By JAMES TARANTO
The moderator for tomorrow's debate between Sarah Palin and that other guy will be Gwen Ifill, hostess of PBS's "Washington Week in Review." Fox News reports that "questions are being raised" about Ifill's objectivity "after news surfaced that she is releasing a new book promoting Barack Obama and other black politicians who have benefited from the civil rights struggle."
Among Ifill's critics are Michelle Malkin, a Fox News political analyst, who writes on National Review Online that Ifill is "so far in the tank for the Democratic presidential candidate, her oxygen delivery line is running out," and Fox hostess Greta Van Susteren, who writes on her GretaWire blog (quoting verbatim):
The McCain campaign did NOT know about Gwen Ifill's book (I think I told them when I made my efforts–emails about midnight–to find out!) I am stunned….the campaign (actually both) should have been told before the campaign agreed to have her moderate. It simply is not fair–in law, this would create a mistrial.
A little perspective is in order, however. The analogy between a debate moderator and a judge is overwrought. Unlike a judge, a moderator decides nothing beyond what questions to ask and how to keep the debate flowing. To put it another way, voters, unlike jurors, can make their decision on whatever basis they choose. They are not subject to instructions from the bench.
In addition, from the description on the Random House Web site, Ifill's book is not "about" Obama, but about a broader trend of which his political rise is the most prominent example:
In THE BREAKTHROUGH, veteran journalist Gwen Ifill surveys the American political landscape, shedding new light on the impact of Barack Obama's stunning presidential campaign and introducing the emerging young African American politicians forging a bold new path to political power.
Ifill argues that the Black political structure formed during the Civil Rights movement is giving way to a generation of men and women who are the direct beneficiaries of the struggles of the 1960s. She offers incisive, detailed profiles of such prominent leaders as Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and U.S. Congressman Artur Davis of Alabama, and also covers up-and-coming figures from across the nation. Drawing on interviews with power brokers like Senator Obama, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Vernon Jordan, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and many others, as well as her own razor-sharp observations and analysis of such issues as generational conflict and the "black enough" conundrum, Ifill shows why this is a pivotal moment in American history.
To be sure, the book's marketing seems to assume an Obama victory. Its subtitle is "Politics and Race in the Age of Obama," and its official release date is Inauguration Day. If you're a stickler about journalistic conflicts of interest, you can make a good case that Ifill was not the ideal choice of moderator. "Clearly her books aren't going to do as well unless Obama wins, so it looks like she has some investment, literally, in one candidate or the other," Juan Williams tells Fox. "And she's supposed to be sitting there as a neutral arbiter during the debate. I think the world of Gwen Ifill, but I know there's a perception problem."
Then again, journalism entails endless conundrums of this sort. Every reporter who covers a particular campaign has an "investment" in that campaign. A reporter who covers a winning campaign will have an easier time getting a book deal, and will have more and better sources in the new administration, than a reporter covering a losing one. This is presumably why debate moderators are not usually selected from the traveling campaign press.
Further, it is quite possible that the appearance of a conflict of interest will actually work to neutralize the reality of such a conflict–that is, that Ifill, knowing her book puts her under additional scrutiny, will take extra care to be fair.
It also occurs to us to wonder just how important the moderators of these debates are. We've watched every presidential and vice presidential debate since 1988, and in our memory the moderators are just a blur–an endless procession of Jim Lehrers, a significant percentage of whom were Jim Lehrer.
There is one exception: CNN's Bernard Shaw, who opened the second Bush-Dukakis debate by asking the Massachusetts governor: "If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" This was a highly dramatic question, one that some Dukakis partisans thought unfair to their man.
In truth, though, Shaw's question worked to Dukakis's disadvantage only because Dukakis played to type, answering it with a rote recitation of his position against capital punishment. He could have answered in a way that was both human and thoughtful: "If someone did that to my wife, I'd want to rip the bastard limb from limb with my own hands. But in a civilized country, we count on judges and juries to administer justice, not to exact revenge . . ."
Sarah Palin has done poorly in some of her recent TV interviews, at times delivering rambling answers that give the impression of someone trying to bluff her way through. If she presents herself more confidently tomorrow, she'll be fine. If she does not, it will hurt McCain's campaign to whatever extent voters actually care about vice presidential nominees.
Either way, the outcome of tomorrow's debate is up to Palin–and to some extent to the guy from Delaware–not to Ifill.
Trouble Is His Middle Name
A dispatch by Jason Szep of Reuters carries the headline "Palin's Troubles Mount for McCain in White House." What are these "troubles"? Here's the list:
• Palin's interviews with CBS, Fox News and ABC "raise questions over her nomination and dealings with the media."
• Palin faces "a stubborn investigation into charges that as governor she abused her power by firing a public safety commissioner."
• A conservative columnist "called on Palin to step down ."
• Palin has been mocked on "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Show With David Letterman."
• A "conservative New York Times columnist . . . called her candidacy 'embarrassing.' "
• Mitt Romney "questioned the campaign's strategy of restricting Palin's media exposure."
Except for the "stubborn investigation," all of these "troubles" are troubles with the media. One wonders why Szep did not include his own article in the list.
God Save Us All
Way back in February, we noted the cultish aspect of Barack Obama's campaign, a quality that even creeped out as hardcore a Democrat as Time magazine's Joe Klein. Eight months later–and with Obama the favorite to win the presidency in a scant 34 days–we can't say we're reassured. Last month the Sophian, Smith College's student newspaper, published an op-ed titled " 'I Will Follow Him': Obama as My Personal Jesus," by Maggie Mertens:
Then I began to realize I wasn't the only one trying to buy a WWOD bracelet and spending my weekends scouring CNN.com. The rock star-type love for Obama wasn't just because he was pretty and in the media. Others too, had seen him as a shining light, heard that mythical voice boom out over the mountaintops; people were wearing the t-shirt because they would rather wear something representing a politician than a pop star. People everywhere, young and old, were caring again. So what's the problem here?
I've officially been saved, and soon, whether they like it or not, the rest of the country will be too. I will follow him, all the way to the White House, and I'll be standing there in our nation's capital in January 2009, when Barack Obama is inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States of America. In the name of Obama, Amen.
Yikes, is she serious? It's hard to tell, as evidenced by the reader comments. This one is typical:
Um…whoa. I hope this is a parody. If it is, brilliant. If it isn't, I just don't know what to say except that your conception of the appropriate place of government and politicians in our lives appears to have reverted 2000+ years. You can agree with his policy prescriptions, as I do, but the confluence of political and emotional power that you brainlessly seek to hand over to Obama borders on religious fanatacism.
Another comment comes from someone claiming–falsely, we're pretty sure–to be Little Peggy March, who in 1963, at age 15, recorded the gospel tune "I Will Follow Him," which turned into a chart-topping hit.