Yes And No
By A.D. Freudenheim  

14 March 2004

As much as we here at TTAISI appreciate nuance, we find ourselves wishing for less of it at the beginning of this presidential campaign. Yes, less nuance: less flip-flopping and less waffling, reductions in sidestepping or backsliding; a qualitative and quantitative effort to provide direct answers – and we want more direct questions, too.

This may sound like an attack on Senator John Kerry, already being hammered by President Bush and the Bush campaign organization as having a sliding set of views on different issues – which, in Mr. Bush’s view, makes Mr. Kerry a less capable candidate for president than the incumbent himself. There is some truth to the accusation of waffling; Mr. Kerry’s talent for hair-splitting has been evident throughout the campaign for the Democratic nomination, as his responses to questions in interviews or debates, on subjects from gay marriage to responsibility for the Iraq war, make clear.

However, Mr. Bush is hardly a model of clarity either. While he likes to portray himself as a decision-maker, a leader who knows how to lead, this is only true in one sense: he knows how to give direction to his minions. When it comes to the American public, his answers have been less than forthright, too - though perhaps because Mr. Bush is not as smart as Mr. Kerry, his evasions usually take the form of sidestepping rather than hair-splitting. For example, asked by interviewer Tim Russert “Why do people hold you in such low esteem?”, President Bush replied:

Heck, I don’t know, Ronald Reagan was unpopular in Europe when he was President, according to Jose Maria Aznar. And I said, ‘You know something?’
He said to me, he said, ‘You’re nearly as unpopular as Ronald Reagan was.’ I said, ‘so, first of all, I’m keeping pretty good company.’
I think that people — when you do hard things, when you ask hard things of people, it can create tensions. And I — heck, I don’t know why people do it. I’ll tell you, though, I’m not going to change, see? I’m not trying to accommodate — I won’t change my philosophy or my point of view. I believe I owe it to the American people to say what I’m going to do and do it, and to speak as clearly as I can, try to articulate as best I can why I make decisions I make, but I’m not going to change because of polls. That’s just not my nature.[1]

Mr. Bush’s answer reeks of self-indulgent evasion, offering no glimpse or glimmer of self-criticism (or, even, self-awareness) while he praises himself for the tough job he’s trying to do in speaking as clearly as he can ... and all while not answering the question directly.

Taking potshots at politicians can be entertaining, but they are only one part of the problem we face in our impoverished political discourse. The other, perhaps larger and more troubling culprits are the free and independent media we hold so dear, and who permit this lack of clarity to continue unabated. American journalists readily seem to accept unclear answers, and are hardly known for their doggedness in the face of evasion (except where celebrities are concerned, and then they are more invasive than the average colonoscopy). The Russert/Bush interview referenced above was at the aggressive end of the spectrum, and even there Mr. Russert did not exactly call the President to account for “answers” that hardly said anything at all.

This is not about media bias of of one kind or another; both left-wing and right-wing media outlets are equally guilty of a failure to follow-through. It is about a belief in the value of a straightforward “yes” or “no,” even in response to serious, multi-faceted questions. Instead, American journalists seem to feel that it would besmirch their reputation for “objectivity” to suggest what the rest of us already know: that a question has been evaded. Asking a follow-up must seem to imply that they are unsatisfied with the answer given – and in this dissatisfaction they might reveal political leanings that are contrary to the interviewee’s. Or perhaps it is simply about respect; that in asking a follow-up question, journalists worry that they are not taken seriously enough to have received a full, complete and direct answer the first time.

Sadly, while taking potshots at the media can also be entertaining – it is still too easy. The ultimate blame for the poor quality of our politicians and our journalists rests with us, the constituency for both groups. We should demand more from them – more honesty, more integrity, and more clarity – and more from and for ourselves. Pick up an American newspaper today, and much is being made of the eight months of campaign time left until the November election. Wouldn’t it be great if the eight months of this campaign did more to reveal new qualities in our politicians and their platforms than simply to reinforce existing views about their weaknesses? If news coverage helped us make rational decisions by pushing for in truthful answers to tough questions that helped define how the candidates’ policies might affect our lives?


Or maybe, No.

[1] From an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press”; the full transcript of Tim Russert's interview with President Bush is available on the web here:   Copyright 2004, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.