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The art of not answering questions

Posted: July 26, 2012 - 12:05am

From time to time, political candidates come by the office so that we can ask them questions and they cannot answer them. The art of not answering questions is more difficult than you’d think.

You don’t want to just flat say you won’t answer a question. That makes people suspicious. The very best not-answerers, former President Bill Clinton comes to mind, have perfected the art of not answering questions in such grueling, point-by-point detail that until you go back your notes and listen to the tape, you don’t realize that even though they spoke for five minutes, they never actually answered your question.

We had a newbie in here last week. His name is not important at this point, but he’s a political novice who obviously had been coached to his eyeballs by his handlers: “If they ask you about this, talk about that. If they ask you about this, talk about that.”

Professional political handlers train their candidates in a tactic they call “The Pivot.” When asked a question you don’t want to answer, you say, “I’m glad you asked that” and then you pivot like LeBron James and answer something completely different at great length. The longer you talk, the fewer questions you have to not answer.

Not everyone is LeBron James. The newbie hadn’t mastered the moves. No matter what we asked him, he’d refer to his military career or his business career or his family and make an allusion that had absolutely no bearing on the issue he’d been asked about.

I thought afterward that he must have trouble buying groceries. When they ask, “Paper or plastic?” he’d tell them a story about basic training.

Once I knew a public relations man who was excellent at not answering questions that his clients didn’t want answered, but his manner was not subtle. “That’s not the question you want to ask,” he’d say. “The question you want to ask is ...”

He would then go on to tell me something I didn’t want to know. This tactic apparently worked well for him because he went on to have a fabulous career in public relations based on the simple tactic of not answering questions in a bossy way.

These days, according to a recent story in the New York Times, there are bossy new “quote approval” rules out on the campaign trail. Reporters can ask a candidate’s aides whatever they want, and the aides can answer or not answer them in any fashion they like, but then the reporters have to email the answers back to the aides so they can revise them before publication.

Thus, on the off chance a reporter gets an actual answer, the aide gets a second chance to not answer the question. Apparently this is standard operating procedure for the Obama campaign.

I can’t decide which side of this transaction is wimpier _ the aide who’s such a weasel that he won’t stand by his own words, or the reporter who’s so desperate to prove to his boss that he has access to big shots that he goes along with these ground rules.

My theory is that if someone doesn’t want to talk to me, fine. But then he doesn’t get to complain about what I write.

Which brings us to Mitt Romney. Of all the ways to not answer questions, he has chosen the worst one of all. He won’t answer questions, and then he complains about the criticism.

The questions are why he won’t release his tax returns for the years before 2010. He’s even being careful about which parts of his 2011 tax record he releases.

All this does is make people speculate. Robert Bentley, the Republican governor of Alabama, said last week, “If you have things to hide, then maybe you’re doing things wrong. I think you ought to be willing to release everything to the American people.”

Ron Paul, the Republican House member from Houston, told Politico that Romney is making a mistake: “Politically, I think that would help him. In the scheme of things politically, you know, it looks like releasing tax returns is what the people want.”

Even The National Review, founded by the sainted William F. Buckley, says Romney should open up.

Why would you give your opponents that kind of ammo? You don’t answer a question, you give people a license to speculate. Tax havens? Deducting campaign costs as a business expense? Confusing statements about when he actually left his job at a hedge fund? Where’d that $102 million IRA come from?

That’s just the start. Al-Qaida futures? The investment in the start-up company shovegrannyoffthecliff.com?

You run for president of the United States, or for that matter, any political office, you’ve got to cowboy up. The questions don’t get any easier if you’re elected.

• Kevin Horrigan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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