Sunday Watch 9-28-08

In which George Stephanopoulos shies away from moments of truth

In a democratic society, what is the point of questioning a candidate or any other powerful figure? When the network gets its “get,” what does the public get?

The purpose isn’t self-evident. The host of a Sunday morning show in particular—America’s bulliest pulpit—can’t justify him- or herself by serving as a “stenographer with amnesia,” as the late Jack Newfield said once, and memorably, about the general run of Washington reporting. The network higher-ups certainly crave a bump in eyeballs and eardrums, but that’s a private interest and cannot be the whole of the public’s due, either. The candidate may enjoy his or her minutes in the national spotlight, but the exercise is not intended for their pleasure.

To perform a public service, an interview ought to (in journalists’ jargon) “advance the story”—to move the candidate out of the zone of the known into the less known. It ought to display the candidate’s mode of thought, his or her tone and style especially frustrated—for politics is, among other things, a Mick Jagger world when you don’t always get what you want, and the public has the right to see how the candidate acts in that circumstance. The cause of public knowledge is not served if the questions crash into a familiar wall; if they elicit no more than the usual string of talking points; if they repeat what others have asked already in visible venues; if the answers only replicate the boilerplate in the stump speech or on the website.

Most of all, the public is not served when mistakes, distortions, and lies go uncorrected.

Politicians are more or less artful dodgers. To be useful, interviewers have to slip beneath their defenses. If they hear an evasion, they need to ask the question again. Fair’s fair: This gives the interviewee a chance to wriggle off the hook. And if not, it makes plain that they fail, or refuse, to talk straight. The cheap substitute for such explorations is the Gotcha moment. The more difficult way is to ask the question a different way, to root around, to explore motives and causes.

George Stephanopoulos’s best moment with John McCain this week came when the host asked McCain about what was, to me and several others (for example, James Fallows), the most peculiar and conspicuous physical fact of the debate.

Here’s how the moment went on ABC:

STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, during the debate, it seemed that you were reluctant to look at Senator Obama.

MCCAIN: I wasn’t.


MCCAIN: Of course not.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, we went back through the tape, and some people were saying that that was showing disdain for him. Is that fair?

MCCAIN: I was looking at the moderator a great deal of time. I was writing a lot of the time. I in no way know how that in any way would be disdainful.

Friday night, it was not hard to see many moments when McCain was refusing to look at Obama but was not looking at the moderator or writing. Many. He was staring at the audience or at the camera. When Obama approached at debate’s end, McCain glanced at him for a fraction of a second, then looked away. Did Stephanopoulos miss these moments? If he saw, why didn’t he challenge McCain? Instead, the interview veered away from verifiable fact and went to this odd locution about his intention:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Certainly not what you intended?

A strangely helpful way to put the question, starting with “Certainly”—putting exculpatory words in McCain’s mouth. Why didn’t Stephanopoulos challenge McCain about where he was looking when he wasn’t looking at Obama?

McCain contradicted himself a moment later: “I don’t look at my opponents because I’m focusing on the people and the American people that I’m talking to.” So he was retracting his previous claim that he had been busy with the moderator and note-taking. Or, to be more generous, he was supplementing it. Perhaps he really didn’t know where he was looking. In any event, we lost an opportunity to hear McCain explain himself.

Here are some other roads left untaken during this interview:

• As during the debate itself, McCain made much of his antagonism to earmarks. Since the president’s only choice with earmarked bills is to sign them or veto them, was he pledging to veto every earmarked bill? More important, Obama made the case Friday night that earmarks amount to $18 billion a year, less than two months of the Iraq war, and a puny amount compared to the total budget, let alone the $700 billion figure tossed around as the cost of this week’s bailout. What does McCain make of that?

• “You made an extraordinary decision this week to suspend the campaign,” Stephanopoulos said. Many commentators have pointed out that, while he was supposedly suspending his campaign, his offices remained open, he fund-raised, and his ads ran. This is not opinion, this is fact. The proper way to broach the subject would have been: “You made a decision to say that you were suspending your campaign. But you did X, Y, and Z. What about that?”

• Stephanopoulos asked a good question about the Congressional bailout deliberations for which McCain “suspended” his campaign: “So what role did you play? How were you helpful, do you believe, in the process?” McCain: “I will let you and others…be the judge of that.” A repeat of the question suggests itself, since McCain blew it off the first time. But there was no second time.

