How Sarah Palin is risking ruin

Analysis: TV will make or break former VP candidate

True to the title of her upcoming book, Sarah Palin will be "Going Rogue" on TV next week.

While she'll be playing it safe on her book tour by sticking to smaller cities where she has devoted followings, Palin is venturing deep into hostile territory on the boob tube. On Monday, she goes face to face with Oprah Winfrey, an avowed supporter of Barack Obama, followed by ABC News' Barbara Walters.

It's a risk she is willing to make to maximize sales for "Going Rogue: An American Life," reaching out beyond the conservative base that will also tune her in sitting for interviews with Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren.

But the risk isn't that Winfrey or Walters will harshly interrogate Palin out of some politically motivated animus; neither seems particularly ideologically driven on air (Winfrey never actually supported Obama within the context of her show).

But they are capable of making a guest squirm now and then, unlike interviewers like Larry King, the go-to choice for public figures looking for kid-glove treatment.

That said, the style of interviewer isn't really the issue. Putting Palin on the defensive doesn't require drilling her like an Alaskan oil reserve; she has proved herself capable of crumbling on national television all by herself.

You see, there are two Palins. There is the winsome charmer who wowed crowds at the Republican National Convention and the vice presidential debates. And then there is the other Sarah who can self-destruct in spectacular fashion under even the lightest questioning from the likes of Katie Couric or Charlie Gibson.

Sometimes the presence of an interviewer isn't even necessary to make her wilt, as we saw in her solo breakdown upon resigning from the governorship of Alaska.

Which is why the stakes are so high for Palin's TV appearances next week, which will be crucial in defining a future that isn't pointed in any clear direction. While experts suggest she is positioning herself for a presidential run in 2012, Palin will have to avoid repeating past TV miscues to erase the memories responsible for polls that show at least seven out of 10 Americans believing she's unqualified for the presidency.

Of course, Palin's penchant for running off the rails is the primary reason she attracts so much attention. Half the audience watches because they love her, the other half love to watch her screw up. And the media can maintain a veneer of respectability in overdosing on coverage because she is, after all, a politician.

Or is she? Palin has been dogged by persistent speculation that she harbors showbiz interests, and the feeling is mutual depending on whom you ask in the TV business. But the on-air meltdowns are no less concerning to the producers who could hire her than the voters who could elect her.

Which raises an obvious question: Why does the Palin camp even allow her to do TV? Her book will be a best-seller regardless. She could sidestep mainstream media entirely and tout it as evidence of her rogueiliciousness. And there is so much wind-twisting Winfrey or Walters can impose on Palin given unanswered questions ranging from the motivation behind her abrupt resignation as governor of Alaska to her reportedly frosty relationship with John McCain's campaign.

But the reason she must return is that there's no other way to clear the cloud that hangs over her prospects than to demonstrate an ability many doubt she has: the verbalization of lucid thought under questioning.