In Search of Sarah Palin

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Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty

Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin on Monday

Watching Joe Biden buzz from network to network post debate, you had to wonder one more time: As she prepares for her own big night, is Sarah Palin's worst enemy now the McCain campaign?

Post-debate spin would have been a natural for her; a chance to be sharp and funny and charming and not worry that some interviewer would ambush her, since any pointed questions aimed at her could be brushed back with a breezy, "Hey, I have to wait my turn; tune in next Thursday. Tonight was John's night."

But once again she was nowhere to be found, and that seemed especially odd given the rough week she'd had. She sat down with Henry Kissinger and various world leaders in New York, in meetings that were initially open to cameras but closed to reporters until the networks threatened to boycott the whole thing. The encounters thus came off as substance free, though the new President of Pakistan did declare her "even more gorgeous" than he'd expected and suggested he'd like to hug her. She summed up her global speed date Wednesday: "It's going great," she said. "The meetings are very informative and helpful. A lot of good people share an appreciation for America."

Her big interview of the week, with CBS News anchor Katie Couric, was sufficiently cringe-making to inspire conservative columnist Kathleen Parker to conclude sadly that for the good of the ticket and the country, Palin should declare she wants to spend more time with her family and step down. And watching her with Couric, you had to wonder what happened to the spirited, sparkling character who swept onstage in St. Paul and turned the race upside down.

In the month or so since then she has been in lockdown, either lashed to McCain's side to boost the size of his crowds, or hunkered down in debate prep and remedial candidate school. No press conferences, few interviews, no questions allowed from the reporters traveling with her, no appearances on The View to stare down Joy Behar. Rather than playing to her strengths as a fresh face in an unendurably long campaign, they hid her away in a kind of conspicuous vote of no-confidence — which, one can only imagine, took a toll on her. I was struck watching her in St. Paul, where she appeared after five days of relentless media pressure and blew the doubts away, that she had the jauntiness of one who knew her own gifts: knew she could connect to a crowd and raise the roof and stomp her opponent with her sensible high heels. And of course, benefit from her critics' instinct to underestimate her.

Now that confidence seems gone, replaced by cockiness — which is just insecurity on steroids. With Charlie Gibson the waters were smooth if shallow; with Katie Couric she seemed forever at risk of drowning in her own syntax. But if she's growing less surefooted with each passing day of cramming, who can blame her, when the highly experienced Republican pols around her don't seem to trust her to talk past her talking points. Talk about undermining your brand; if she was picked as the Outsider Original Maverick with the experience and courage to help clean up Washington, you can't argue that she's not giving interviews because the press is so mean to her. She's ready for a cage fight with Nancy Pelosi but won't sit down with Campbell Brown?

In fact it got so bad that CNN's Brown called on the McCain team to free Sarah Palin, denouncing their use of her as sexist and infantilizing. "Stop treating Sarah Palin like she is a delicate flower who will wilt at any moment," Brown argued. "This woman is from Alaska for crying out loud. She is strong, she is tough, she is confident. And you claim she is ready to be one heartbeat away from the presidency. If that is the case, then end this chauvinistic treatment of her now. ... Sarah Palin has as much a right to be a real candidate in this race as the men do."

The XX Factor bloggers over at Slate have been carrying on a lively argument about how Palin has been deployed and what that tells us. "I'm guessing part of the reason the Palin effect is fading so fast is that they've tried so hard to turn her into a pet — adorable, as you say, but mute," Hanna Rosin argued. "So now she's fetching but useless. And who else could we blame but her male handlers? It can't possibly be her choice. One suspects she would love to take the liberal media on, given the chance." But Dahlia Lithwick counters that this argument diminishes Palin just as much. "Why do we keep talking about women as though they lack any agency? Are we really going to condemn the McCain campaign for treating her as an object, with demands that they "free" her? I understand why smart women in the media are enraged with Palin's refusal to engage them. It's appalling. But I don't think it's good for women to direct that rage at her male keepers, handlers, or advisers, either."

All I know is that with each passing day, Palin's road gets harder, the expectations higher, the margin for error smaller. For voters who were encouraged to see a woman on the ticket for the first time in nearly a quarter century, it's discouraging that Election Day fast approaches and we still know so little about Palin's reflexes and principles and priorities. Hurling a newcomer onto the national stage with two months to go and then hiding her behind photo ops and teleprompters is a disservice to her, and to women, and to voters who want to know what they're buying.

(See Photos of Sarah Palin on the campaign trail)
(See photos of the rise of Sarah Palin here)