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Shields, Brooks and Historians Mull Strengths of Sarah Palin’s Speech

September 3, 2008 at 11:10 PM EDT
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At the close of the Republican convention's third night, analysts Mark Shields, David Brooks and a panel of historians evaluate vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin's speech and its effectiveness in shoring up support for the Republican ticket.

JIM LEHRER: She really did go after Barack Obama big time.

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: She did, but in a good cheer way. I don’t think it was a nasty speech. She went after him aggressively. She is the hockey mom. But she went after her with good cheer.

I’m amazed by her confidence. And we heard some speeches, Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, extremely successful women, and a lot of other speakers. She has a poise, and a confidence, and a slowness about the delivery, a way of talking which was much more regular voice than shouting, the way nervous people do at a podium.

I expected her to do well. I think she surpassed any expectations I had.

I did think the smart thing they did was she talked about small-town America, but she also was pretty wonky on energy and Iran. And I think they wanted to give her some policy seriousness, so she did dwell on that, and then some of the stuff she’d done as governor of Alaska.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I don’t argue with David’s point. I was amazed that she brought up the Bridge to Nowhere, where she contradicts herself. I mean, she said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” She ran on it in 2006. She accepted the money from federal government. She made it sound like she turned the money back.

I mean, that’s going to continue to haunt her, and she’ll answer questions when she does have a press conference.

Closing thoughts on day three

JIM LEHRER: All right, our historian team of Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith, and Peniel Joseph are here, is here, as is pollster Andrew Kohut, and Gwen Ifill is with us from the floor.

Gwen, your closing thoughts on this...

GWEN IFILL: Well, Jim, I don't think I can overstate all the pent-up excitement there was in this room waiting for Sarah Palin. And it exploded all over the place tonight.

She belittled -- and so did other speakers -- Barack Obama at every opportunity, mocking the size of his state, his community organizer status. And every time, there was an explosion in this room.

We also heard -- I think the chant started earlier in the night with Michael Steele. Every time they talked about energy search, energy research, they started chanting, "Drill, baby, drill." That was the big cry of the night.

And she delivered her speech word for word. They couldn't have been happier with her here tonight. It's going to be something to see how John McCain tops it tomorrow.


JIM LEHRER: Yep. OK, thank you, Gwen.

Now let's go to Richard.

Richard, Richard Norton Smith, what do you think of -- not only of the speech, but of this whole evening?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Well, this was a beat-up-on-Barack night, which is exactly what you expect from a keynoter. I thought Mayor Giuliani performed his role to the delight of everyone in the crowd. And it turned out he only warmed them up.

There's no doubt movements conservatives have themselves a new heroine, as of this evening. This will be a huge hit among Rush Limbaugh Republicans. It will be fascinating -- I'd be interested to hear from Andy -- it'd be fascinating to know if this plays as well among particularly independent voters out there who are watching this convention to find out not only what this party is against -- and we heard a lot about that tonight -- but what they're for, particularly in the realm of the economy.

And one final thing, I do wonder whether "drill, baby, drill" will take its place in the lexicon alongside "I like Ike."


Michael Beschloss, your thoughts?

Sarah Palin 'exceeded expectations'

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, I think it happened, Richard. One note on political theater. You'll note that, when John McCain came on stage -- this is a first in history -- a presidential candidate and a vice presidential candidate hugged in public.

1984, when Walter Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro, they and their handlers decided that the American people couldn't take the sight of these candidates hugging. So all through the campaign, they very carefully sort of held hands, held hands in the air, nothing more than that until after they lost. And Geraldine Ferraro said, "Can I finally hug you?" She did, indeed.

I think the one thing as far as the speech -- speech was fine, well-delivered, loved in the hall. But this is a woman that Americans know extremely little about, especially for a national nominee.

And this speech didn't tell us really very much beyond what we knew already, and that's going to make it even more important in the future when she gives speeches that are more impromptu and when she submits to interrogations by reporters and average American citizens.

JIM LEHRER: Peniel Joseph, what did you think?

PENIEL JOSEPH, Brandeis University: Well, a really strong speech designed to appeal to white women voters. When we control for race and we think about the gender gap, in 2000, Al Gore received 48 percent of white female votes. In 2004, it was down to 44 percent.

So, really, the overwhelming number of African-American women voters and Hispanic voters that provides Democrats with that edge. And this speech was designed to really appeal to those voters.

She called herself a hockey mom. And that really translates to the Midwest when we think about suburban soccer moms.

JIM LEHRER: What did you think, Peniel, just as a speech, and the delivery of the speech, based on the anticipation that was out there leading up to it, how did she perform?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, she exceeded expectations. People really -- building on what Michael said -- didn't know what to expect, a lot of rumors, a lot of controversy about the surprise pick.

She exceeded expectations. She's poised. She's calm. She's cool and collected. She looked ready for primetime tonight.

