Smarting from her recent portrayal on HBO, and in the doghouse with her boss at Fox News, Sarah Palin this morning inhabited a new role on TV: affable guest host of NBC’s Today show.
“It’s been a great morning,” the former Alaska governor said from Rockefeller Plaza, flanked by Al Roker, Ann Curry, and Matt Lauer. “You guys are awesome!”
With longtime Today host Katie Couric appearing across the dial on ABC’s rival Good Morning America, which is on the cusp of ending Today’s years-long winning streak in the ratings game, NBC booked Palin as a surefire numbers draw. The former GOP vice-presidential nominee put aside her contempt for the “lamestream media” for a chance to go head to head with Couric, who mortally wounded her in the 2008 campaign with an interview in which Palin could not name a Supreme Court decision she disagreed with or a newspaper that she read regularly.
A recreation of that interview was one of many unflattering scenes in the recent HBO movie Game Change, based on the best-selling book of the same title by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Real footage of Couric was spliced with Julianne Moore’s brutal portrayal of Palin as an unstable Arctic ditz.
Palin’s not quite over it. The first shot of her on Tuesday’s Today show found the ex-governor nose-deep in a broadsheet, sitting amid stacks of newspapers on the set’s white sofa. A day earlier, calling in to the show as she flew east via Minneapolis, Palin had been taunted by Lauer: “What are you doing to prepare? Are you reading some newspapers?”
Each morning Today walks a line between news and entertainment, and Palin’s appearance was no different. At the top of the show, she was interviewed by Lauer—grilled on whether she’s happy that Mitt Romney is emerging as the probable GOP nominee (“Anything is still possible. There can still be a bit of a shakeup,” Palin said) and why she was unhappy with the direction of the economy (President Obama has caused high gas prices, she said). And given her thrashing in 2008, Lauer asked, should the GOP nominee pick a more seasoned running mate than she?
“I would say it doesn’t matter if that person has national-level experience or not, they’re going to get clobbered by the lamestream media that doesn’t like the conservative message,” Palin said. “There will be that double standard applied, whoever it is.” Lauer pointed out that for the morning, at least, she was a member of the “LSM” herself.
After the 2008 election, Palin resigned as Alaska governor and became a paid contributor at Fox News. That once-symbiotic relationship—Palin got a regular platform and the network benefited from the parsing of her every appearance for clues about another run for office—has turned rocky. In October New York magazine reported that Fox News CEO Roger Ailes was “infuriated” with Palin for announcing her decision not to run for president in 2012 on a talk-radio show, not on Fox, and considered pulling her off the air for the duration of her contract. For Palin, appearing on a general-interest network broadcast like Today is an audition of sorts for a broader role.
By 8 a.m., Palin was out of the Lauer hot seat and into the guest-host gig—standing amid sign-waving tourists outside the Today studios in Rockefeller Plaza, and sitting on a panel with Star Jones and Donny Deutsch to hold forth on topics she doesn’t address on Fox: Oprah Winfrey, Jessica Simpson, Facebook bullies. Later she murmured approval as Tori Spelling showed off hostessing tips. “How do you have time for any of this, Tori?” Palin asked the expecting mom.
“You have to appreciate, she’s in the entertainment business. She’s making a living for her family. She’s going to go where she can best do that,” said one person who knows Palin. “And my guess is she probably thinks she’s getting sort of typecast on Fox as a conservative talker, and she wants to broaden her image a little bit.”
For NBC viewers more accustomed to seeing Palin behind a podium ripping on President Obama’s policies, seeing the politico sharing screen time with Wilson Phillips and baked brie may have been jarring. On Monday, the Today show gang seemed borderline hostile to Palin’s involvement, with former anchor Meredith Vieira calling it a “desperation” move on the air. By the midpoint of Tuesday’s broadcast, the tune had changed.
“You did a great job, Sarah Palin,” co-host Ann Curry told her after a segment on raising teenage daughters, literally patting her on the back.