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Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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38 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    A Gotcha Question is a question that a good candidate would answer well and it would not be news… but the candidates that we actually have answer poorly.

    “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

    This is an example of a gotcha question.

    A good candidate would have been able to answer the question well.

    Dukakis, sadly, was not.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Jaybird says:

      True. I bet if he’d said

      “I believe I would absolutely want them killed, no question, in fact I’d want to do it myself. But that’s exactly why we have these laws: to ensure we as individuals in moments of passion and anguish don’t cross lines that we as a society know are ultimately pointless and destructive.”

      you’d never hear a Democrat complaining it was inappropriate.Report

    • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Jaybird says:

      Ace example, Jaybird. That was the heinous question of the ages, completely unfair to Dukakis.

      Tod’s point is also correct, that we can judge how fast on his feet a candidate is with the most unfair and absurd of questions, but we make a mistake if we think that’s enough to be president. One can be glib and quick, but bad for the country.

      Implicit in this is a certain begging of the question, although Jack Kennedy is probably the all-time glib champ. Asked what he was doing for women’s rights, Kennedy, with a proper sheepish grin, replied, “Well, I’m sure not enough.” The hall of reporters roared, the question mooted, and whatever JFK said after that is lost to historical irrelevance.

      [And of course it didn’t hurt to be JFK, with a press corps that adored you.]

      Below is the transcript of the debate last night. As we see, Brian Williams begs the question a bit, assuming a premise that innocent men are executed, however hypothetically or rhetorically he phrases it.

      Basically, Perry rejects Williams’ initial premise out of the box. Did Perry handle the loaded question well? In some quarters, I’m sure not well enough.

      “Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times,” NBC’s Brian Williams told Perry as the conservative audience cheered and applauded. “Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?”

      “No, sir, I’ve never struggled with that at all,” Perry stated. “In the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is you will be executed.”

      The audience cheered again at Perry’s mention of “the ultimate justice.”

      “What do you make of that dynamic that just happened here, the mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause?” Williams asked.

      “I think Americans understand justice,” Perry explained. “I think Americans are clearly in the vast majority of cases, supportive of capital punishment. When you have committed heinous crimes against our citizens, and it’s a state-by-state issue, but in the state of Texas, our citizens have made that decision, and they made it clear, and they don’t want you to commit those crimes against our citizens, and if you do, you will face the ultimate justice.”Report

      • Tom, I think you miss some of my point here. It’s certainly true that there is the “can they think on their feet” aspect – and I will +1 your observation that this may or may not be a sign a person will be a good elected official.

        But when discussing the death penalty when it is an actual issue… Why is it not OK to ask someone if they might change their mind (and public policy) if someone they know and love is raped or killed? Likewise, why is it not OK to ask someone on the other side of the fence how they deal with the very real possibility that the policy sometimes sends people not guilty to their death at the state’s hand?

        I for one would actually like it if our potential leaders discussed these thorny, complicated issues as if they were thorny and complicated. I’m not sure where it gets us to just go the “generic tough issue question followed by safe talking point answer” route.Report

        • But when discussing the death penalty when it is an actual issue… Why is it not OK to ask someone if they might change their mind (and public policy) if someone they know and love is raped or killed?

          Tod, I would yield benefit of the doubt that principled objection to the death penalty would have contemplated such a thing, or would be unswayed by it. But what if the guy mutilated your wife by x, y and z? You can keep doubling down on the absurdity, but it’s remains absurd in the first place.

          There’s a way to say this, of course, and not with great difficulty if you’re the philosophical type practiced in composing cogent replies.

          But even the two recent superstars of glib, Reagan and Clinton, didn’t answer questions that way. The best way to kill an absurd question is to ignore it [most do], or choke it in the crib by abolishing the premise.

          Likewise, why is it not OK to ask someone on the other side of the fence how they deal with the very real possibility that the policy sometimes sends people not guilty to their death at the state’s hand?

          Well, because you’re just allowing yourself to let the interlocutor to drag you into tall weeds of choosing, where he has a trap waiting. Perry’s long answer is that Texas has adequate safeguards and review boards, and it’s their job, not the governor’s, to pick through the facts of the case to make sure that the innocent are spared. [A Texas governor could probably expend the lion’s share of his time on such review were he so inclined. Advocates such as Innocent Project, etc. spend months on a single case!]

          I for one would actually like it if our potential leaders discussed these thorny, complicated issues as if they were thorny and complicated.

          This gets to “the city in speech” vs. the city in action. There are only provisional truths; we need our leaders to act upon them, not play Hamlet, to be or not to be. That’s our job.

          We admire prudence of course, but we can’t afford paralysis by analysis. It’s our job to sweat our way to our core provisional philosophical conclusions. Then we vote for the guy who is willing and able to put them into action.

          VOTE FOR HAMLETReport

          • Avatar Jeff in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

            Joan Baez has a wonderful essay on Non-Violence that riffs on this. She imagines a person asking her questions that are asked of those in the non-violent movement, but which, posed in series seem more and more absurd, until she busts out with a wildly funny absurd scenario of her own.

