Tonight, Charlie Gibson and a crew from ABC News will pack up and head to Alaska for his interview with the elusive and press-wary GOP vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. After Palin bypassed two Sundays of potential interviews and attacked the media in her convention speech, after she was pointedly made unavailable to the press, and after John McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis blustered on Fox News Sunday that she wouldn't suffer an interview until the media was ready to treat her with "deference and respect" — well, after all that, it was finally announced that the McCain campaign had picked ABC's Gibson for the honor. He'll interview her tomorrow and Friday — September 11th and 12th — and broadcast the results to an eager, Palin-starved world.
There are lots of articles about what questions Gibson should ask her, or how tough he should be. This post isn't about that — it's about answering this question: Why did the McCain camp choose Charlie Gibson in the first place?
As much as Democrats, angry at Gibson's tough questioning of Barack Obama at the April 16, 2008 debate, may think that he was chosen because he was favorable to the GOP, I don't think that was the reason (nor do I think Gibson is a GOP shill; it was just a boneheadedly-handled debate). But the McCain campaign had three choices — three network anchors, each with viewers in the multi-millions — and I have no doubt that Brian Wiliams and Katie Couric put in the request. Here's why I think they went with Gibson:
(1) The GOP hates NBC. That was pretty obvious during the anti-media chants of "NBC, NBC" during Palin's convention speech (lest you forget). That probably disqualified Brian Williams right off the bat. But if it hadn't, probably this would have:
(2) Gibson is of the McCain generation: Charlie Gibson is the eldest of the Big Three, recently turned 65 to BriWi's 49 and Katie's 51. He's an older white male, old enough to be Palin's father, actually (not unlike McCain). On the scales of "deference and respect" that gulf would probably make a different — both Williams and Couric would be facing her on more equal footing as colleagues from the same age and stage. And speaking of equal footing:
(3) Charlie Gibson is not a woman. Unlike Katie Couric! Who would be far less likely to face charges of sexism, and thus would have less reason to be extra-careful. A woman asking about Palin's family life, balancing home and work, questioning her experience — well, call me sexist but it would just feel different. (Don't call me sexist. It's just a fact.) Also, along those lines...
(4) Katie would be out for the jugular. Come on. Why on earth would she hold back? She's coming off a convention bounce of her own, and would be looking to make headlines — not friends. (Well, Sarah started it!) See above - she'd have no reason to back down if things got testy. Why would the McCain campaign risk Palin being unfavorably compared to another woman? More than a little of her power and popularity is based on her gender and femininity and the power that comes from that. Given time to think about it, I'm sure this reason would even have trumped GOP hate for NBC. But even if so, consider this:
(5) BriWi gets hunting. Every so often on his blog, Brian Wiliams will mention Cabela's, a small chain of ten giant sporting goods stores that specialize in hunting, fishing, and the real outdoors. He reported on it for the 2004 election, pointing out that in 2000 "six in ten gun owners voted for George W. Bush" (that stat held in 2004). Cabela's customers are "people that hunt and fish and believe the phrase, 'Under God' belongs in the Pledge of Allegiance." This is BriWi's area of expertise — Cabela's people, NASCAR people, people who don't think New York is America. More knowledge and more comfort equals less deference. Hell, he might even ask a question about aerial wolf hunting. Why risk it?
(6) Okay, maybe they have reason to think that Gibson would serve up softballs. I rapped Gibson for his super-deferential interview of President Bush at Camp David over Thansgiving, and as Greg Sargent points out at TPM, he was the only anchor to interview McCain at the GOP convention. Per Sargent: "Gibson has been granted exclusives with McCain and his running-mate, which is unusual favoritism by any measure. There's something about Gibson that McCain advisers appear to like a great deal." Maybe! Though I still would not count the April 16th debate as a reason here — if anything, the backlash from that would probably inspire tougher questioning.
(7) They like him! The really like him! Maybe the McCain campaign chose Gibson because they respect his journalistic integrity, like his newscast, and trust him to give a fair and unbiased interview. That is entirely possible and nothing in this post is meant to say that he would do anything else. But come on. We're talking about the McCain campaign here. Sex ed ad? The "lipstick on a pig" sexism kerfuffle? Hello, Steve Schmidt? Remember, fun Steve is gone. That's just not how this campaign is making its decisions right now.
All of this is conjecture, of course. But in considering why this plum media get was neatly wrapped up and hand-delivered to Gibson with a bow, they all seem pretty reasonable. One thing is for sure: The ratings are going to be ginormous. Everyone hanging on the edge of this newest dramatic turn in the campaign will be tuning in to see what the heck she actually says. What the heck he actually asks...well, that's up to him.