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Palin vs. Couric: Recounting the Infamous 2008 Campaign Interview

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Much ado has been made about Sarah Palin going one-on-one Tuesday against former CBS new anchor Katie Couric on "Today" and "Good Morning America," respectively. In this exclusive excerpt from Geoffrey Dunn's bestselling The Lies of Sarah Palin: The Untold Story Behind Her Relentless Quest for Power, Dunn recounts the backdrop to the Couric interviews and Palin's duplicitous account of events.

In what would come to have lasting implications far beyond the 2008 presidential campaign--Tina Faye's mimicry of this event on Saturday Night Live would become a cultural icon--Sarah Palin was slated to undergo her second round of anchor interviews, this time with Katie Couric of the CBS Nightly News. By all accounts, including Palin's own, the Couric interviews were a disaster. Almost overnight, whatever propellant Palin had brought to the McCain ticket had become an unequivocal anchor. Sarah Palin was sinking--and she was sinking fast. She had become a national laughingstock--a joke, a punch line, an object of seemingly endless ridicule--and she would never make it back to the surface for the duration of the campaign. The numbers suddenly turned strongly against her, never to return. "We were beginning to see in our research not merely a cooling off in terms of people's views of Palin," David Plouffe observed, "but downright concern about her qualification."

Long afterwards, long after snippets of the interviews were played millions and millions of times on news feeds and internet web sites, Palin would blame others for her manifest failures during the Nightly News interviews. She came up with several spins--most of them directed at Couric and McCain media strategist Nicolle Wallace--and a series of fabricated scenarios about the interviews that bare no resemblance to the truth. She would bitterly refer to Couric "as the lowest rated news anchor in network television" with "a partisan agenda" who hammered Palin with "repetitive, biased questions." In fact, Palin's startling series of faux pas throughout the Couric interviews were all of her own making.

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It was a long established strategy to have Palin participate in prime-time interviews with all three of the major network anchors in the hope that they would establish Palin as a national heavyweight with vice-presidential gravitas. By placing her in the same television frame with the anchors, McCain's strategists were also hoping to erase the novelty of her nomination, to shove her through that first hoop of popular acceptance beyond which she so desperately needed to pass.

Schmidt had called in his trusted aide Wallace to help Palin navigate through the interviews. He thought they would be a good match. Wallace had earned her conservative stripes serving as Communications Director in the Bush White House. And while she was a decade younger than Palin, she also had major media credibility through her stint as a national political analyst with CBS. Like Palin, she was tough, could play hardball with the guys, and she was loyal--to Bush and McCain and also to Schmidt. As it turned out, she proved to be a severe threat to Palin. What Schmidt could not have known is that Palin usually surrounds herself with sycophants and is profoundly threatened by women who are smarter than her and who can in any way contest her authority or celebrity. Wallace, just by her presence and her resume, brought out the worst in Palin. "She hated me from the beginning," Wallace said bluntly afterward. It was a match made in hell.

Palin would go so far in Going Rogue to contend that the Couric interviews were an inside job orchestrated by Wallace as a favor to a friend:

Nicolle went on to explain that Katie really needed a career boost. "She just has such low self-esteem," Nicolle said. She added that Katie was going through a tough time. "She just feels she can't trust anybody."

It is a contention that is prima facia absurd. Why would Wallace have tried in any way to sabotage a candidate for whom she was dedicating her life? Palin never provides an answer. "The whole notion there was a conversation where I tried to cajole her into a conversation with Katie is fiction," Wallace would assert in an interview with Rachel Madow. "I am not someone who throws around the word 'self-esteem.' It is a fictional description. Katie Couric was selected because we did evening anchors. I did not advocate an interview for anyone I am friends with."

In her widely celebrated appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Palin would further contend that her encounter with Couric "was supposed to be kind of light-hearted, fun working mom speaking with working mom and the challenges that we have with teenage daughters." It was another bold-face lie. Sarah Palin was seeking the second-highest position in the land. Couric--whose extensive celebrity and resume also posed a threat to Palin--was her second scheduled interview with the anchors. The first major segment of the interview was scheduled in front of the United Nations on a day that Palin was in New York City trying to beef up her foreign policy credentials with photo-op meetings with the likes of Henry Kissinger and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. How and why Palin could contend the interview was supposed to be anything otherwise, said one McCain advisor, "is nothing less than ludicrous."

Wallace also issued a formal disclaimer. "We set up this interview on the day of the U.N. General Assembly with a walk-and-talk in front of the U.N.," Wallace asserted. "It was never made as two working gals. It's either rationalization or justification or fiction. That was supposed to be to highlight her foreign policy savvy....The picture is in front of the U.N. to highlight her expertise and readiness to be Vice President--it wasn't about 'two working gals'."

According to McCain advisors, the deep background to this story had nothing to do with Katie Couric or Nicolle Wallace and everything to do with Sarah Palin--her ego and eccentricities, her self-absorption and her inability to see the bigger picture. She could never see beyond herself.

