Charlie Gibson’s three-part interview (video) with Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin last week scored big in the ratings, reports trade pub Broadcasting  & Cable:

Charles Gibson’s interview … on Thursday’s World News elevated the broadcast to its most-watched installment since February. 

World News was watched by 9.73 million people with a 2.5 rating/10 share in the 25-54 demographic, according to Nielsen Media Research fast affiliate data. 

That was more than 2 million more viewers than NBC’s Nightly News (7.51 million viewers with a 2 rating/8 share in demo) and 3.57 million more viewers than CBS Evening News (6.15 million, 1.6/8). 

The portion of the interview that created the most buzz was Gibson’s “gotcha” line of questioning on the Bush Doctrine that Palin gamely parried as she tried to figure out what, exactly, he was asking her to comment on until Gibson clarified his question with what turned out to be an incomplete explanation of the Bush Doctrine:

Gibson: Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?  

Palin: In what respect, Charlie?  

Gibson: The Bush – well, what do you – what do you interpret it to be?  

Palin: His world view.  

Gibson: No, the Bush doctrine, enunciated September 2002, before the Iraq war.  

Palin: I believe that what President Bush has attempted to do is rid this world of Islamic extremism, terrorists who are hell bent on destroying our nation. … 

Gibson: The Bush doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that?  

Palin: I agree that a president’s job, when they swear in their oath to uphold our Constitution, their top priority is to defend the United States of America. … 

Gibson: Do we have a right to anticipatory self-defense? Do we have a right to make a preemptive strike again another country if we feel that country might strike us?  

Palin: Charlie, if there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country. In fact, the president has the obligation, the duty to defend. … 

Gibson: But, Governor, I’m asking you: We have the right, in your mind, to go across the border with or without the approval of the Pakistani government.  

Palin: In order to stop Islamic extremists, those terrorists who would seek to destroy America and our allies, we must do whatever it takes and we must not blink, Charlie, in making those tough decisions of where we go and even who we target.

Gibson: And let me finish with this. I got lost in a blizzard of words there. Is that a yes? That you think we have the right to go across the border with or without the approval of the Pakistani government, to go after terrorists who are in the Waziristan area?

Palin: I believe that America has to exercise all options in order to stop the terrorists who are hell bent on destroying America and our allies. We have got to have all options out there on the table.  

Funny, but Tom Brokaw had no trouble following Barack Obama’s stuttering, stammering responses to his questions on “Meet the Press” back in July and made no complaint about the torrent of words the candidate used to say not much of anything (second item). Is Gibson trying to say that Palin talks too much – like all women?

The double standard aside, The Wall Street Journal’s John Fund was among many who found Gibson’s questions “tough but largely fair,” except when “[h]e brought up the ‘Bush Doctrine’ without any explanation of its content and asked her what she thought of it.” But The Washington Post’s media critic Tom Shales noted that Gibson seemed to have undergone a personality change when conducting that first interview:

Usually likable and personable on-screen, Gibson seemed uncharacteristically pompous during part of the first interview … But in subsequent sessions with Palin, he was his old chummy self. …

Gibson sometimes appeared pretentious and imperial, and asked many questions in a low, grumbling mumble. With his glasses pushed down near the end of his nose, he looked like a professor questioning a student, trying to trip her up – which he did when he asked Palin whether she concurred with “the Bush doctrine.” …

Somewhat condescendingly, Gibson explained to Palin that the Bush doctrine has to do with “anticipatory defense” and the use of a “preemptive strike” against a potentially hostile power.

Amazingly, the most sympathetic reactions to Palin’s predicament over the Bush Doctrine came from Dem operatives and pundits not known to be favorably disposed towards conservatives. Case in point: Shales quotes James Carville as saying he’s “not surprised” that Palin didn’t know what the Bush Doctrine was – and in the context of Shales reporting, his comment wasn’t meant to disparage Palin. What Carville meant was that the Bush Doctrine has morphed so many times that no one knows what, exactly, it encompasses anymore.

