Thursday, May 22, 2008

Does this man look smart to you?

It's a pretty well-known phenomenon that in politics, no one is ever required to answer an actual question.

Now, there are a lot of reasons you might not want to answer a question. Maybe the answer is politically damaging. Maybe you're stalling for time. Maybe you simply don't know. Of course, none of those reasons could ever apply to Paul Burns, who - in addition to being omniscient - has a political platform which literally exists in a state of quantum flux. Still, for lesser men, the temptation to avoid questions is real.

And the technique is amazingly simple. If someone asks you a question you don't want to answer, just say some words that are related to whatever the subject happens to be. If they ask it again, do it again. If they call you out on it, merely claim that you did answer the question, and you can't see why they don't understand that. Time is limited; eventually they'll move on.

Except sometimes they don't.

What follows is a transcript of an actual exchange between host Chris Matthews and guest Kevin James, from the May 15 episode of the political talk show Hardball. Chris asks a question; Kevin avoids it; and over the course of three consecutive minutes, Chris repeats the exact same question a total of twenty-seven times. Ladies and gentlemen, this is no mere willful ignorance. What we are witnessing here is a mental emptiness that borders on Zen-like.

(Transcript taken from here; there's also a video.)

MATTHEWS: I want to do a little history check on you because the president‘s referring to history. He attacked those who would imitate Senator William Boar of Idaho, who was a Republican isolationist back in the late '30s, who supported whatever, some notion of getting along with Hitler better. Let me ask you, what did Chamberlain do wrong, Neville Chamberlain do wrong in 1939? What did he do wrong?

JAMES: Oh, come on. It all goes — it all goes back to appeasement.


MATTHEWS: No, what did he do? Tell me what he did.

JAMES: It‘s the key term. It‘s the key term.

MATTHEWS: You have to answer this question. What did he do?


JAMES: It‘s the same thing. It puts it all — we're talking about appeasement.

MATTHEWS: Well, tell me what he did. What did Chamberlain do wrong?

JAMES: His actions — his actions enabled...

MATTHEWS: What did Chamberlain do?

JAMES: ...energized, legitimated. It‘s the exact same — it‘s the exactly same thing.


MATTHEWS: I‘m not going to continue with this interview unless you answer what that thing is. What did Chamberlain do in '39? Tell me, in '38. What did he do? What did he do?


JAMES: Well, '38, '39, Chris. What year do you want? It doesn‘t...

MATTHEWS: What did he do?

JAMES: It doesn't — it's the exact same thing that happened, Chris.


MATTHEWS: What did Chamberlain...


JAMES: He‘s talking — he's talking — he's talking about appeasement.

MATTHEWS: What did Chamberlain do?

GREEN: Chris...

MATTHEWS: Just tell me what he did, Kevin. What did Chamberlain do you didn't like?

JAMES: Look...

MATTHEWS: What did he do?

JAMES: What Chamberlain did — what Chamberlain did that I — what the president was talking about? You just said the president was talking about — you just said the president was talking about Barack. Look...


MATTHEWS: No, no. I want you to tell me, Mister. You‘re making a reference to the days before our involvement in World War II, when the war in Europe began. I want you to tell me now, as an expert, what did Chamberlain do wrong?


JAMES: Look, you're not going to box me in here, Chris. President Bush was making that. I‘m glad — I'm glad the president...


MATTHEWS: You don‘t know, do you? You don‘t know what Neville Chamberlain did in Munich, do you?

JAMES: Of course. What Neville Chamberlain — yes, he was an appeaser, Chris. He was an appeaser.

MATTHEWS: What did he do?

JAMES: And it energized and it legitimatized...


MATTHEWS: Kevin, Kevin James, Kevin James, what did Neville Chamberlain do?

GREEN: Chris, may I try to answer?

MATTHEWS: He doesn't know. You are me.


MATTHEWS: You are talking about a critical point in American history, in European history, and you can‘t tell me what Neville Chamberlain did in Munich. What did he do in '39, '38?

JAMES: Chris, Chris, Chris, I wasn't the one that raised the Hitler comment. My point is—my point is, what President Bush has done is, he has taken this shot across the bow, all right?


MATTHEWS: You don‘t know what you‘re talking about, Kevin.


MATTHEWS: You don‘t know what you‘re talking about.

JAMES: ... know what I‘m talking about.

MATTHEWS: Tell me what Chamberlain did wrong.

JAMES: Neville Chamberlain was an appeaser, Chris. Neville Chamberlain...

MATTHEWS: What did he do?

JAMES: Neville Chamberlain was an appeaser, all right?

MATTHEWS: What did he do?

JAMES: Neville Chamberlain, his — but his policies, the things that Neville Chamberlain supported, all right energized, legitimized...

MATTHEWS: Just tell me what he did.

JAMES: ... energized, legitimized, and made it easier for Hitler to advance in the ways that he advanced.



MATTHEWS: I have been sitting here five minutes asking you to say what the president was referring to in 1938 at Munich.

JAMES: I don‘t know what the — Chris.

MATTHEWS: You don‘t know. Thank you.

It's hideous...but I can't look away.

Anyway, be sure to tune in tomorrow, when we will make an exciting announcement!


Kevin James said...

Well, you have to admit it was kind of unfair. I mean, I'm all talking about politics, and he tries to bring up history? Seriously - what's that about?

The Dapper Anarchist said...

You have clearly never encountered the wonder that is Jeremy Paxman, AKA Paxo. He's an English tv host who, when interviewing the then leader of the Conservative Party, asked the same question some 20 times, loudly, rudely, and it was a rough question to start with, not "What did Chamberlain do wrong" (the question was "did you break the rules by telling someone how to vote?").

We Love Paxo.

Jeremy Paxman said...

Kevin James, I have one thing to say to you: I've met Michael Howard, and you, sir, are no Michael Howard.

Kelsey said...

I think that damaged my IQ just by reading it.

Brian Buckley said...

Kelsey - Maybe under the new administration, we can get a Surgeon General's warning for these kinds of people?