Sarah Palin has always enjoyed complaining about the “media filter.” But that was before she met Oprah Winfrey.
Palin’s appearance on Oprah on Monday afternoon, the first big interview on the tour for her book Going Rogue: An American Life, is not likely to relaunch Palin’s career. It will take more than a single sit-down, no matter how successful, to change the minds of the six in 10 Americans who think she’s unqualified to be president. The Oprah appearancedid, however, play to Palin’s strengths in a way that no major interview has, save her occasional T-ball practice session with Sean Hannity.
Most of Palin’s flubs during the 2008 campaign resulted from a lack of preparation. She stumbled on Katie Couric’s question about Supreme Court cases because she simply wasn’t expecting it. She couldn’t name any publications she read because she was shocked, she says, by the condescension of the question. When she said she was disappointed the McCain camp was pulling out of Michigan, it was because she hadn’t been briefed on the campaign’s official response. When handed a great script—at the Republican National Convention, for example—she killed.
This time, the interview was on Palin’s terms. Oprah did stray from the Palin-approved script here and there, peppering the former governor with questions about her abrupt resignation and Levi Johnston and possible presidential ambitions. But the interview was fundamentally about Palin’s book. These were questions she has had plenty of time to mull.
As a result, the interview, like her book, felt like a methodical refutation of her critics. You thought Palin doesn’t read much? “Obviously … I am a lover of books and magazines,” she said. (As if to prove it, her book name checks C.S. Lewis, National Geographic, Ogden Nash, Animal Farm, Sports Illustrated, and John Steinbeck—all within the first 30 pages.) You thought she hated Levi? Not at all; she’s just very sad for him. You heard that she had seriously thought about aborting Trig, her child with Down syndrome? No, she’d merely considered the possibility that other women might do something like that.
Palin gave some of the most cogent answers of her short life on the national stage. Why didn’t she just tell Katie Couric what newspapers she read? Could she really not think of any? “No, it was more like, are you kidding me?” says Palin. “Are you really asking me? To me, it was in the context of, Do you read? How do you stay informed? You’re way up there. It seems like she was discovering some nomadic tribe, this member of a tribe from some Neanderthal cave in Alaska, asking me how do you stay in touch with the real world.”
Other answers were clear—you could understand what she was saying—but the underlying ideas were not. Palin has yet to come up with a convincing story for why she quit her job as governor of Alaska in June, with two years to go in her term. “I came back from those 10 weeks on the road to a new normal in Alaska,” she explained to Oprah. “Everything had so changed from my administration. There were so many opposition researchers up there” that she felt her presence was “hampering” the state rather than helping it. “I wasn’t able to get up there and talk about issues that were important to me, or an ethics violation would be filed.”
If victimization is a common tool in the Palin tool kit—she gave a special shout out to “the haters and the critics”—so is the noncriticism criticism. When Oprah brought up Levi Johnston, who has said some “unflattering things” (Oprah’s words) about the governor, Palin lurched in two directions at once: “I don’t think a national television show is the place to discuss some of the things he’s doing and saying,” she said, before doing just that: “And by the way, I don’t know if we call him Levi. I hear he goes by the name Ricky Hollywood now. So if that’s the case, we don’t want to mess up the gig he’s got going, kind of this aspiring—aspiring—porn, some of the things that he’s doing. … It’s a bit heartbreaking to see the road he’s on right now.” Oprah asked if he spends time with his baby, Tripp. “He’s quite busy with his media tours, and he hasn’t seen the baby for a while,” Palin responded. “But we will let that be the discussion between Bristol and Levi as they work out their relationship.” Yes, we will.
For her part, Oprah avoided going into full Oprah mode. She didn’t start every question with “How did you feel when …” It was more like every fourth question. But because she’s Oprah, she can ask questions that would elicit scoffs in other contexts, like whether Palin could have handled being a mother of five and a vice president at the same time. “It’s a fair question,” Oprah said, given that in the vast majority of cases, the burden of raising children falls disproportionately on the mother. (Palin said she would have relied on her “support network.”) She also pushed Palin back on track when she sensed a dodge. At one point, she got a reluctant Palin to issue an “open invitation for Levi to come to Aunt Katie’s house for Thanksgiving dinner in Washington. There!” She also corrected Palin when Palin suggested that reporters honored Obama’s request not to write about his children but didn’t honor hers. In fact, Oprah pointed out, it was in the context of a question about Palin’s children that Obama had declared kids off-limits.
Oprah closed the interview by asking whether it was true that Palin might be getting her own talk show. Instead of an answer, Palin reached for the butter. “Oprah, you’re the queen,” Palin said. “You have nothing to worry about.” That may be so. But for Palin, a talk show would be a best-case scenario: Top billing. Pre-set conversation topics. A favorable audience. And once and for all, a media filter of her own.