Interviewing Politicians

Of course President Obama’s “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit was nothing but “milquetoast defense after quip after simple explainer,” as Alexis Madrigal put it at The Atlantic:

Much as many would like to believe that the medium determines the message, a modern politician is never unmediated. Not in a pie shop in Pennsylvania, not at a basketball game, not while having dinner, not on the phone with NASA, not on TV, not doing a Reddit AMA.

This resonates with a book I’ve been reading: Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Norman Mailer’s take on the 1968 Republican and Democratic national conventions. Near the beginning of the section “Nixon in Miami,” Mailer writes about the futility of trying to get a politician to say something interesting:

Unless one knows him well, or has done a sizable work of preparation, it is next to useless to interview a politician. He has a mind which is accustomed to political questions. By the time he decides to run for President, he may have answered a million. Or at least this is true if he has been in politics for twenty years and has replied to an average of one hundred-fifty such queries a day, no uncharacteristic amount. To surprise a skillful politician with a question is then approximately equal in difficulty to hitting a professional boxer with a barroom hook. One cannot therefore tell a great deal from interviews with a candidate. His teeth are bound to be white, his manner mild and pleasant, his presence attractive, and his ability to slide off the question and return with an answer is as implicit in the work of his jaws as the ability to bite a piece of meat. Interviewing a candidate is about as intimate as catching him on television. Therefore it is sometimes easier to pick up the truth of his campaign by studying the outriggers of his activity. Therefore the reporter went to cover the elephant.

The elephant in question was Ana, a gift from the people of Anaheim, California to Republican nominee Richard Nixon. Mailer was impressed at how well-prepared the Nixon team was for Ana’s arrival: the Lockheed 100, the Dixieland band, the Nixonettes, and Ana doing a handstand on cue.

“A happy elephant spoke of luck for Nixon,” Mailer wrote, “or at the least, agreeable management down the line.”

The lesson to reporters: Spend less time on the candidates and more time watching how the campaigns marshal their elephants.