Washington Week

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Taking the candor challenge

Let me let you in on a Washington reality game show ----the ongoing push and pull between journalists and the people they cover.  The prize: simple candor.

By candor, I don’t mean that I expect the people we interview to act contrary to their own best personal and political interests.  But in an ideal world, it would be nice if everybody could at least try to play by the same Q&A rules.

To wit: we’ll ask the smartest questions we possibly can, and you will at least take a stab at offering a revealing answer.

This springs to mind because of three interview segments which aired on the PBS NewsHour during the past week or so.  I interviewed US special envoy Richard Holbrooke about the fallout from the General Stanley McChrystal firing and its implications for US policy in Afghanistan.  Jim Lehrer interviewed Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on the state of the troubled US economy.  And Judy Woodruff interviewed Republican Senators Bob Bennett of Utah and Jim DeMint of South Carolina – who find themselves at war within their own party.

When I asked Holbrooke about widespread criticism (as chronicled everywhere from Rolling Stone to Foreign Policy) that relationships among the administration’s top war leaders was dysfunctional, he professed surprise that anyone would think such a thing.

“I’ve worked in every Democratic administration since the Kennedy administration, and I know dysfunctionality when I see it,” Holbrooke told me.  “We have really good civilian-military relations in this government.”

I am sure General McChrystal, relieved of command 24 hours after his staff suggested otherwise, would have an interesting opinion on that, were he to be candid.

Was Holbrooke saying what he truly believed? Perhaps.  Was he being candid?  Unlikely.

Then, consider Secretary Geithner’s NewsHour visit.  Listening to him during the interview left me puzzled.  But reading the transcript afterward cleared everything up.

No matter what Jim asked, whether about the jobless recovery, the jittery stock market or slippery housing prices and foreclosure rates, Geithner did what he came to do – predict better times ahead, acknowledge that people still feel bad because the original scars were so deep, and praise the President for avoiding an even deeper hole.

He used one of the President’s favorite words – “confident” or “confidence” – nine times in the course of the interview.

“What you can say today with confidence is we're in a much stronger position today than we were 18 months ago, a much stronger position to deal with our challenges ahead,” Geithner said.  “And we're going to continue to work to make sure we make progress and restore - repairing what was damaged, restoring a basic sense of confidence to American businesses and American families.”

Now, contrast these two interviews with the candor the Republican Senators shared when talking about the challenges facing their own party.

For Bennett, those challenges hit home earlier this year when he lost his bid for reelection to a fourth term in the nation’s most Republican state – a victim of a wave of anger from his most conservative constituents.

“The concern I have about the anger that we’re seeing that’s being fed by talk show hosts and others,” Bennett told Judy, “is it will be like a wave that comes in and smashes on the beach and destroys everything there, and then recedes back into the ocean, and leaves nothing behind it but empty sand.”

No half measures in that language.  The same went for DeMint, who has embraced the libertarian Tea Party movement and will openly admit that any other party label is not working for him.

“It is very difficult to work with the Democrats because they’re not working for the good of the country,” DeMint said – candidly.  “And the Republicans have been partially guilty of that in some ways, but not nearly to the degree.  I think this idea of we have got to work together doesn’t work anymore.”

How to explain the candor from Bennett and DeMint versus the caution from the two Administration officials?

Part of it is the setting.  Both Holbrooke and Geithner sat down for live interviews with firm time constraints that can allow interviewees to be only as forthcoming as they choose.  DeMint and Bennett sat down for more open-ended interviews that were taped and woven into a larger story.

The other reason is the stakes.  Administration officials have to answer to the White House for everything they say on television.  If you doubt that,  look no further than Jim's July 8 interview with Rahm Emanuel, where the White House chief of staff spent a full five minutes sidestepping questions about when and how the President makes decisions.  It doesn't seem complicated to describe the actions of the chief executive, but Emanuel obviously sees it differently.  "The less said the better," he said.

And when Jim continued to press:  "I feel like I'm dealing with my children on their homework," Emanuel added.  Now there's candor for you.

But I remain forever the optimist. Sometimes, when we least expect it, someone actually answers the question.  Or, alternatively, the non-answers tell us exactly what we need to know.