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Vice presidential debate rises above low expectations

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Ellen Goodman
October 4, 2008
— So this is what they mean by the soft bigotry of low expectations. The long drumbeat that led to the vice presidential debate suggested it would be a matchup between an airhead and a gaffe machine.

If you added up the two cents from every adviser, you could pay off the national debt. For a week we’d seen the air of confidence come out of the balloon of Sarah Palin. She flunked the interview with Katie Couric, a woman who had once been trashed as not having the gravitas to anchor the evening news.


What Palin “needed to do,” in the language of the cablemeisters, was to complete a sentence and come up with a fact. Or even a factoid.


On the other hand, Joe Biden had been given advice that sounded like an inversion of the 1950s. Back then it was the smart woman who was told to play dumb. Now it was the smart man who was warned to keep his IQ under control. And to avoid being patronizing like the plague.


Well, blessedly this turned out not to be Bobby Riggs versus Billie Jean King. Biden and Palin were more surrogates for their candidates than their gender. The idea that Biden would pat her pretty little head in public was laid to rest. The idea that Palin would ratchet up a female sympathy vote died with it.


Sarah was Positively Sarah, as they used to say when she ran for mayor of Wasilla. Folksy, breezy, full of anecdotes, sidestepping the questions and staying on the message. If this is what cramming looks like, she’d pulled the all-nighters and learned what Hamas was and to keep her sentences (mostly) in order. If every question didn’t lead to an answer, it led to an anecdote.


Never mind the “shout-out to all those third-graders” back home. Never mind the bizarre comment that nuclear weapons would be the “be-all, end-all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet.”


She was quick to link herself to a team of mavericks. “Oh yeah, it’s so obvious I’m a Washington outsider.” Joe was positively Joe.


A few statistics too many, a rush of words and ideas against the 90-second deadline, but he kept his tongue pointing in the right direction. He even kept it under control. McCain’s not a maverick on “virtually anything that genuinely affects the things people really talk about around their kitchen table. … Maverick he is not.”


And when Sarah suggested that being a “mom” was one of the qualifications she brought to the office, this one-time single father fought back against the implication that because he’s a man he wouldn’t understand how to raise children.


In the end, Biden was able to run against McCain, while Palin had to run against her own image. In the psychodrama that is this election, the big question was whether she could wipe out the data that had been put in the voters’ hard drive over the last week. In fact, the governor of Alaska has looked woefully unready for the job. She was like the perky, self-confident valedictorian of her small high school who got into MIT before she realized that her school had never taught physics.


Mom, mayor, governor, she’d be given a social promotion all the way to the vice presidential nomination. Politically brunette? It was if she were playing Elle Woods but wasn’t going to make law review.


As for those women, especially the Hillary voters that McCain was wooing when he picked Sarah Barracuda? Sen. Clinton had broken through stereotypes, especially the tenacious idea that a woman wasn’t up to the job of commander in chief. Increasingly, women who cheered Palin’s initial appearance have drifted away. How many of these independents cringing at Palin’s performance were dismayed to see her single-handedly revive the old prejudices? Still, not even the most committed Obama fan looked forward to watching the first woman on the Republican national ticket fall on her face.


So, Palinphobes and Palinphiles alike can breathe a sigh of relief. This wasn’t the battle of the sexes, and it wasn’t a full-scale gender disaster. It’s just that Tina Fey still looks more qualified.


Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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