PHILADELPHIA --Democratic elections are supposedly tailored for transparency with the electorate fully informed of the candidates’ viewpoints on issues and opinions on the pressing concerns of the day. It means no opaqueness or iron curtain before, during and especially after elections.
But even in the United States, so-called the most democratic of all countries, media selectivity and interview scarcity are being used as tactical political weaponry to maintain captured votes, perhaps to gain more. Of all places, the United States is host to a vice presidential candidate who appears in public for pictures, autographs and brief speeches, yet who handpicks pre-arranged interviewers and practices abhorrent media selectivity. And she is not even camera shy.
Maybe it’s just strategy. Not all political candidates have always wanted to face the people and answer questions anyway. Perhaps avoiding savvy and inquisitive news reporters may be the only way to keep on attracting new voters and consolidating the mass base. Caught off-guard, a single slip may be played and replayed over various mediums, even on YouTube, and may cause a major electoral disaster.
But the situation in the United States now is very different. The onslaught of economic and financial tragedies one after the other is so overpowering that people want to be assured that everything will be alright. From the housing problem, to the fall of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to the sudden collapse of large investment banks and Wall Street, the high unemployment rate, and the highly debated government bailout, the situation is indeed dire and bleak. People want to know what’s on the minds of their current and would-be leaders.
The media selectivity of Republican vice presidential bet Sarah Palin is so obvious that it may be working against her. She does not take ordinary questions from the media as any politician is wont to. On the plane she uses, there is an invisible wall between her and the reporters just a few rows back. She chooses to give prepared speeches but rarely answers spontaneous questions from the public and media practitioners.
After meeting world leaders one-on-one in New York recently, she was asked by a reporter what she had learned from them. As if on cue, the organizer immediately announced that Palin cannot answer that and any other question because they will be leaving very soon. This overprotective umbrella is uncanny in a presidential season.
During the first presidential debate on September 27, she refused to represent the Republican party for the five-minute short post-debate response and instead tapped Republican pointman and ex-New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani to do the talking. This is in light of the fact that Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden was the one who represented his party. What explains this media dodging?
She may not be confident in what she will say or may be unprepared in some areas of public concern. She may feel that other partymates can better articulate the Republican position, which then leads to the question as to why she is the one running and not someone else. Her handlers might also be fearful of public backlash if she continuously appears to lack a comfortable grasp of what ails the nation.
It is no wonder that although the media temporarily celebrated her arrival by creating a furor never before seen, media itself is devouring her due to her apparent inaccessibility and failure to address pressing issues. Talk about overnight success, Sarah Palin was clearly one. But after a few more nights, her success appears to be flailing and her star power is becoming ever more vulnerable. Movie stars such as Matt Damon and Glenn Close have come out strongly against her.
One problem Sarah Palin suffers from is whenever she gives a one-on-one interview, which is very rare, she doesn’t appear confident in what she says and at times appears confused. She blunders a lot–whether in failing to explain, support or trounce the Bush doctrine in relation to the war in Iraq, or expounding on foreign policy, or articulating what her plans are. Some are saying that she was plucked out from the Alaskan blue to run as vice president purely because of her crowd-drawing potential and mystique effect. The honeymoon may be over though.
‘Bad Disney movie’
But the United States and its struggling economy needs more than star power, look-alike impersonations on Saturday Night Live, sell-out dolls, hip and trendy Japan-made clear glasses, and fashionable statements from a “hockey mom”. It needs a strong leader of whatever gender, and it’s hard to imagine Sarah Palin taking over as U.S. president if something untoward happens to John McCain, assuming he wins this November. The U.S. might then find itself in a more dangerous position than where it is now. Actor Matt Damon describes such possibility as a “really bad Disney movie”.
Spin doctors have certainly cautioned Sarah Palin from answering reporters’ questions and having more unstructured interviews. These interviews display her lack of knowledge on fundamental issues. For these election consultants, waving and smiling and giving occasional speeches may provide better assistance to John McCain than actively engaging with media. But doesn’t the American public as well as the wider international audience deserve more than political gimmickry?
This deliberate media selectivity and interview scarcity is a phenomenon only in the last few weeks post-nomination. Before her nomination, Palin has been giving many interviews as governor of Alaska. In these pre-nomination interviews, she appeared very resolved and articulate about the issues concerning Alaska–such as the polar bear controversy, her state’s desire to be more participative in national governance, the Exxon Valdez oil spill Supreme Court decision, Alaskan oil and natural resources, and the drill-baby-drill issue. She addressed personal issues as the Troopergate scandal and the possibility then of being drafted as Republican vice presidential candidate.
She was not media shy at all back then. In these days, however, people hardly see her being grilled and interviewed. And if she is being interviewed, viewers easily see through her discomfort on questions about foreign policy, the Bush doctrine, solving the Wall Street-Investment Banking mess, and the national economy in general.
At times, peculiarly during the interview with Katie Couric, her foreign policy responses can be characterized as vague, unsure, too general, roundabout, if not pathetic for a VP candidate. The earlier interview with Charlie Gibson, who “was lost in the blizzard of words,” is just baffling and incredible.
No one can thus blame award-winning actress and look-alike Tina Fey and her Saturday Night Live crew in parodying Sarah Palin and portraying her as incompetent for the vice presidential post, somewhat foreign policy-dumb, unclear in her ideas, and simply hype-oriented. Classic in that TV segment are two Tina-Fey-as-Palin statements: “I can see Russia from my house” and “I don’t know what the Bush policy is”.
Back home, this is reminiscent of 2004 opposition presidential candidate Fernando Poe, Jr. who refused to attend presidential debates, stating he is satisfied with campaigning directly. But pressing flesh and waving to a crowd is very different from truly knowing what a candidate really intends to do if elected. I’m no fan of the ultimate outcome of the 2004 presidential election and its concomitant controversies, but refusing to debate when running for president is simply lame.
If democracy is to work, candidates must be transparent and sitting officials must be open to scrutiny. They serve to expose certain weaknesses that the public will notice in due course. The public will then decide.
The author is a US-based Filipino lawyer. Send comments to [email protected] or through https://eastofturtleisland.blogspot.com/.