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Jerry Weissman Headshot

Sarah's Smiles

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Watching Sarah Palin's behavior -- her upbeat energetic delivery, replete with smiles, winks, and other assorted facial expressions -- during the debate with Joe Biden reminded me of a passage from the bestselling book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, by Oliver Sacks, a prominent neurologist and psychiatrist as well as an author.

Dr. Sacks described his work with aphasic patients. In one incident, he entered a ward to find most of the patients there watching President Ronald Reagan deliver a speech on television and laughing at him hysterically. Dr. Sacks explained, "Why all this? Because speech -- natural speech -- does not consist of words alone...It consists of utterance -- an uttering-forth of one's whole meaning with one's whole being -- the understanding of which involves infinitely more than mere word-recognition. And this was the clue to aphasics' understanding, even when they might be wholly uncomprehending of words as such."

The post-debate reaction has predictably fallen along party lines, Democrats thought Biden had won, and Republicans thought Palin had won; yet virtually all the commentators, including many Democrats, agreed that Sarah Palin's presentation was effective. But what was also universally agreed, even by some Republicans, was that Palin did not answer moderator Gwen Ifill's questions, while Biden did. The transcript of the debate presents a stark contrast between Palin's rambling canned non-answers and Biden's informed thorough on-point responses.

Unsurprisingly, Democrats were critical of Palin, while Republicans were forgiving. In the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan wrote, "Her syntax did not hold, but her magnetism did." In the San Francisco Chronicle, Debra Saunders wrote, "Sure, she had moments when she seemed to be working too hard trying to remember what she was supposed to say so she awkwardly regurgitated a string of campaign buzz words. Who cares?"

In any other walk of life other than politics, not answering questions would result in "a failure to communicate," that memorable line from one of the late Paul Newman's best films, Cool Hand Luke.

But in politics, presentation matters. David Kusnet, the chief speechwriter for Bill Clinton, wrote, "people don't parse debate transcripts; they watch the show on their TV screens. Palin looked and sounded friendly, funny, and confident."

After all, Barack Obama came out of obscurity four years ago on the strength of a single sixteen-minute and twenty-five second speech. Sarah Palin's sudden ascent to fame also came on the wings of a single speech, as did her near-death dive as a result of her disastrous television interviews with CBS's Katie Couric.

Did Sarah's smiles in the debate reverse her and her party's fortunes?