If Sarah Palin wants to a be a serious candidate for president, she must master one thing above all else: above knowing the issues, above building her base and above reconciling with the corner of Republican leadership who see her as a toxic mix of ambition and self-destructive unpredictability.
She must master the media.
So far, it looks like she's been letting the media play her, offering an awkward, stream-of-consciousness rant to justify her abdication of the Alaska governorship that made her look slightly unhinged when carved down to the requisite soundbites for TV and wire copy.
Subsequent interviews released today with CNN and NBC News haven't helped much, scheduled during a family fishing trip in a distant corner of Alaska (watching her mangle phrases like "forwarding our agenda forward" left me wondering whether anyone suggesting she might get a TV pundit's gig has actually watched her speak on camera).
She has blamed media outlets for picking on her -- and there's little doubt she's faced a few cheap shots. But she's also faced some serious reporting unmasking substantial problems in her candidacy for vice president, which she hasn't really addressed (to say nothing of calling a major press conference at the last minute on a 4th of July weekend, then barring reporters who showed up late).
Now, her lawyer has sent a letter to big media outlets warning them they may face legal action if they report on rumors tossed around by some bloggers and pundits that she is being investigated for actions taken during construction of the Wasilla Sports Complex, or may be investigated for embezzlement. Full text here.
Why can I write these words with little fear of a lawsuit? Because I'm just repeating details Palin's lawyer brought up himself. Just as every other mainstream journalist who reports on this letter has done.
Which only makes my point for me: Palin must learn to better master the media, instead of letting it master her.
Any consultant with a few weeks experience could have told her what that letter was really going to do; at best, it has sparked dozens of stories explaining why Palin felt the need to send it in the first place, questioning whether she really values fair press coverage of her actions. At worst, it will snark off big news outlets enough that they will start looking even harder at any allegations, giving reporters even more incentive to dig into her activities and sparking more incisive coverage.
Either way, Palin loses.
I've often felt Palin's biggest problem is that she is the Darwinian result from years of Republican message success. Democratic messages only seem to work for individually talented politicians -- Jimmy Carter played the trust card post-Nixon, Bill Clinton claimed the end of big government, Barack Obama promised change you can believe in.
But Republicans have crafted a message which can fit everyone from George W. Bush to Mark Sanford, Michelle Bachmann and Palin; a family-first, America-best blizzard of code words which used to be all you needed to cruise past dysfunctional Democrats to electoral wins in post-9/11 America.
No more. That much was obvious from Palin's painful Friday press conference, where she strung together a litany of catch phrases and aphorisms that ultimately left many pundits wondering exactly why she was leaving office.
Her speech referenced "political operatives" who descended upon Alaska digging for dirt, filing ethics charges against her which cost a hefty sum to fight. She referenced continuing the fight for "all our childrens' futures" from outside the Governor's mansion. She didn't offer a lot of details; another way to ensure the media muddies the waters by providing its own half-baked speculation.
She may balk at taking his stimulus money, but Palin should take a few pointers from the modern master of the news media, President Barack Obama. Obama rarely hectors news outlets, instead maneuvering them into situations where reporters would look like tremendous jerks by being aggressive or incisive.
Are you going to press the president on his transparency flip-flops when he's invited you to do a newscast from the East Wing? Can you get in his face about unrealistically low cost projections for health care when you're conducting a town hall from his living room and airing four different newscasts from the White House? But strand a hyper, perpetually overworked reporter outside the governor's mansion while you're making national news inside, and you'll get plenty of tough pushback (don't even talk about making them trudge out to the edge of the Aleutian Islands for a sit down, like Palin did yesterday).
In truth, Palin's biggest shortcomings are painfully obvious; she doesn't have much experience, she doesn't have a coherent plan to sell herself as a national leader and she hasn't yet learned how to play well with the GOP's biggest power brokers. Even George W. Bush knew populism can only get you so far in the Republican party; Palin seems to be resisting that lesson to her detriment.
Until Palin learns how to handle the press better, she will continue to suffer from these self-inflicted wounds -- gashes she can blame on an overzealous press, but that really lie in her own inability to tell a better story than the national press provides.
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