On the eve of Charlie Gibson's exclusive interview with Palin and her family, under the strict proviso that she be shown "deference and respect," it's instructive to recall a time when Charlie was much less eager to be so compliant about accommodating a politically prominent interview subject.
I think few of us are looking for intrepid reporting or aggressive questioning when Charlie Gibson gets his exclusive 2-day interview with Palin, as they munch on mooseburgers and cavort among the wolf pups, getting deep about the moment when blastocysts obtain Constitutionally protected rights.
Nevertheless, it's stimulating to recall the last time Charlie Gibson was in the news regarding a major interview with a prominent politician, and a female at that. That time the word about town wasn't that Charlie had bagged a big one, it was that he wanted to throw his catch back in the water. His quarry on that occasion? Hillary Clinton.
In his new book, Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War, Kurtz captures Hillary Clinton—or at least her campaign—at her wily best as she negotiates the terms of engagement with the network news anchors after announcing her candidacy.
Kurtz writes on Page 367:
On the weekend in early 2007 when Clinton declared her candidacy, her team let the network anchors know that she was willing to pay each of them a house call on Monday. But there was a catch: The interviews would have to be done live to tape, with no possibility of slicing and dicing.
When Charlie Gibson heard about the ground rules, he balked. The problem was that in a 3½ minute interview like this, the first question had to be some version of why do you want to be president, and if Clinton went on and on, he would barely have a chance to ask about anything else. And what if Rudy Giuliani or Bill Richardson or any other candidate asked for the same treatment? It would set a terrible precedent.
Yes Charlie. Good on you. Dangerous precedents are bad. Especially important to consider when you have exclusive access to the most sequestered politician in the history of national campaigning.
"You've got to go back to them," Gibson told [executive producer] Jon Banner. "We just don't do that. We don't do that for the president of the United States."
Gibson stewed about it through Sunday. He thought of calling Brian [Williams] and Katie [Couric] at home and saying, "You guys do what you want, but I'm going to say no, and we should all say no." But he decided it would be wrong to engage in that kind of collusion.
Prudent thinking, Charlie. It would be wrong to engage in any kind of collusion. I suppose one might also consider it wrong to even consider the question of colluding in the first place, but that's a debate for another time.
On Monday, Gibson told [ABC News President] David Westin that he was turning down the interview.
"I'm going to back you up," Westin said. "But please understand, you're putting Good Morning America at a competitive disadvantage." The morning show was facing a boycott by the Clinton family because ABC's entertainment division had recently aired a movie,The Path to 9/11, that contained fictional scenes of top Bill Clinton aides undermining efforts against Osama bin Laden. Gibson told Westin that he would think about it.
Here Gibson was faced with a dilemma. Stick to his guns and risk the everlasting ire of the Clintons (and gaining the favor of the fundie freaks behind "Path to 9/11"), while ceding ratings to his competitors. Or figure out a way to get the situation back on terms under which he preferred to operate.
So he proposed that the interview be conducted live, to protect himself from any advantages the candidate might seek, like filibustering the reporter with long discursive answers to run out the clock. Team Hillary agrees but says she has engagements and has to do it via satellite. Now Gibson's moment has come, where his deep commitment to ethical journalism can finally be allowed to shine, and he can spread around his objective fairness like Johnny Appleseed at planting time. His plan, in honor of his gentlemanly sense of deference and honesty?
Go for the throat:
"You are a strong, credible, female candidate for president of the United States and I mean no disrespect in this, but would you be in this position were it not for your husband?"
Clinton seemed taken aback.
Would she take a pledge not to raise taxes? Could the country finance the war without raising taxes? Was her vote to authorize the Iraq war a mistake? Clinton regained her footing, but still seemed on the defensive.
Gibson asked whether Barack Obama was qualified to be president.
Clinton said that he was "a terrific guy" and she looked forward to a good contest.
"Well, but that's something of a dodge," Gibson said. "In your mind is he qualified to be president?"
Clinton ducked again.
Gibson may have had just four minutes, but he got the most out of the allotted time.
Gibson gets 2 days with Palin, his heavily managed candidate. Will he show up loaded for bear and pissed off over excessive rules and handling from Palin's people, as he did over the Hillary interview? Or are we to bear witness to an historic act of puffery, the likes of which Walter Duranty would be proud of?
If I were betting on InTrade, I'd be going with puffery.
I'm not going to set out a list of proposed questions. I think Charlie Gibson is beyond the reach of influence when it's not attached to some return favor involving money, esteem, camera time, or influence.
All I know is, we had better be ready to jump all over him if he diverges one iota from his established precedent. I don't mind deference, and I don't expect Frost/Nixon redux, but I do mind slavering lickspittle hero worship. If Palin, given the significant obstacles she has placed between herself and American voters, receives friendly treatment from Gibson out of misplaced notions of "deference," then he's about to tar his reputation forever. And, in that eventuality, we should be prepared to work so that he and Palin (on some distant day) go to their graves remembering that.
Postscript: This has nothing to do with the pros and cons of Hillary the candidate or Hillary the politician. This has to do with the notions of fairness and balance, at a critical moment in our political history. Nothing more. Nothing less.