‘Gotcha’ Questions and the Leaders We Need

‘Gotcha’ Questions and the Leaders We Need

When I first ran for City Council (all those years ago), I had a brief and unpleasant conversation with a newspaper reporter that demonstrated my ignorance of the city. The reporter called to ask one simple question: Did I know the size of the city’s current fiscal year budget?

A perfectly reasonable question I hadn’t a clue how to answer.

Score one for journalism as it revealed how uninformed this council candidate was.

The reporter could have asked about a number of things about which I would have been clueless. Indeed, while I felt I knew a fair amount about the community and its people, I didn’t know much of anything at all about the government of the City of Tampa.

Which may mean that I was not a very good candidate. I should have done my homework before I ran.

Or maybe it just meant that I would have a lot of homework to do if I won.

I was gracious (if I may say so) in acknowledging my ignorance and crediting the reporter with a successful “gotcha.” That much, at least, I knew. It wasn’t the reporter’s fault that I didn’t have an intelligent answer to his question.

But there is a dimension to this practice in journalism . . . and perhaps in us as citizens . . . that is our collective fault. Because we like the “gotchas,” the moments when a question, well-honed and delivered, snares a candidate or public official and demonstrates that, after all, he/she isn’t so smart or knowledgeable after all.

Put differently, it demonstrates that these candidates and elected officials are mere mortals of limited capacity who, like the rest of us mere mortals, are prone to error.

What prompted these reflections was watching the stream of news about the 2016 Republican presidential nomination race (can I pause here for just a moment to express my recurring wonder at how early we conclude that certain candidates are in front, or dying on the vine, or dark horses?).

Former Governor Jeb Bush said back in December 2014 that it may be necessary, if the Republicans are to gain the White House in 2016, for the eventual nominee to “lose the primary to win the general.” It was an interesting definition of the problem Republicans seem to have faced, certainly not one unanimously embraced by all Republican candidates and strategists. But it resonates with many voters, it would seem, who have caught on to the “swing to the right, veer to the center” tactics common to many Republican presidential hopefuls (in fairness, Democrats have their own variant: “swing to the left, veer to the center”). These voters seem to want candidates to be themselves, not pawns to be moved around the ideological board by kingmakers.

The question is, are voters, especially highly partisan voters, willing to let candidates be themselves?

This is where the “gotchas” get to me. I remember Governor Michael Dukakis, an opponent on moral grounds of the death penalty, being asked in a national debate about how he would feel about the death penalty if someone had brutally raped and murdered his wife. His answer was actually pretty honest, and deeply faithful to his core beliefs . . . but it hurt him in the polls.

Or consider the opening salvo against Newt Gingrich in the last debate before the South Carolina primary in 2012, focusing on revelations that he had asked his wife for an “open marriage.” That one, Gingrich turned to his advantage, at least for a while.

Reporters and debate moderators are under significant professional and popular pressure themselves to play “gotcha” with candidates, to strike a decisive blow with a cleverly crafted question. If they can precipitate an embarrassing slip, or an inelegant response, or an emotional outburst, we’ll talk about it for weeks, and we’ll forward it to friends, and “like” it a million times.

It’s all about how many “clicks” one gets on that video clip.

But choosing a leader, whether it’s a president or a governor or a legislator or a councilmember, shouldn’t be a game of one-upmanship. We don’t need slick entertainers or sarcastic pundits.

What we need are leaders who understand us as a people made up of many peoples, as a nation of many and disparate opinions and concerns, who share a common destiny by virtue of a common home. Our leaders don’t need to be perfect, but they need to be perfectly committed to discovering and doing what is best.

Find me one of those, and you’ve got me.