            Truth in Advertising: I love Joan Baez, as a person and as a singer, more than I can possibly say.Report

      • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        @TVD, if the transcript says what you’ve quoted here, the transcript is truncated. Watching the video again, Perry says the following:

        No sir, I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear, process in place in which if someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens – you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved in another crime and you kill one of our citizens…

        Now I’m curious what website gave you the transcript and why they edited out the section in bold above? Was it to make Perry look more bloodthirsty and less intelligent? Has it begun already? Bush Jr. was inarticulate, Perry is not. He was clearly pointing out that Texas has procedures in place to ensure that innocents don’t go to execution. That isn’t how the press (nor Kain) it treating this however.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        That was the heinous question of the ages, completely unfair to Dukakis.

        I don’t know that it *WAS*.

        Imagine, instead, The Duke saying “look, I’d want to kill the son of a bitch with my bare hands… but if after I choked the life out of the guy and I was standing over his body, they found out that, nope, it was someone else entirely and I had just choked out an innocent man, then what? It’s important that we have a process whereby we don’t kill innocent people just because of our emotional outrage and grief in response to heinous crimes!”

        Even people who support the death penalty can nod and say that that would be a good answer to the question… and the question, which was a gotcha question, magically becomes an opportunity for Mike Dukakis to demonstrate his Liberal Maturity.

        (Incidentally, this is also the problem with Sarah Palin. A question that should be easy enough for anybody to answer gets all sorts of weird sentences from Palin. The Paul Revere thing provides the best example. It’s a banal question. “Hey, whatcha doing on your vacation?” except, after Palin starts saying… things… it suddenly becomes a “gotcha” question. A real politician would be able to answer it deftly. The ones we have…)Report

      • Avatar Jeff in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        Williams begs the question a bit, assuming a premise that innocent men are executed

        Not a presumption. It is pretty certain that Cameron Todd Willingham was innocent of arson (and any other crimes he might have committed are moot, since he was only charged with arson). So there’s one that Perry knew was innocent (otherwise, why break up the investigating commission. Who knows how many more have been killed?Report

        • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Jeff says:

          @Jeff, it has already been established that there is no such thing as “innocent” in the eyes of the law. There is only guilty and not guilty. Willingham, who may well have been guilty of multiple heinous crimes that aren’t in /this/ record WAS found guilty of arson. For that he died. Calling him “innocent” is both begging the question and bullshit on its face.

          If Al ‘Scarface’ Capone were to have his tax evasion conviction overturned on some technicality, would he suddenly and miraculously become an “innocent” man? We have it on pretty reliable evidence that he personally killed multiple people. Too bad the witnesses who might have testified against him were also killed. Guess our justice system is no match for a ruthless sociopath.Report

          • Avatar Jeff in reply to wardsmith says:

            Willingham, who may well have been guilty of multiple heinous crimes that aren’t in /this/ record WAS found guilty of arson.

            Irrellevent verbiage removed.

            The Commission found that the intial investigation used techniques out of date at the time, and that it was highly unlikely that the fire was arson. If they had been allowed to go forward, there were plenty of grounds for a new trial.

            Perry took the “thoughtful, a very clear, process in place” and threw it in the trash.Report

            • Avatar Jeff in reply to Jeff says:

              I keep forgetting that this site doesn’t support “strike-through”.

              “, who may well have been guilty of multiple heinous crimes that aren’t in /this/ record” was supposed to be struck through.Report

            • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Jeff says:

              You’ve clearly made up your own mind, since this ties directly into your narrative that Perry (and all Republicans for that matter) are evil incarnate. I get it. Too bad there are other opinions that don’t jibe with your own.

              John Bradley, the top prosecutor in Williamson County who also chairs the Texas Forensic Science Commission, said he believes the effort to have Willingham declared innocent is not about justice – or even the guilt or innocence of Willingham.

              “What they are interested in is finding the poster boy for the abolition of the death penalty,” Bradley said. “And they want to make Willingham that poster boy. And they chose poorly, because Willingham is a guilty monster.”

              All your remonstrations to the contrary, fires do not start themselves. If the fire had had a natural origin that would have been obvious too, the argument boils down to whether in 1992 they were as “expert” as they were in 2004 concerning fires.Report

    • Avatar Aaron in reply to Jaybird says:

      A candidate, no matter how practiced, will eventually stumble when faced with questions like that. It then becomes a question of whether the media chooses to depict the flubbed answer as defining or as fitting a particular narrative, or if it dismisses it as irrelevant.

      When you hear politicians complaining about “gotcha questions”, it’s usually to distract people from the fact that they flubbed the answer. After all, if you answer even a true “gotcha” well (the ‘good answer’ above resembles how Mario Cuomo once answered a similar question) nobody cares or remembers. It’s only if you answer poorly that you have to blame somebody else for your performance.Report

  2. In one of Kain’s comment threads I defined a Gotcha question as one in which the correct answer is implied in the question. For example, “Governor, do you feel guilty driving a Porche to work every day when there are out of work citizens in your state?”Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

      Which would, I think, include Williams’ death penalty question. There was something about the tone of it that made me cringe (and I’m, by the way, one of those effete fellows opposed to the death penalty) — but what I don’t think we’ve seen discussed is the way Perry responded to what was, to my mind, a clearly antagonistic question: “No, Sir.”

