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I’m So Glad You Asked ...

What’s a good question to ask a politician on television? This itself is an important question because TV interviews have become central to our democracy. They are the main point of contact between citizens and political leaders. Politicians’ speeches are one-actor plays written by someone else, or by a committee. The presidential news conference is almost dead. Because of the separation of powers, the United States has never had the healthy democratic tradition of prime minister’s question time, in which the nation’s leader submits to interrogation by the legislature.

Only the occasional TV interview, including those we call debates, stand between us and an automaton presidency, in which every moment of public exposure is scripted. Trouble is, answers in TV interviews -- especially the presidential debates -- are scripted too. A great question, therefore, is one that gets the politician “off message.”

Based on six years of trying, on CNN’s “Crossfire,” I can say with reasonable assurance that you cannot get a politician to answer a question if he or she doesn’t want to. What’s worse, the simple techniques of evasion are spreading. By the time I left “Crossfire” in 1995, minor members of Congress and the heads of small-time interest groups were as slick as major-state senators had been in 1989. Nowadays, they’re probably teaching Basic Media Evasion in kindergarten. (“Look, Mike, the American people don’t care whether I belted Mary Louise during milk-and-cookies. They are far more concerned about the need for new nap mats, which is why I have proposed a three-part plan that would guarantee....”)

My inadequate solution was to pose a question three times and give up, hoping the evasion would at least be obvious. But for that or any other technique, the follow-up question is essential.

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In Thursday night’s presidential debate, the questions from Jim Lehrer found the perfect midpoint between the League-of-Women-Voters-style (“senator, please tell us your position on healthcare”) and the gotcha approach of “Crossfire” or Tim Russert (“two years ago you said tomayto, yet now you say tomahto”). But the stupid rules forbade Lehrer all but the most decorous and neutral follow-up. So, for example, when John Kerry unfurled (not once but twice) his silly, prepared “socko” sound bite about how President Bush had “outsourced” the war in Afghanistan instead of using American fighters, Lehrer couldn’t say: “Wait a minute. Isn’t your big complaint about Iraq that Bush has not outsourced that war? What’s the difference?” And then when Bush launched into semi-comprehensible bragging about his “multilateral” approach to the nuclear threat from North Korea, no one could ask why this multilateral magic was so wrong when Kerry applied it to Iraq.

To answer these questions would require a bit of thought or truly brazen evasiveness. In either case, we might learn something interesting. Moreover, the main purpose of a follow-up question isn’t to reduce the politician to stunned sobs (although that would be nice) but to enforce some degree of intellectual honesty. It’s more about putting pressure on his first answer than hoping for improvement in his second.

But before the follow-up, what’s the perfect question? The tell-us-your-position approach is hopeless. You might as well elect a Xerox machine and be done with it.

The gotcha approach is better, but there is good gotcha and bad gotcha. A good gotcha question is looking for insight. A bad gotcha question is just looking to move the story along. (“Congressman, your opponent has accused you of negative campaigning for saying that he has unfairly attacked you for criticizing him over an ad by some of his supporters alleging that your ads about him are inaccurate. What’s your response?”) Unfortunately, any pol with a Boy Scout Merit Badge for Intermediate Evasiveness can parry any kind of gotcha, even a gotcha with follow-ups.

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A different technique for cracking the carapace is the personal question. A terrific current practitioner is Terry Gross of public radio’s “Fresh Air.” On radio, without all the stressful atmospherics of TV, her malicious trick is to seduce her subjects into a real conversation. In the cool dark, chatting pleasantly about the pleasant subject of themselves, her victims often slip pleasantly off-message. Charlie Rose often achieves the same effect with long, dizzying questions that circle up, down and around like a roller coaster, then dump the disoriented guest into a void of silence, which he or she then fills revealingly.

But the formality and bright lights of a presidential debate are unlikely to produce unintended personal revelation. So what’s left? The best question of the presidential campaign so far came back in January. The questioner was John DiStasio of the Manchester Union Leader. He asked all the Democratic contenders during a debate: Would you “pledge now to use your power as president ... to actively oppose any efforts” to take away the New Hampshire primary’s first-in-the-nation status.

At first this sounded uniquely dumb. On second thought, it seemed uniquely brilliant. First, a specific call to action makes evasion difficult. You can blather on if you want, but you either take the pledge or you don’t. Second, it blindsides the victim with a subject he probably has no spin prepared for. Third, it sets up a delicious Faustian bargain: You can be exposed to the nation as a ludicrous panderer, or you can refuse to pander and alienate New Hampshire during the few moments every four years when anyone gives a damn what New Hampshire thinks.

Unfortunately, Sen. Joe Lieberman, who got the question, found a brilliant solution. He did an exaggerated pander -- “I will pledge to the death to protect the New Hampshire primary, so help me God.”

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This signaled to the rest of the country that he was joking, while still giving New Hampshirites a guarantee that he wouldn’t mess with their primary. Spin, 1. New Hampshire, 0.

So the search for the perfect question goes on. Any suggestions?


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