John McCain’s campaign acknowledged this weekend that Sarah Palin is unprepared to be vice president or president of the United States.

Of course, McCain’s people said no such thing. But their actions told you all you needed to know.

McCain, Barack Obama and Joe Biden all subjected themselves to tough questioning on the regular Sunday news programs. Palin was the only no-show. And it’s not just the Sunday interviews. She has not opened herself to any serious questioning since McCain picked her to be next in line for the presidency.

McCain’s advisers clearly don’t trust Palin to answer questions about policy, and don’t want her to answer many of the questions that have been raised about her tenure as governor of Alaska.

Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, gave the game away when he said on “Fox News Sunday” that she would not meet with reporters until they showed a willingness to treat her “with some level of respect and deference.”

Deference? That’s a word used in monarchies or aristocracies. Democracies don’t give “deference” to politicians. When have McCain, Obama, Biden or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton asked for deference?

A few hours later came the announcement that Palin would grant an interview to ABC News’ Charlie Gibson. Recall that Gibson was the co-host of an ABC News debate last April during which Obama faced a relentless pounding. Here’s hoping that a sense of fairness will lead Gibson to be comparably tough on Palin this week. If he treats her more deferentially than he did Obama, we will know that McCain’s war on the media is working.

From the moment Palin was picked, reporters immediately began to ask questions, a lot of them. Because she was so little known outside Alaska, her views on many issues, particularly foreign policy, are a mystery. Voters also need to know how McCain went about reaching the most important decision he will make between now and Election Day.

A week ago, Elisabeth Bumiller of The New York Times cited McCain sources questioning “how thoroughly Mr. McCain had examined her background before putting her on the Republican presidential ticket.” She reported that Palin had been selected “with more haste than McCain advisers initially described.” (She also mistakenly reported that Palin belonged to the Alaskan Independence Party. It was her husband, Todd, who had been a member.)

McCain’s people trashed Bumiller, saying she had opted to “make up her own version of events.” Steve Schmidt, McCain’s chief strategist, said the Times had written “an absolute work of fiction” about the vetting process, while Karl Rove told his Fox News viewers that the Times “got it wrong.”

It turned out that the McCain side misled journalists. Bumiller was right about the vetting. The lesson is that McCain’s counselors are not interested in fair treatment, and they are certainly not interested in the truth.

If the media cave to McCain’s pressure, it will be the third time this decade that conservative attacks led reporters to tilt to the right.

During the 2000 battle over Florida, Al Gore’s perfectly defensible efforts to win a hand recount ran into a buzz saw of criticism from nonpartisan commentators, many of whom urged Gore to withdraw “gracefully.” In the buildup to the Iraq war, the Bush administration and its supporters savaged the patriotism of many who raised questions about its strategy and its plans. Now, McCain hopes Palin will skate through the next two months without any real scrutiny or questioning.

It is hugely unfortunate that the first big story about Palin — other than questions raised about whether she fired the head of the Alaska state police for refusing to dismiss her former brother-in-law — concerned her 17-year-old daughter’s pregnancy. It’s not just that Bristol Palin should be left alone, but also that the intense interest in this story gave McCain’s bullies an excuse to push aside legitimate questions about Palin’s record and knowledge.

Of course Palin’s handlers are being hypocritical: They want to focus on her family life and her identity as a hockey mom when doing so helps them, and push aside any story that mars this perfect picture. Conservatives are always against identity politics until they are for it.

Nonetheless, what matters is not Palin’s personal life, but whether she is prepared to assume the presidency if called upon. The actions of McCain’s lieutenants suggest that they know the answer. And they are doing everything they can to keep the media from finding it.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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