For a precious few moments, the presidential campaign wasn't about Sarah Palin's hairstyle or her Naughty Monkey red shoes or her daughter's pregnancy.
Charlie Gibson was all business during three interviews with the Alaska governor last week, pressing her on her qualifications to take over as president and her knowledge of national and international issues. The ABC anchor navigated a minefield in which he would have been slammed for going easy on America's newest celebrity and denounced if he were seen as hectoring her. When he finally got around to asking what everyone in America has been debating -- how can she juggle five kids and the vice presidency? -- Gibson prefaced it by saying, "Is that a sexist question to ask?"
No national candidate in modern history, not even Hillary Clinton, has ever been lambasted and lionized in quite the way Palin is. Why, for instance, do so many journalists feel compelled to mention her looks? Why are her family choices at the center of a noisy, cable-driven debate? Why are some Republicans convinced that the media apply a different standard to conservative women -- and journalists just as convinced that legitimate reporting is being written off as sexist snobbery?
Gibson managed to cut through that static. Instead of the touchy-feely stuff, there were questions about Iraq, Pakistan, Russia, abortion, gun control and global warming. Gibson did no grandstanding, even as he followed up on questions three or four times. And if he seemed like an unsmiling professor peering over his glasses at an earnest graduate student, well, the first time a vice presidential nominee submits to journalistic scrutiny is an oral exam of sorts.
"The headlines are about her answers, not Charlie's interview, and that was our goal from the start," ABC Senior Vice President Jeffrey Schneider says.
The McCain camp decided early that Palin's first interview should go to one of the network anchors, so she would be seen as hitting major-league pitching before a large audience. Gibson, 65, was viewed as fair-minded, McCain aides said, in part because of the way he has handled several interviews with President Bush. The plan is to give CBS's Katie Couric a chance later on, and perhaps NBC's Brian Williams as well.