• Stephanopoulos was pointed when he said: “[Y]our own economic adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, told The New York Times, said the campaign cannot yet project how many taxpayers might see their taxes go up, but for some, Mr. McCain’s health care tax credits would not be large enough to compensate for his proposal to eliminate the tax breaks.” McCain responded: “Actually, my position is that it will be able to give people actually more money to go out and purchase tax — health — health insurance on their own.” But the next position ought to have been: On what basis? Your chief economic adviser says otherwise. Why do you hold your position?

• Finally, Stephanopoulos managed a valuable observation about McCain campaign proximity to the accursed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: “[Y]our own campaign chairman has taken millions of dollars from Fannie and Freddie Mae and their supporters. Your own legislative liaison, the man directing your transition, your senior adviser,…all of them have taken money from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for several years, right up until last month.” McCain led with his standard what-do-I-care-what-the-peons-say response: “Anybody can make whatever charge they want….The facts are that none of my campaign people are lobbying or receiving a dime for lobbying and have not for a long period of time…they haven’t for actually, I think, for two years, the latest one. Some of them have never been.”

This was a start, but only a start. “The latest one”—the latest campaign official to take Fannie Mae money—is his campaign manager, Rick Davis. But Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff and Holly Bailey report this week that “Freddie Mac, the troubled mortgage giant that was recently placed under federal conservatorship, paid [Davis’s] firm $15,000 a month between 2006 and August 2008….the payments to Davis’s firm, Davis Manafort, are especially problematic because he requested the consulting retainer in 2006—and then did barely any work for the fees, according to two sources familiar with the arrangement who asked not to be identified discussing Freddie Mac business.” As David Kirkpatrick wrote in the NYT Sept. 23, “The disclosure undercuts a statement by Mr. McCain on Sunday night that the campaign manager, Rick Davis, had had no involvement with the company for the last several years.”

It gets worse. Not only was Davis drawing money from McCain via his Davis Manafort company, but, according to Isikoff and Bailey, “another entity created and partly owned by Davis—an Internet firm called 3eDC, whose address was the same office building as Davis Manafort’s—received payments from the McCain campaign for Web services, collecting $971,860 through March 2008.”

When McCain reverted to his claim that he’s as maverick as all get-out, Stephanopoulos stood by and watched.

Finally, Stephanopoulos did have one more good moment. He showed a video in which Sarah Palin “seemed to share Senator Obama’s position” on “talking out loud about perhaps going into Pakistan,” saying in Philadelphia last week: “If that’s what we have to do stop the terrorists from coming any further in, absolutely, we should.” McCain answered: “She shares my view that we will do whatever is necessary. The problem is, you don’t announce it.” A moment later, after a follow-up, McCain was adding in extenuation: “She was in a conversation with some young man that - or whoever it was.” The problem McCain doesn’t recognize is that the American people have a right to know under what conditions their president thinks it right to commit acts of war on the other side of a foreign border. This very question is the gravamen, after all, of the Bush doctrine that Palin seemed never to have heard of in her interview with Charles Gibson.

By definition, it’s hard to confront people who make careers of evasiveness. But it can be done. Katie Couric showed the way when she refused to take flight in the face of Sarah Palin’s meanderings last week. Some journalists have gotten off the McCain bandwagon, realizing that Mr. Straight Talk, profane, gossipy, blunt, was taking them for one ride after another. Stephanopoulos himself has been tougher on him before. I can’t think of any good reason why he let up now.

P. S. The competition was no better. On Meet the Press, McCain operative Steve Schmidt declared that his candidate “called for the firing of Don Rumsfeld.” Tom Brokaw did not challenge this statement. Crooks and Liars gives several examples of McCain explicitly opposing Rumsfeld’s defenestration.

The same site also notes that Brokaw said: “[W]e continue to poll on who is best equipped to be Commander in Chief, John McCain continues to lead in that category, despite the criticism from Barack Obama, by a factor of 53 to 42 percent in our latest NBC/WSJ poll.” But the NBC/WSJ poll didn’t ask about being the commander in chief, claims Crooks and Liars. I checked; they’re right. What’s going on over at NBC?

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Todd Gitlin , who chairs the interdisciplinary Ph.D program in Communication based at the Columbia Journalism School, is the author of 17 books, of which the next is a novel, The Opposition.