Character of Palin's speech

JIM LEHRER: All right, Andy Kohut, I realize you can't do an instant poll here. But based on what you do know about the electorate, and what you've heard, and saw, and witnessed tonight, what are your thoughts about this?

ANDREW KOHUT, President, Pew Research Center: Well, I thought that she played the "just ordinary folks" card very, very well. She struck the populist notes quite well. She was anti-Washington. She was anti-elitist.

And I think she'll appeal to the Republican populists who are watching at home. They're not well-represented in this hall. And she might even appeal to some Democratic populists who are having trouble with Obama.

I think this was a pretty good speech, not a pretty good speech. It was an excellent presentation. And she even handled her personal controversy with a nice line. She said, "From the inside, no family ever seems typical."

And that was a pretty good one-sentence -- say something about it, leave it there, and move on. And I think she did herself some -- quite a bit of good, and she maybe appealed to some of the groups that they're vying for, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: David, what did you think about her attacks on Obama? Do you think they -- do you think they were -- you said that you don't think she went over the line. Do you think they were effective? Do you think they would have some impact on people who were kind of wavering one way or another?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, I disagree with Richard uncharacteristically. I didn't think this was a Rush Limbaugh speech at all. One of the great lines I thought she had was being a mayor of this town is like being a community organizer with responsibilities.

That's not the Rush Limbaugh type of humor. It's a much more personal, "I'm just regular folks" kind of humor, than the biting, belittling Rush Limbaugh-type of humor.

There were no social issues, as far as I could tell. There were no character -- or no culture war issues. She is really not a 1960s...

JIM LEHRER: You mean no -- nothing about -- one line about right -- about abortion, one line.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, but we've had years, decades, really, of talking about the '60s, and that '60s resentment that George W. Bush has about the culture and all that, and she displayed none of it.

For her, it was small town, which -- and she felt there was no sense of social inferiority. It was, "I'm just a small-town folk." And so she was tough. She was tough and partisan in a political sense, but I didn't think she was tough in a culture sense, the way Limbaugh is.

So I think this is a much more -- and she hearkened back to Harry Truman, which was clearly the tone she was aiming for, which was not -- it's not '60s culture war. It's regular, small-town America versus, you know, the cosmopolitans, which is a slightly different animal.

And I thought she did it in a much more genial -- I hate to say it, but I guess hockey mom sort of way.

JIM LEHRER: Richard, do you want to respond to that, that savage attack?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: No, no. I'll defer to David. He listens to Rush a lot more than I do.

I think talk radio -- let's broaden the universe, all right, and the bloggers on the right are going to adopt this woman. I think they see her as one of their own.

I think you -- in that sense, I think she made a very auspicious debut and overnight will be seen as -- one of the things we talked about is, where does the party of Ronald Reagan go? I think a whole lot of those folks will decide that she represents where this party will go.

Accomplishments of Palin's speech

JIM LEHRER: Mark, do you think that -- you know, of course, a lot of the talk going into all this tonight -- I mean, the expectations, you used the word earlier, I mean, they were -- a lot of people said, in fact, we said it right here, and a lot of people wrote it, this woman was either going to fail dramatically or succeed dramatically, probably because of this speech.

Do you agree with that? I mean, did you...

MARK SHIELDS: I didn't' agree that this was make-or-break moment for her.

JIM LEHRER: You don't? OK.

MARK SHIELDS: No, I thought -- I thought this was a big test for her and it was obviously her introduction, but they had looked at tapes of her. And that was one of the things that recommended them to her, recommended her to them was she was a speaker, an excellent speaker. And I think that was established going in.

No, the test will be on the campaign trail, you know, as things come up, as they do in a campaign.

Her attempt here tonight, Jim, was to play the outsider, which she did very well and with her own biography, and to cast John McCain as the candidate of change. They're trying, you know, almost feverishly to make McCain the candidate of change.

In a year when change and -- you know, they're in full flight from the Bush record. There's no question about it. They continue to attack Washington, to attack Washington. It's broken.

I mean, we hear that in speech after speech after statement, all of which are part of the McCain effort. I thought, when she talked about the presidency is not supposed to be a journey of personal discovery, and that the danger is not just a community, it doesn't need an organizer, I thought that was belittling Barack Obama.

JIM LEHRER: OK. But, generally, you thought this worked for her?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I would say the one hole was the -- what's the policy here? It was mostly about character. There's still a policy hole in the Republican platform.


Well, thanks to you all and to all others who participated in our coverage. And that ends it for this third night, Sarah Palin's night at the Republican National Convention here in St. Paul.

We will be back, of course, tomorrow night, first at our regular NewsHour time, and then again here on most PBS stations at 8 p.m. Eastern time for our coverage of the Republican National Convention.

We'll see you then, online, and with even more coverage. For now, I'm Jim Lehrer. Thank you, and good night.