By the time of the Couric interviews--they were conducted during the week of September 21--[McCain senior strategist] Steve Schmidt had developed strong concerns about Palin. He saw her up side--an "innate ability" to connect with the base, as he would put it, that gave the GOP a significant post-convention surge--but he had also grown both wary and weary of her intellectual shortcomings and also of her capacity to lie and to deceive. He felt that she had made it through the Gibson interview relatively unscathed--"not an A," certainly, but no "significant damage" either--and he wanted her to engage in significant preparation in advance of her encounter with Couric.

Palin refused. She had already flung herself into combat mode with McCain "headquarters," as she dubbed it. She was focused on other matters. According to Schmidt, Palin "refused to prep for the Couric interview. She did not prepare for it." She had become obsessed with a series of fourteen questions presented by her hometown paper, the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, with a circulation of little more than 6,000. She willfully refused to focus on the Couric interview and, instead, excoriated her staff for their handling of the newspaper's questions, to which she responded in great detail. (The following day, banner headlines in the paper triumphed: "Frontiersman Exclusive--Palin Responds to Questions").

Palin would also contend that CBS had edited the interviews in such a way as to make her look foolish and to distort her responses. "When I saw the final cut," Palin asserted, "it was clear that CBS sought out the bad moments, and systematically sliced out material that would accurately convey my message." If true, it wouldn't be the first time that a deft touch of an editor's hand had significantly altered an interview.

But the fact of the matter is, the four most devastating moments in the Couric interviews--her inability to identify a single Supreme Court decision with which she disagreed; her failure to name a newspaper or magazine that she read; her sarcastic response of "I'll try to find you some and I'll bring 'em to ya," to Couric asking her for an example of McCain pushing for economic regulation in the senate; and, perhaps most importantly, her bizarre series of non sequiturs in response to a question about the economy--are all clearly unedited, single-take responses. Palin looked alternately confused, angry and disoriented throughout the interviews--the proverbial deer in the headlights--and many of the questions over which she tripped were softballs that any high school senior should have been able to answer. There wasn't a "gotcha" moment in the bunch.

What is fascinating about re-viewing the entirety of the Couric interviews is how direct and straightforward Couric remains throughout--at some points you feel her even trying to be helpful to Palin--and how uninformed, even childish, Palin appears in almost every question. At one point Palin breaks into a pre-adolescent response to a query about McCain's credibility on the economy--never one to be tripped over by facts, she defiantly declares, "I'm not looking at poll numbers." It is an embarrassment from beginning to end.

Palin could never find solid footing with Couric. She refused to answer questions directly. She was evasive, combative, even hostile. She continued to look down, as if hoping to pull some answer from the ground. The most widely replayed--and satirized--answer by Palin was her response to a question posed by Couric on the $700 billion stimulus package then before Congress. The way Couric framed it should have been a perfect pitch for Palin's supposed populist sensibilities. Instead she butchered it. Palin's comments on the bailout are remarkable to read in their entirety. There's not a single jump-cut in the response, and the transcript below is verbatim:

Palin: That's why I say I, like every American I'm speaking with, we're ill about this position that we have been put in where it is the taxpayers looking to bail out. But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the health-care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy, helping the....uh, oh, it's got to be all about job creation, too, shoring up our economy and putting it back on the right track. So health-care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans. And trade, we've got to see trade as opportunity, not as a competitive, um, scary thing. But one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today, we've got to look at that as more opportunity. All those things under the umbrella of job creation. This bailout is a part of that.

In Tina Faye's brilliant parody of Palin's ramblings on Saturday Night Live--she did not change a single word--one nevertheless loses the frantic, if not deranged quality of Palin's response. In a blistering condemnation of McCain's vice-presidential selection, conservative Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria described Palin's answer as "a vapid emptying out of every catchphrase about economics that came into her head."

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CNN political analyst Jack Cafferty was even more direct. "If John McCain wins, this woman will be one 72-year-old's heart beat away from being President of the United States," Cafferty angrily declared, "and if that doesn't scare the hell out of you, it should." He characterized the CBS interview as "one of the most pathetic tapes I have ever seen from someone aspiring to one of the highest offices in this country." When Wolf Blitzer tried to temper Cafferty's candor by noting "she's cramming a lot of information...," Cafferty shot back: "There's no excuse for this. She's supposed to know a little bit of this. Don't make excuses for her; that's pathetic."

While Palin admitted that her performance in the Couric interviews "had let the team down," she never acknowledged that she had failed to prepare for them. She also included what she clearly thought was a damning cameo coming at the conclusion of one of the interview sessions: "As I walked away," Palin observed, "I glanced back and saw Nicolle and Katie share a friendly hug. Then they posed for pictures."

Sarah Palin claimed to have been the victim of a conspiracy.

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Award-winning writer and filmmaker Geoffrey Dunn's best-selling The Lies of Sarah Palin: The Untold Story Behind Her Relentless Quest for Power was published by Macmllan/St. Martin's in May of 2011.