Sarah Palin’s performance in her CBS News interviews has been so poor that one can’t avoid speculating about the depth of her ignorance. As I noted earlier, the Republican vice-presidential nominee can’t be faulted for fumbling Charlie Gibson’s pompous question about the Bush Doctrine in her ABC News interview, because there’s no consensus about what the “Bush Doctrine” even is. (Click here and here to read essays by Charles Krauthammer that provide two contradictory definitions—neither of them Gibson’s.) But Palin’s befuddled nonanswers to Katie Couric’s questions (click here, here, here, here, and here) raise too many questions. Was she really unsure about the meaning or proper pronunciation of the word caricature? Had she truly failed to notice that John McCain jumped down Barack Obama’s throat when Obama publicly proposed attacking al-Qaida in Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal regions? Why couldn’t she name a single newspaper or magazine that she read on a regular basis before being tapped for the national ticket? Why couldn’t she name a single Supreme Court decision she disagreed with apart from Roe v. Wade? * In an earlier (2007) interview with Charlie Rose on PBS, why did Palin, after mentioning C.S. Lewis (“very, very deep”) as a favorite author, go on to cite George Sheehan, a onetime columnist for Runner’s World? You can shrug off any one of these questions as unfair, but together they merge into one rude but necessary query: What does Palin know (besides, that is, how to play basketball and the flute)?
Tangible evidence of whatever data populate Palin’s cranium is hard to find. In Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska’s Political Establishment Upside Down, Kaylene Johnson reports that Palin started devouring newspapers while still in elementary school. “She read the paper from the very top left hand corner to the bottom right corner to the very last page,” Palin’s sister Molly tells Johnson. “She didn’t just read it—she knew every word she had read and analyzed it.” What stories in particular? Johnson doesn’t offer any examples. We learn, too, that a junior-high schoolmate who was a year ahead often sought Palin’s assistance in writing book reports. “She was such a bookworm,” this Palin friend tells Johnson. “Whenever I was assigned to read a book, she’d already read it.” Such as? Again, Johnson doesn’t say.
As the daughter of a schoolteacher and coach, Palin never doubted she would go to college. But here the evidence of Palin’s thirst for knowledge grows even more elusive. Palin’s college career is so checkered that her own press spokesperson initially had trouble getting straight whether, during a period of five years, Palin attended four colleges (wrong) or five (correct). Palin made the circuit of three of these colleges with her high-school basketball teammate Kim “Tillie” Ketchum. In describing the two girls’ joint pursuit of higher education, Johnson makes it sound like a trip to the ladies’ room.
First, Palin and Ketchum (and two other high-school friends) lighted on the University of Hawaii-Hilo. Drawn by the promise of warmth and sunshine, the four girls quickly learned that Hilo was, in fact, quite rainy and immediately either transferred out or declined to register. (The school has no record Palin ever enrolled.)
Next stop: Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu, where it was sunnier and where an aunt of Palin’s lived nearby. Palin enrolled in the business administration program. Two of the four girls got homesick and returned to Alaska, but Palin and Ketchum stayed, renting an apartment one block from the ocean in Waikiki. By the end of freshman year, Palin and Ketchum decided they’d grown tired of this hard-won sunshine and arranged to transfer out.
Next stop: North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene. (Palin was born in Idaho.) Here, Johnson writes, they “immersed themselves in a more traditional college life” and lived in a coed dorm. According to Ketchum, Palin, who enrolled as a general studies major, remained interested primarily in sports, but Palin spent a semester working in a TV production studio. This past June, North Idaho College’s Alumni Association named Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin a distinguished alumna and invited her to give the commencement address in 2009. But Palin attended the school for only one year—a spokeswoman for the college told the Associated Press, “We were not able to track down club affiliations or anything”—before departing. This time, Ketchum stayed put.
Next stop: the University of Idaho in Moscow, where today a leadership award is named for Palin. According to Johnson, Palin transferred here “to continue her studies in journalism and political science.” (Among Palin’s journalism classes, Couric might be surprised to learn, was “Interviewing.”) But it seems likelier that Palin transferred to be nearer to her brother Chuck, who played running back for the school’s football team. Palin didn’t write for the school newspaper—a friend recalls she was more interested in broadcast journalism—and her academic adviser, Roy Atwood, does not appear to remember her. After one year, Palin decided to take some time off.
Next stop: Matanuska-Susitna Community College in Palmer, Alaska, not far from Palin’s hometown of Wasilla. This was apparently to be near her high-school boyfriend (and future husband) Todd Palin. Johnson doesn’t bother to mention this academic sojourn in her book. Palin took classes here for one semester.
Next stop: Back to the University of Idaho for three more semesters. Palin graduated in spring 1987 with a journalism degree.
There’s no evidence that Palin encountered any academic difficulties in any of these places—indeed, Ketchum told Johnson that she and Palin got “straight A’s” at Hawaii Pacific University—but one can’t help wondering, in the absence of contrary evidence, whether this rolling stone ever found the time to accumulate much moss. That same question has been raised about Palin’s lightning-quick rise in politics. In the Oct. 1 Christian Science Monitor, Andrew Halcro, a Republican member of the House of Represenatives, recalls a conversation with Palin when he ran against her for governor in 2006. “Andrew,” Palin said, “I watch you at these debates with no notes, no papers, and yet when asked questions, you spout off facts, figures, and policies, and I’m amazed. But then I look out into the audience and I ask myself, ‘Does any of this really matter?’ “
According to Halcro, it didn’t. Palin creamed him because “she’s a master, not of facts, figures, or insightful policy recommendations, but at the fine art of the nonanswer, the glittering generality. Against such charms there is little Senator Biden, or anyone, can do.” The evidence of Palin’s CBS News interviews suggests otherwise, but we’ll just have to see. Meanwhile, Joe Biden should find the time to study this video of one of Palin’s 2006 gubernatorial debates. This is no moment for overconfidence—especially in a guy who’s been known to brag fatuously about his IQ and to embellish his own academic record.
Correction, Oct. 2, 2008: An earlier version of this column written before the clip was made public stated, incorrectly, that Palin could name no Supreme Court decision of any kind apart from Roe v. Wade. This assertion was based on a report in Politico, which in turn attributed the (inaccurate) characterization to an unnamed Palin aide. (Return to the corrected sentence.)