I've now seen much of the Katie Couric / Sarah Palin interview...

... and I genuinely feel sorry for Palin. This really is pathetic. Again it's not a mass/elite matter. Anyone who has been to high school immediately recognizes the terror of facing a pop quiz or an oral exam when you just have no idea what you're talking about.

One hour after her pick was announced, I wrote here:

Let's assume that Sarah Palin is exactly as smart and disciplined as Barack Obama. But instead of the year and a half of nonstop campaigning he has behind him, and Joe Biden's even longer toughening-up process, she comes into the most intense period of the highest stakes campaign with absolutely zero warmup or preparation. If she has ever addressed an international issue, there's no evidence of it in internet-land.
The smartest person in the world could not prepare quickly enough to know the pitfalls, and to sound confident while doing so, on all the issues she will be forced to address...
So the prediction is: unavoidable gaffes. The challenge for the McCain-Palin campaign is to find some way to defuse them ahead of time, since Socrates, Machiavelli, and Clausewitz reincarnated would themselves make errors in her situation. And the challenge for Democrats is to lead people to think, What if she were in charge?, without being bullies about it.

My for-the-sake-of-argument assumption was unwarranted. She is not as smart or disciplined as Barack Obama. If she were, she would sound better than she does at this point. And the McCain team has done absolutely nothing to defuse these problems -- nor, to be honest, has Palin herself apparently learned the first thing about successfully finessing questions she is not ready to handle. (Hint: the approach is not the one she has tried to apply with Katie Couric, that of repeating verbatim the answer that did not do the job the first time around.)

Couric deserves better ratings for the CBS news based on the steely relentlessness of her questions. Unlike Charlie Gibson, and unlike Joe Biden in a (possible!) future debate, she has no background complications of the older white man bullying the younger, attractive woman. She was a professional woman who has clearly earned her position grilling someone whose bona fides she clearly doubted.

And Couric displayed one brilliant technique I recommend to all future questioners.  When Palin ducked a question about financial-bailout provisions, saying that "John McCain and I" had not yet reached a decision, Couric asked the deadly question: "So what are the pros and cons?" There is no way to fake your way around that. As Palin showed.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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