that she was an athlete.
Athletes thrive on competition with others, and are not afraid to get aggressive. They must remain confident even when the game is going against their team. They are required to perform under pressure and always in front of an audience, sometimes a hostile one. And they must do this even when physically exhausted or even injured.
By now nearly everyone is aware that Palin played on a championship high school basketball team and earned the nickname “Barracuda.” But it’s not so widely known that she scored the winning points at the end of the crucial game by nailing her free throws, and that she did so while playing with a stress fracture. Free throws require accuracy and the ability to calm down a racing heart in order to focus, while playing with that sort of injury shows courage and grit.
An athlete is not only a competitor; he or she is also a performer. It’s one thing to play the sport well in practice, when nothing is on the line and no one but the coach and your teammates are watching. It’s quite another to do so in front of a screaming audience out for blood, at least half of which may be rooting for you to choke.
Some athletes are known for raising the level of their game when it is most important, in the championship or the World Series or the Olympics. Some are notorious for shining during the season but folding in the big ones.
Palin’s convention speech was a crucial debut in her rookie year, much like pitching in the season opener before the largest audience of her life. The Biden debate was more like stepping to the mound in the eighth inning of the World Series with bases loaded and nobody out, with her team behind. With most of America watching, she struck out the side.
That doesn’t mean her team will win, however. There’s still at least another inning to go, and she’s not the closer.
In contrast, Palin’s interviews with Gibson and Couric put her off her game. There was no audience present; it had to be imagined and filled in later. Since Palin seems to be most at ease and even invigorated interacting with a real crowd, this may have been part of the reason for her unease in the interviews. In her speeches and in the debate she was especially effective when she addressed the people directly.
Something about having an interviewer as “filter” (even a friendly one such as Sean Hannity) seems to sap her very considerable energy. It also appears that she would much prefer the clarity of a debate, a game where she knows who her opponent is, rather than an interview in which the questioner can be an enemy masquerading as a friendly face.
Palin seems to be a quick learner, and no doubt will improve as she gets more experienced in the interview format. But since this is her rookie year and the season is nearly over, she may not have enough time for that. Still, the debate proved that the strength of her performance at the convention was no fluke, and that the rookie is very much a clutch player.