By Bill Boyarsky
He was boring. She was vapid. They were a perfect couple for the one and only 2008 vice presidential debate.
Gov. Sarah Palin survived, much to the disappointment of Democrats who hoped she would crumble as she did in her interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric. But she ducked tough questions, gave canned answers, tried to smile her way out of tough spots and cheerfully distorted Sen. Barack Obama’s record.
Sen. Joseph Biden was, of course, better prepared. All those years in the Senate taught him something. What a creature of the Senate he was, working his way through the details of his legislative record, even invoking the name of a long departed hero, Sen. Mike Mansfield, who gave him advice he never forgot. Even if it was hard for listeners to concentrate on everything he said, the man knew what he was talking about.
In the contest for who was best qualified to be president, Biden won by a landside. In the contest for who won the debate, Palin illustrated a lesson that Willy Loman learned in Arthur Miller’s old play, “Death of a Salesman”: It takes more than a smile and a shoeshine to be successful.
She couldn’t smile her way out of trying to explain what Sen. John McCain would do about the financial crisis that is dragging the country down.
Instead, she relied on anecdotes and folksy examples. She described how she and her husband, Todd (the “First Dude” of Alaska), would sit around and talk about how government is not the solution for the troubles of the middle class. She blamed “corruption and greed and Wall Street” for the nation’s troubles and wrapped herself in the mantle of First Mom. “I think a good barometer here, as we try to figure out, ‘Has this been a good time or a bad time in America’s economy?’ is go to a kids’ soccer game on Saturday and turn to any parent there on the sideline and ask them, ‘How are you feeling about the economy?’ ” Palin said. “And I’ll betcha you’re going to hear some fear in that parent’s voice.”
That’s not a helpful answer, Governor, and by the way we all noticed the lakefront house you and Todd have up in Alaska when Charlie Gibson interviewed you there. Pretty nice, especially with Todd’s airplane parked out back.
Palin was a total wild card. Nothing Biden said had any impact on her. She treated him graciously, as if he were an odd but pleasant newcomer to Wasilla, having just moved there from the lower 48. He showed she was often factually wrong, but she ignored him with a smile. Finally, he was reduced to repeating his points. “Let me say it again,” he said on a couple of occasions.
She was a difficult opponent for Biden, who rose through Delaware politics and the Senate, where discussion and debate are conducted in the back-and-forth manner of traditional politics.
Biden seemed to practice the art of brevity Thursday night. In an effort to tone down his sometimes ungovernable enthusiasm, he was often plodding. But he was loaded with facts.
In response to Palin’s touting of alternative energy, Biden said McCain had voted 10 times against such proposals. Biden went into a lengthy explanation of Obama’s votes on Iraq. “Your plan is a white flag,” Palin said.
After a while, though, smiles and cutting lines annoy or even bore an audience.
Biden slogged along, one fact after another, treating his foe with congenial respect. He knew more than she did but didn’t make a big thing of it. That was all he had to do.
The main purpose of the debate was to show the American people who would be best qualified to take over if the president died.
Palin likes to cite the example of Harry Truman, who was a farmer and an unsuccessful haberdasher before going into politics and becoming president after Franklin Roosevelt’s death. But Truman was an accomplished senator before Roosevelt chose him to be vice president. He was the nationally known chairman of a committee which unearthed corruption by World War II contractors.
Palin showed she could get through a debate without being rattled, after days of preparation in McCain’s house in Arizona. That’s all she showed. Aside from sharing small-town roots, Sarah Palin is no Harry Truman.
AP photo / Don Emmert, pool
Republican Sarah Palin and Democrat Joe Biden respond to questions from moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS during their vice presidential debate Thursday in St. Louis.