A “Gotcha!” Question

There are plenty of questions that can be answered “really quick”: Paper or plastic, boxers or briefs, Red Sox or Yankees.

But “Is God on America’s side?” isn’t so easy. Yet that was the final question posed by The New York Times’ Elisabeth Bumiller in yesterday’s Democratic debate — and she wanted to know really quick. John Kerry took a stab at it:

Well, God will — look, I think — I believe in God, but I don’t believe, the way President Bush does, in invoking it all the time in that way. I think it is — we pray that God is on our side, and we pray hard. And God has been on our side through most of our existence.

As James Lileks pointed out this morning, Kerry left himself open to a nightmare of a follow-up question (which, thankfully, no one asked during the debate): “Well, Senator Kerry, when wasn’t He?”

In this case, the nightmare came later that day in the form of Matt Drudge, who ran a headline screaming “KERRY NOT SURE GOD ON AMERICA’S SIDE.”

Which raises the question: What’s the point of asking a candidate to summarize his or her position on an incredibly complex issue with a sound bite?

Campaigns already are entirely too dependent upon crafting simplistic, streamlined messages — whether it be in commercials or tidbits tailor-made for the evening news, or canned answers to anticipated questions from reporters.

Campaign Desk, for one, believes that journalists should inject nuance into reporting whenever possible, not remove it. By doing so, they resist the transformation of spin into conventional wisdom — such as the repeated insinuation in 2000 that Al Gore was a liar, or that George Bush was an idiot.

We’ll all have plenty of opportunities to see candidates reduce complex issues to slogans and tired clichés. Why would Bumiller, or any journalist, want to aid and abet that process?

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.