      I didn’t watch the debate, and I’m not that familiar with Perry’s rhetoric. I know that he has (or has at least been accused) of making some rather extreme and/or out-there, and/or thusly-phrased statements. But if he’s capable of couching that sentiment in polite, mild, deferential language (as he did the opening of that response), then I think those on the left who’re salivating over the prospect of the GOP picking Perry might want to watch what they wish for.

      That is, there’s a rhetorical method to take a lot of the wind out of the “only adult in the room” strategy without altering a single position — and Perry might be the one best positioned to implement it.Report

    • Then my question to you , Mike, would be why is that inappropriate? Going one step further, assuming that this type of question is asked to further underline a narrative that’s already believed about the candidate, why shouldn’t the candidate welcome the change to answer the question that’s already out there on their own terms?Report

  3. A gotcha question would be the opposite of a softball question. It’s a question you ask in part because you believe that you’re going to get an unfavorable answer.

    Gotcha question: “How well do you sleep at night knowing that you sent the military out to kill innocent women and children?”

    Softball question: “How good do you feel that your actions in Vlatava have liberated millions from tyranny?”

    Real question: “Regarding our actions in Vlatava, given the sacrifices involved and the rewards reaped, is there anything you might do differently or are you entirely comfortable with the decisions that you made?”

    It’s not that there’s no right answer to the first question, or that you can’t screw up the second question, but rather it’s geared towards determining how good a candidate is at unpretzeling the question and giving a good answer in short order. In other words, it reveals more about suaveness than revealing much about their convictions or how they handle complicated issues.

    Perhaps I’m sensitive to this because I don’t consider myself dumb, but my mind does work on a bit of a time delay.Report

    • Avatar NoPublic in reply to Will Truman says:

      It’s not that there’s no right answer to the first question, or that you can’t screw up the second question, but rather it’s geared towards determining how good a candidate is at unpretzeling the question and giving a good answer in short order. In other words, it reveals more about suaveness than revealing much about their convictions or how they handle complicated issues.

      Or it reveals that they’ve actually, you know, thought about the side effects of their decisions on more than one occasion and have formed a cogent philosophical and moral framework for them. But I know, “Thinking Bad. Beer Good”.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to NoPublic says:

        I just don’t see it that way. The connection between how much a person thinks about things and how quickly they can formulate a response to an awkward question incorporating these thoughts is very inexact. The second part is more a question of verbal agility than intelligence.

        I thought that Rick Perry (politically) answered the question better than I would have, in his shoes. I do not think that this is because Rick Perry has given more thought to the moral implications of the death penalty than I have. I doubt he ever gave it a second thought. The fact that I *do* have a nuanced view (I’m broadly opposed, but with narrow exceptions) actually makes the question more rather than less difficult to answer for fear of verbal diarrhea.

        Or, more to the point, Rick Perry’s answer was a whole lot better than Mike Dukakis’, at least in terms of political fallout. Do you think this is because Rick Perry is a more intelligent or thoughtful person?Report

        • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Will Truman says:

          Reporters are asking questions which would generate an objection to the judge in a court of law. They are loaded questions along the line of, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”, which is in every law textbook as a question which canNOT be asked. Loaded questions by definition insinuate an answer that (depending on the “load”) can be morally reprehensible to the casual listener. Producing a good answer on short notice to a complex question is difficult indeed, as Dukakis and others have learned to their chagrin.

          I used to debate, I turned down multiple free rides to Ivy schools because I didn’t want to continue to debate. In debate you truly are thinking on your feet. It is no different than a quarterback having to make the right decision at the right time.

          My old alma mater about 10 years ago starting giving Letterman’s jackets and letters to debaters as a “sport”. Naturally the “jocks” complained. So they had a debate. Turned out when the jocks had to produce coherent thoughts in milliseconds they were as stymied as debaters might be at dealing with a nickle blitz. The athletes voted unanimously to allow debaters to wear letters, they earned them.Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Will Truman says:

          > The connection between how much
          > a person thinks about things and how
          > quickly they can formulate a response
          > to an awkward question incorporating
          > these thoughts is very inexact.

          That’s totally true. When you’re running for political office, as your first go, I would expect this to be readily apparent.

          After you have something of a career talking to a mic, less so.Report

          • I still think this attitude gears itself more towards the “quick talker” rather than the guy who necessarily knows more or thinks about more. Would I rather have a guy that thinks more *and* is good on the spot? Sure, sure. But I don’t think it says all of that much about Perry that he was able to somewhat field this question (if not to everybody’s satisfaction, to the satisfaction of those who count) while Dukakis flailed.Report

  4. Avatar Koz says:

    The real complaint against gotcha questions is that they tend turn the conversation toward irrelevant trivia, in fact for the most part that’s the intention. I’m not intending to make any particular point about Rick Perry or the Republican debate fwiw.Report

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