WaPo columnist Dan Froomkin concedes, “I’m not sure anyone is entirely clear on what the Bush Doctrine is at this particular moment.” Froomkin quotes Jacob Weisberg, who enumerated six Bush Doctrines in his book “The Bush Tragedy”:

Bush Doctrine 1.0 was Unipolar Realism (3/7/99-9/10/01); Bush Doctrine 2.0 was With Us or Against Us (9/11/01-5/31/02); Bush Doctrine 3.0 was Preemption (6/1/02-11/5/03); Bush Doctrine 4.0 was Democracy in the Middle East (11/6/03-1/19/05); Bush Doctrine 5.0 was Freedom Everywhere (1/20/05- 11/7/06); and Bush Doctrine 6.0 (11/8/06 to date) is the “absence of any functioning doctrine at all.”

Weisberg’s analysis was borne out by the WaPo’s interviews with several foreign policy experts – a couple of whom actually had a hand in crafting at least one of the Bush Doctrines – on its various incarnations:

Intentionally or not, the Republican vice presidential nominee was on to something. After a brief exchange, Gibson explained that he was referring to the idea – enshrined in a September 2002 White House strategy document – that the United States may act militarily to counter a perceived threat emerging in another country. But that is just one version of a purported Bush doctrine advanced over the past eight years.

Peter D. Feaver, who worked on the Bush national security strategy as a staff member on the National Security Council, said he has counted as many as seven distinct Bush doctrines. They include the president’s second-term “freedom agenda”; the notion that states that harbor terrorists should be treated no differently than terrorists themselves; the willingness to use a “coalition of the willing” if the United Nations does not address threats; and the one Gibson was talking about – the doctrine of preemptive war. …

In an interview, Bush press secretary Dana Perino said that “the Bush doctrine is commonly used to describe key elements of the president’s overall strategy for dealing with threats from terrorists.” She laid out three elements:

“The United States makes no distinction between those who commit acts of terror and those who support and harbor terrorists. … We will confront grave threats before they fully materialize and will fight the terrorists abroad so we don’t have to face them at home. … We will counter the hateful ideology of the terrorist by promoting the hopeful alternative of human freedom.”

You can compare those interpretations with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s latest stab at an explanation, as well as this critique by Robert Kagan, former speechwriter for Secretary of State George P. Shultz and a foreign policy advisor to GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain.

As WaPo columnist Charles Krauthammer – who coined the term “Bush Doctrine” to describe the earliest manifestation of this amorphous set of principles notes:

If I were in any public foreign policy debate today, and my adversary were to raise the Bush doctrine, both I and the audience would assume — unless my interlocutor annotated the reference otherwise — that he was speaking about the grandly proclaimed (and widely attacked) freedom agenda of the Bush administration.

Not the Gibson doctrine of preemption.

Not the “with us or against us” no-neutrality-is-permitted policy of the immediate post-9/11 days.

Not the unilateralism that characterized the pre-9/11 first year of the Bush administration.

Presidential doctrines are inherently malleable and difficult to define. The only fixed “doctrines” in American history are the Monroe and the Truman doctrines which come out of single presidential statements during administrations where there were few other contradictory or conflicting foreign policy crosscurrents.

Such is not the case with the Bush doctrine.

Based on this information, if you go back and re-read Palin’s answers, she was clearly  feeling her way through Gibson’s faulty premise to try to answer his question best she could – but not because she knew any less about the Bush Doctrine than her interviewer. Her first instinct to maneuver Gibson into being more specific was perfectly understandable, and her first answer to his first attempt at clarifying his inscrutable question - “his world view” – was actually dead-on.

Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog, chosen an Official Honoree in the Political Blogs category by the judges of the 12th Annual Webby Awards (the Oscars of the online universe) along with CNN Political Ticker, Swampland (Time magazine) and The Caucus (The New York Times).

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