A few weeks ago, Charlie Gibson of ABC News was the first journalist who got to ask Sarah Palin "the question," the one everyone is still asking, the one Palin will tackle as text or subtext for 90 minutes in next week’s debate with Joe Biden.
"Can you look the country in the eye," Gibson asked, "and say, ‘I have the experience and I have the ability to be not just vice president but perhaps president of the United States of America?’" The 44-year-old newly minted vice presidential candidate did not falter: "I do, Charlie … I’m ready.’‘
Of course, this was a big-deal interview (Palin’s first as potential veep) and Gibson couldn’t just take yes for an answer. "When McCain asked you to take the No. 2 spot, for a moment, did you think no?" Palin: "I did not. I thought yes right off the bat.’‘
And still Gibson kept at her, testing the patience of some of us in the 10-million-strong TV audience. "And you didn’t say to yourself, am I experienced enough? Am I ready?"
Palin, with a hint of a smile: "I didn’t hesitate, no."
Gibson, again: "Doesn’t that take some hubris?’‘
Asked and answered, counselor.
It was hard to imagine a man in Palin’s position being badgered in quite this same way. (When Katie Couric of CBS got her chance with Palin on Wednesday, she pushed her hard to answer questions on the Wall Street crisis, conflict-of-interest questions and the possibility of a new depression, although Couric didn’t quiz her in such a personal way.) But it was impossible not to hear Gibson as the voice — and there always is one, even if it’s just inside your head — that says "What on earth makes you think you can do this?"
Whatever Sarah Palin heard inside her head, what she said was, "I’m ready." It does take nerve (and yes, maybe some hubris) to make a leap this big. But has such a leap ever before been attempted? Most definitely, it has. Men throughout history have run for — fought for, maneuvered for, taken at knife- or warhead-point — the ultimate big jobs without spending 30 years in training. (Before he took over the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke had served in several government advisory roles, but his day job was teaching college. Hank Paulson may be an old Wall Street hand, but can he really say he has the experience to run the entire U.S. economy? Does anyone have that experience?)
It’s only now, though, that many women of Palin’s generation are showing the same chutzpah, trying for the kind of positions — in politics, in business, in the arts or sports — that go beyond the obvious next step. (Some describe Couric’s ascension to news anchor that way.) This is what we’ve urged each other to do for years, and lately it’s acquired its own HR buzzword: the "stretch job.’‘
Armelle Carminati, who directs global "human capital’‘ for Accenture, the consulting firm, says that these days, she doesn’t look just for skills; you need "elasticity. The less we’re able to predict what will happen on the business landscape, the more agile we need to be — flexible enough for regular reinvention." Accenture is holding Stretch Roles events in 26 countries next March, targeted to its 60,000 women employees, in connection with International Women’s Day.
Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, 52, a Minnesota Republican, did the stretch too: A tax litigator with grassroots volunteer experience on education issues, she first ran for state senate in her forties, and later for Congress. She got lots of "how can you do this?" flack, in part because, like the Palins, Bachmann and her husband, a therapist, were also raising five children (plus, over the years, 23 foster children). "I wasn’t offended," she says. Still, she found Charlie Gibson’s barrage "astounding. For a national media personality to engage in that type of stereotyping while demanding political correctness of others? It’s jaw-dropping. "[This is] the kind of success story feminists have been waiting for for 30 years," Bachmann says.
Palin has always reached big. She led her high school basketball team to a state championship, headed her school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes and was a Miss Alaska runner-up. Although new to national politics, she did the step-by-step routine locally; four years on the Wasilla, Alaska, city council; six as mayor. She ran — and lost — her first statewide campaign, for lieutenant governor, in 2002, but was named to chair the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (but resigned in 2004 over what she said were ethics lapses by fellow Republican commissioners).
To be sure, Palin’s own aw-shucks, it’s-just-us-moms-here routine sometimes undercuts her bring-it-on bravado. When she decided against a Senate run in 2004, she cited responsibilities to her kids: "How could I be the team mom if I was a U.S. Senator?" Just weeks before McCain named her, Bachmann says, Palin didn’t seem to take her chances seriously. "I don’t think I’m on McCain’s long list," Bachmann says Palin told her over dinner. "I’m just a hockey mom."
Voters, of course, will decide if they think Palin is ready. In the meantime, when asked whether Barack Obama was ready to be president, Bill Clinton remarked that, in a sense, no one is ever ready for the job. And yet, every four years, someone always fills the president and VP candidate slots — and, except for Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, that someone is always a man.
Choosing Palin was not only a bold move for McCain and a game changer for Palin’s career, it has also inarguably altered the trajectory of their party, with many now considering Palin — and women like her — the future of a revitalized GOP.
And, not least of all, it has forced us to have a national conversation about the big questions about work, family and gender. Were we just kidding, for example, when we said motherhood should be no more of an obstacle than fatherhood?
Whatever your politics, you have to admire Palin’s moxie in stepping up and refusing to blink. Joe Biden, beware.
Melinda Henneberger covered the 2008 Republican National Convention for MORE.
Originally published on MORE.com, September 2008.