/Katie Couric ended Sarah Palin’s vice presidential ambitions on this day in 2008

Katie Couric ended Sarah Palin’s vice presidential ambitions on this day in 2008

On This Day: Sept. 24, 2008

The Happening

Sarah Palin became an overnight political rock star when Republican presidential candidate John McCain introduced her as his running mate in the 2008 election cycle that eventually ushered President Barack Obama into the White House. His victory seemed less than assured when Palin introduced herself to the public on Sept. 3, 2008, though. In her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, the then-governor of Alaska thrilled the audience with a lively 45-minute speech where she promoted her conservative credentials and small town family values. As one commentator later put it, it was “the best speech of her career” and seemed to promise a long and fruitful political career.

But that career came crashing down weeks later when Palin sat down opposite then-CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric for an extended interview that instantly entered the halls of TV infamy alongside Richard Nixon’s disastrous debate performance opposite John F. Kennedy and Michael Dukakis’s tank ride. It was a conversation that the McCain campaign had hoped to avoid, largely keeping Palin away from one-on-one chats with reporters. According to Palin’s memoir, senior advisor Nicole Wallace became the loudest voice in the room for letting the Couric interview go forward, telling the candidate: “Katie really likes you.” (Wallace disputed Palin’s version of events.)

Campaign staffers later said that Palin nixed the idea of doing extensive preparation ahead of her sit-down with Couric, which lasted over 40 minutes. The first segment from their conversation aired on the Sept. 24 edition of the CBS Evening News, with subsequent snippets airing in primetime and on The Early Show. From the beginning, Palin’s lack of prep showed in her halting, sometimes contradictory answers. Asked by Couric for “concrete examples” of where McCain pushed for more regulation over Wall Street, Palin responded vaguely: “I’ll try to find you some and I’ll bring them to you.”

But more damaging moments were yet to come. On Sept. 25, Couric aired the portion of their interview where Palin discussed her foreign policy bonafides and memorably cited Alaska’s proximity to Russia as experience in international relations. “Our next door neighbors are foreign countries,” Palin said, adding: “As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where do they go? It’s Alaska. It’s just right over the border. It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right next to, they are right next to our state.”

And then on Sept. 30 came Magazine-gate. In an interview that was recorded after their initial conversation, Couric asked Palin what her media diet was like. “I’ve read most of them again with a great appreciation for the press,” the governor replied, while notably declining to specify any newspapers or magazines. “I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news, too.”

What Happened Next

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 24: CBS News anchor interviewed vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin on Tuesday, September 24 in New York City.  The exclusive interview broadcast on the CBS Evening News With Katie Couric. BEST QUALITY SCREEN GRAB.  (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Couric interviews Palin on Sept. 24 in New York City. (CBS via Getty Images)

If Rotten Tomatoes collected reviews of political interviews, Palin’s performance opposite Couric would definitely have ended up on the “Rotten” side of the scale. “Ms. Palin’s answer was surprisingly wobbly,” wrote New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley, referring to the exchange about Alaska and Russia. “Her words tumbled out fast and choppily, like an outboard motor loosened from the stern.”

“She can’t effectively get the point across, and the result is a little bit like watching someone with stage fright in the early episodes of American Idol,” opined New York Magazine’s Chris Rovzar. “It made us just feel queasy and kind of sorry for her.”

Reaction was just as mixed within conservative circles. “The Katie Couric interview shows that she needs to be briefed more on certain aspects,” the Republican chairman of Florida Jim Greer told The New York Times. “She needs to demonstrate that she’s got the knowledge and ability to be president should the need arise.” And Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review, cringed at Palin’s “dreadful” appearance, adding: “She risks damaging her political brand forevermore.”

For their part, the McCain campaign tried to downplay the self-inflicted damage. “We had our plan and we stuck with it,” Wallace told The New York Observer. “We’re thrilled we did. We thought Governor Palin did great.” But polls showed that Palin’s various media appearances were eating away at her initial support. In one poll, only 40% of respondents felt she was qualified to be president.

And then Tina Fey entered the chat. The 30 Rock star returned to her Saturday Night Live stomping grounds to play Sarah Palin, making her initial debut on a Sept. 13 episode opposite Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton. The duo reprised their double act on Sept. 27, this time with Poehler playing Couric opposite Fey’s rambling Palin. “In an effort to bone up on foreign policy, I went to the Times Square area to see a film called The Bush Doctrine,” Fey joked. “It was not about politics.”

Fey’s Palin also memorably elaborated on how Alaskans like herself kept watchful eyes on Russia. “Every morning when Alaskans wake up, one of the first things they do is look outside to see if there are any Russians hanging around. If there are, you gotta go up to them and ask, ‘What are you doing here?’ And if they can’t give you a good reason, it’s our responsibility to say ‘Shoo, get back over there.'”

In the weeks leading up to the 2008 election, Palin and the McCain campaign tried to put the Couric chat in the rearview with additional interviews and a better-reviewed debate performance opposite Obama’s running mate, Joe Biden. But her increasingly divisive presence dragged down the ticket. On Election Day, Obama and Biden ended up with a decisive victory, winning 365 electoral votes and 53% of the popular vote. Palin headed back to Alaska… but she didn’t stay there for long.

Where We Are Now

Fort Washington, MD - March 2 : Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin walks between interviews on the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference CPAC held at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on Thursday, March 02, 2023, in Fort Washington, MD. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Palin attends the Conservative Political Action Conference in March 2023. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In July 2009, Palin officially resigned as Alaska’s governor, and threw herself back onto the national political stage, eventually embracing the rising Tea Party movement. While she didn’t run for higher office herself, she sought to become an influential endorser, eventually supporting former president Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign. In 2022, Palin campaigned in a special election to replace Alaska congressional representative Don Young, but once again lost decisively to the Democratic candidate Mary Peltola.

While Palin still has a following within conservative circles, she’s also been followed by personal and political issues that have largely made her a marginal figure in U.S. politics. And the shadow of the Couric interview still looms large over all of her media appearances. In 2010, Palin accused Couric of trying to “create controversy” and ruled out ever speaking with her again. But five years later, she acknowledged that she had a less-than-ideal response to the “newspapers and magazine” question. “Was it a fair question? Yeah, sure. I had a crappy answer, but it was a fair question.”

For her part, Couric has always stood by the interview, while also making it clear that she wasn’t out to end Palin’s political career. “The questions were not gotcha questions,” she told Howard Stern in 2013, two years after her departure from CBS for a stint at ABC and then Yahoo before founding her own production company, Katie Couric Media. “I went in with the attitude that there was a lot that was not known about her. I really approached it as I would have approached any political candidate who was not that well-known.”

“On a human level I felt bad for her because she was clearly struggling,” Couric noted in a 2018 interview. “On the other hand, I couldn’t understand why John McCain hadn’t done more, or the McCain campaign, had thoroughly vetted her in a much more serious way. Clearly, she was not ready for primetime — she was out of her depth.”

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