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Guess who was tougher

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Special to The Times

The Interview to Nowhere began with Charlie Gibson, specs low, sternly asking Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin if she had what it took to be vice president and potentially president. Caving in, the poor woman admitted she did.

Oh, yeah, now John McCain is in big trouble.

Get a grip, please, Barack Obamacrats. ABC News booked headliners Palin & Gibson for a gig whose last two acts aired after this commentary’s deadline. Palin wobbled at times, and we await the post-interview polls. From what I saw of Thursday’s “World News Tonight” and “Nightline” and Friday’s “Good Morning America,” however, there was no smoking gun, a metaphor Palin might appreciate. Well, what did we expect, that she’d pull a Capt. Queeg and bring out the ball bearings?

One segment of this road show was notable for its unintended wit. We pick it up with Gibson saying that when he earlier asked McCain if Palin had “national security credentials,” the GOP candidate cited Palin’s “command of the Alaska National Guard and that Alaska is close to Russia.”

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That was rich; in the privacy of their homes, even Republicans must have laughed. Later, after Palin claimed that advocating energy independence somehow gave her national security chops, Gibson asked, “What insights into Russian actions, particularly in the last couple of weeks” -- he meant the Russia/Georgia fracas -- “does the proximity of the state give you?” She explained, “They’re our next-door neighbors,” then added, “You can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska.”

Even my cat, who never laughs at my jokes, laughed at that.

On “Good Morning America,” where the interview was edited differently, Gibson asked Palin if she’d ever made a “command decision” related to the Guard. Her response: “We have called up guardsmen to work in other states. . . .” Again, such a hoot.

Shuffling papers for the Guard and peeping across the Bering Strait at Russia give Palin a grasp of national security issues? McCain forces have shrewdly accused the “elite media” of trying to “destroy” her, scarring attempts to examine her qualifications. Yet there are times when Democrats and Republicans spew such self-serving fantasy that nodding at it like a bobblehead comes up short. Gibson was efficient, at times even persistent. However, if ever he should have lasered in on Palin mercilessly, even at the risk of appearing a bully, brother this was it.

Not doing so reflected a culture of media acquiescence so pervasive on TV that when it occasionally shatters, surprised politicians can’t handle it.

Flash back to the GOP convention when the McCain campaign punitively canceled his scheduled sit-down with Larry King to protest an earlier CNN interview of McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds. To McCain, CNN’s sin was epic.

Best known herself for slow-pitch lobs, anchor Campbell Brown had unexpectedly reared back and thrown a high hard one that nicked Bounds’ chin: She aggressively pressed him about Palin’s suitability to be vice president and potentially president.

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Note, she did not ask if Sarah the vice president would be neglecting her responsibilities as Sarah the parent. Brown’s question was not sexist, motherhoodist, soccer momist, working classist, fishermanist or hunterist. And given the GOP buildup of Palin, shooting down Brown’s question should have been as easy as picking off a moose from the air. In a prologue to Palin & Gibson, what Brown wanted to know about Palin -- which seemed reasonable -- was “what foreign policy experience she has.”

The nerve.

When Bounds went shifty and sought to pirouette out of range, repeatedly citing Palin’s Guard leadership as “command experience,” Brown called him on it. Much like Gibson with Palin, Brown challenged Bounds to name one Guard command decision the governor had made. One, just one.

Bounds sputtered and spun, appearing highly irritated that Brown had not followed the usual media script. How dare she break a commandment guiding TV interviews of candidates and their surrogates: Thou shalt not digress from the plug by aggressively challenging spin. Why, to do so would lead to chaos, possibly even a pandemic of actual (yikes) journalism.

So no wonder Terry McAuliffe, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s former campaign manager, had appeared taken aback himself when quizzed by Fox’s oft-pugnacious Greta Van Susteren in the previous week’s Democratic National Convention. Clinton had just given her much-touted speech urging support for Obama, “the very person,” noted Van Susteren, “she told [America] last spring didn’t have experience. What is Sen. Obama’s experience that he didn’t have last spring?” former trial attorney Van Susteren demanded. “What does he have now?”

Instead of answering the question she asked, McAuliffe fell back on Evasion Tactic No. 101 and answered one she didn’t ask, slamming McCain. No dice.

“The problem is,” Van Susteren interrupted, “she [Clinton] told the Democrats tonight to vote for Barack Obama. [So] it’s a fair question.” Not only fair, but logical and essential.

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“People say things to win primaries,” McAuliffe said.

“If that’s true,” Van Susteren came back, “and Sen. McCain does the same thing” -- this was before Palin became his running mate -- “that’s telling all the voters that we’re all pretty much had during this primary process. That we should all just forget about paying any attention if they’re going to say one thing during the primary, and then say, ‘Oh, never mind. I meant this.’ ”

Bear-hugging his feeble talking points, McAuliffe replied only that “every single Democrat was better than John McCain.”

You’re permitted to snicker, for what Van Susteren had done was drive a stake through a basic assumption of candidates on the stump: Don’t worry about contradicting yourself, for much of the media -- most notably the TV crowd -- exhibits selective memories, amnesia or apathy when making you accountable for your rhetoric. Saying it came “in the heat of battle” is sufficient to assuage most of them.

However, truth is truth. If you put rouge and mascara on Quasimodo, what do you have? Still not a guy you’d want to date.

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Howard Rosenberg is the author, with Charles S. Feldman, of “No Time to Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-hour News Cycle.” howardrosenberg@notimetothink.com.

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