11/04/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Post-Mortem of the Debate Post-Mortem: Trying to Refrain from Questioning Pat Buchanan's Motives.

Towards the end of last Thursday's vice presidential debate, Joe Biden was asked to explain how he would change the tone of political discourse in Washington. Biden eloquently described a moment when as a young senator who was furious with his colleague Jesse Helms. Apparently, Biden began percolating theories about the dark inner working of Helms's psyche. Another senator, Mike Mansfield pulled Biden aside and chided, "Joe, understand one thing. Everyone's sent here for a reason, because there's something in them that their folks like. Don't question their motive." It was a teaching moment for Biden that has remained with him during his decades in elected office. Where is my Mike Mansfield? Would that I could rise to the spiritual plain of taking views at face value. But it's clear that I'm not there yet. Consider my confession.

In their debate on Thursday, Sarah Palin was unwilling to address herself to a single question. She had the temerity to inform both Biden and the moderator, Gwen Ifill, "I'm not going to answer the questions the way you want me to" and then, dawgonit, went on her winking and cliché spewing way. When Biden contested her views on healthcare with what he took to be the financial details of the proposed McClain plan, Palin ignored him and blithely skipped on to another topic. Palin and her maverick mate are going to reform Washington. How? No clue. No specifics. Mangled grammar and all, it was a performance worthy of the movie Idiocracy.

Amazingly enough, some pundits piped in that Palin exceeded all expectations. True, the expectations were curb level to begin with. Still, David Brooks gasped, "By the end of the debate, most Republicans were not crouching behind the couch, but standing on it. The race has not been transformed, but few could have expected as vibrant and tactically clever a performance as the one Sarah Palin turned in Thursday night."

After effusing about Palin's appearance, MSNBC commentator, Pat Buchanan went beyond Brooks and burbled: "Palin was sensational tonight. She not only met the expectations. I think she wiped up the floor with Joe Biden, quite frankly." Buchanan continued, praising Palin's "fresh voice" and " new vocabulary." The slogan parrot is a fresh voice? Excuse me, but how could anyone with half a brain come to that conclusion? Perhaps it's when we are befuddled by surface meanings that we begin to look for motives.

In one of her rhetorical riffs, Palin pleaded,"Let's have some straight talk." Lets do that. Either Buchanan is a dolt, or, ...well...(and here's where I need my Mike Mansfield)...or we might think about understanding Pat's wild over-evaluation of one of Obama's opponents as emanating from the same inner voice as Buchanan's now infamous, "I thought Amos 'n' Andy was a great show, didn't you?"

For me, Gwen Ifill poses another temptation to ignore the Mansfield/ Biden wisdom. The week before the debate Republicans strategically moaned that Ifill was soon to publish a book, The Breakthrough:The Politics of Race in the Age of Obama. She must then, they complained, surely be in the tank for Obama. It was a clear case of working the refs and it worked. Ifill over-reacted to the controversy. When Palin decided she would only answer the questions on the cue cards in her noggin, Ifill should have gently nudged, "Thank you Governor but could you kindly repeat your response to the question that I posed." But the moderator demurred. Why?

Plato taught that one of the greatest temptations in life is the desire to be liked. In my benighted, motive seeking state, I can't help but think that Ifilll's silence was an expression of her fear that after the squabble about the book, her reputation would be tainted for being too hard on Palin. Ifill was so afraid of appearing unjust that she could not do justice to her job as moderator. But there I go again, speculating about motives.