MJ: Sarah Palin rolled through the VP debate you moderated saying whatever she pleased. How is that allowed in a national debate format?
GI: I'm not quite certain how you can force a candidate to stick by the rules that they agreed to, other than spending your precious 90 minutes jumping up and down and screaming. I think that once the candidate and the commission have agreed to what the format is going to be, and keep in mind that one of the basics, whether you sign an agreement or not, of the debate is that you are going to answer questions. If one of the candidates shows up and decides, that's not my job, there's not much you can do about it. One of the unwritten rules in a presidential news conference is that he'll answer questions. If he chooses not to, there's not much you can do about it other than make yourself look like an idiot screaming, which to me is counterproductive.
When she said to me at the beginning of the debate—which, by the way, she did me a favor by making it clear to everyone watching that she wasn't going to answer the questions. When she said that to me, I had an option. I could say, What? How dare you? Or I could let the viewers at home understand, just let it lie, and let them conclude, which most of them did, that she was playing by her own rules. I reached the conclusion a long time ago that chasing someone around the table for theater doesn't really get me what I want, which is the answer to my question. What it does is it draws attention to me, which is not the point. So I don't know if there is anything you can do, whether it's by changing the format, changing who runs the debate, bringing in circus clowns—that's going to make candidates answer questions when they've decided not to. I spent, and I know that other debate moderators do, an inordinate amount of time leading up to these debates trying to think literally down to the clause and the comma how to phrase the question in a way that will best elicit an answer. And then how do I make sure there's an equivalent question for the other person on the stage? The distinction between a debate and an interview format is so fundamentally different, and it was one of the things that was lost on people during the Sarah Palin/Joe Biden debate. When you are interviewing someone, you have a chance to follow up, to press, to dig in. In a debate there's 30 seconds for the other guy, too. And the goal is to get them to engage with each other, not to engage you necessarily. So, different moderators do it differently, but that was the dilemma for me.
MJ: It must have been so frustrating when she said that still. That made you want to say, as you've mentioned, "Really?"
GI: I was actually relieved when she said it. My first instinct was to do that, because my eyebrow kind of shot up. The other part of me thought, Ah, she came prepared to say that. She came prepared to push back, hoping, I guess, to engage me in some sort of spat. But that wasn't my role, and in the end I was just happy she made clear her intentions early on so I didn't have to tease it out of her.
MJ: You have called Barack Obama "murky." What do you expect from Barack the president now that this media aloofness got him elected?
GI: It did get him elected, and I think he is intentionally murky, and I mean murky in the sense of, for us as reporters, it's hard to peel back the layers and find out who's the real guy. And that's our job. I remember when I covered Bill Clinton, he was NOT murky—you poked a little bit and you almost always came across something new with him. He probably could have stood a little bit more murk in the end. But when you're covering the president that closely, you spend a lot of time—you noticed his hair length, whether he got a haircut that day—you spend a lot of time just staring at him and trying to satisfy for yourself, Who is this person? Barack Obama resists all that. He is aware of himself in a way in a manner of probably no other candidate I have ever covered. I always think back to the beginning of the campaign, when people were talking about race and whether he was black enough. I remember thinking anybody who has read his book knew he had given more thought to racial identity than any of us alive, because most of us are who we are and we don't think about it very carefully. He spent a lot of time thinking about himself carefully, and put it down on paper, which is the opposite of murky. But it's almost as if he's reached the point where he's saying, I've told you enough; I'm just going to do my job. So for us that makes—we're always looking for signs of something revealing. That's just what we do, and my sense so far is that he's resisting having us know anything more than we need to know except when he chooses to let us know it. Which, isn’t that the ideal for every politician?
MJ: Though not for reporters.
MJ: You talked a little about Michelle Obama, how everyone is obsessed with swatches of her potential clothes, with the fact that she shops at J-Crew. What do you think of this tabloid obsession?
GI: I think it just is what it is. Nothing about it surprises me. We get obsessed with whatever else is new and unexplored. And people did not bother to explore Michelle Obama very carefully during the campaign in terms of what kind of person she was. They latched on to the occasional statement here or there, but they didn't really want to know that much, even though there was a fair bit written about who she was. And she's a brand-new thing for many Americans. No one has ever seen a black woman of accomplishment with a cute husband and cute children who seems perfectly pleasant. And is gorgeous. And because this is America, we still treat women and analyze women in fairly superficial ways, and we get obsessed by the fact that she dresses well. Now, we got obsessed also by Nancy Reagan's clothes, and we got obsessed more in a bad way probably with Hillary Clinton's clothes. This is something in some ways that is completely predictable. But like Barack Obama, there are layers and layers to Michelle Obama we have yet to pull back in part because she came to this role after having a very accomplished career and we've heard almost no talk of what she's going to do with those skills. It doesn't mean that she's going back to work, but it also means she's not going to just be holding teas. She's got to search out that middle ground for what can she be as a first lady.
MJ: You said a few weeks ago, She'll be unlike any first lady we've ever had—how could she not be? Do you believe she will redefine what a first lady is and does?
GI: I think she stands the potential of redefining a lot of things, and it's not just being a first lady. I think a lot of women look at her and say, Wow, she's a mother who's managing to do this. How is she doing that? Someone recently asked me, Will she change the way we look at black families? And I thought, My goodness, I think she'll change, she has the potential for changing the way we look at families. People look at that family, this intact family, with kids who seem to love their parents, parents who seem to love each other, and they represent, and who knows how much of it is what it seems to us, but it represents what everyone wants. It's an American ideal, not just an African American ideal. To have that, and because of their age, because of their youth, it evokes the same emotion that the Kennedys did. Which is, when people say Camelot, I think that's what they mean, even though I don't think it's applicable to Barack and Michelle Obama because the Obamas did not come from the Bouvier and Kennedy families. They didn't have a lifetime of money and privilege. They came from middle-class, food-stamp mothers—not Michelle's mother, but Barack's mother. So you have to assume that they're coming thinking of one generation linked to something different. So that alone means they'd have the possibility to change something, but we don't know what yet.
MJ: Where's the next breakthrough?
GI: Well it's funny, everywhere I go some people ask me whether it's going to be a Latino breakthrough, some people ask me whether it's going to be a female breakthrough, and then I'm reminded that five years ago we didn’t even know Barack Obama's name. So it's really possible it's going to be coming from a place we haven't even looked and seen yet, that all kinds of changes are possible. But I just don't know, and I'm not really good at being predictive, so I guess I'm willing to be surprised.
MJ: You say about race that we have not yet come to a "common place." What might get us there?
GI: I think it's fair to say we are on a journey to that common place. No single election or piece of legislation or ennobling speech will get us there. But Deval Patrick likes to talk about the single-generation leap we have taken to get us where we are now. So it's not crazy to think the next leap could take us even further.
MJ: How does the conversation around racial equality go now that we have millions of well-meaning white folk who say, I voted for Barack Obama, so everything's okay now?
GI: I have discovered as I travel the country talking about this book that people are eager to talk about race in a way that isn't about conflict or guilt or blames. But not even the president thinks we have transcended race. Inequalities driven by race are still far too stark for that.