Learning from @RepWeiner: The Unfortunate Herman Cain Press Conference

There is only one standard by which a mid-scandal press conference succeeds or fails.  That is whether reporters (plus political opponents) leave the conference with more leads, loose ends, and unanswered questions than they had when they walked in, or fewer.

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By that standard, Cain's event (right, Reuters photo) was a disastrous failure, in that any assignment editor, reporter, or reasoning person has more to wonder about after the conference than any of them did when it began.

For instance:

- What is this "Democrat machine" that Cain says was orchestrating the attack on him?

- Why would a "Democrat machine" be working against him now, given that (as James Carville, Donna Brazile, and others instantly pointed out) Cain would be the Democrats' dream GOP nominee? Why wouldn't Democrats save their ammo for the general election campaign?

- How can Cain say, flat out, that he saw Sharon Bialek "for the first time" at her press conference yesterday, if a photo witness apparently exists of him seeing her at a Tea Party rally recently? [The newspaper picture is of the witness who says she saw Cain talking with Bialek at a Tea Party rally in Chicago.]

- If he's willing to take a lie detector test in "proper" circumstances, what would those be?

- If the NRA harassment claim(s) was/were determined to be "baseless," who made that determination?

- If they were baseless, why did the NRA pay out so much money?

- If his wife said that the accusations from Ms. Bialek "didn't sound like something he would do," what would be his style? 

- When he said that "there will probably be others," what does he mean, and why?

- When he said so often that he could not "remember" anything untoward happening, was he indicating a difference between "I don't remember doing X" and "I never did X"?

- If this was his chance to get everything out in the open once and for all, why did he cut off questions when reporters still had things to ask?

- And while we're at it, why does Herman Cain keep referring himself in the third person, as in "Herman Cain would never do such a thing"?

The model of a mid-scandal press conference that wore out the opposition and left the reporters with fewer questions than they'd showed up with was Geraldine Ferraro's open-ended press conference in the summer of 1984. She was running as Walter Mondale's vice presidential nominee, she was dealing with questions about her husband's finances, and she shrewdly said she would stay and answer any query -- but only that one time. It worked.

The model of a press conference that made things worse was any of a number of appearances by @RepWeiner, back during his travails. They just provided more loose ends, fuel, strange sounding half-denials, and blanket statements inviting disproof. They added fuel to the controversy rather than exhausting it.

Unfortunately for him (and for the Democrat machine), Herman Cain applied the @RepWeiner rather than the Rep. Ferraro model this evening. (Also see Ta-Nehisi Coates's live blog and Molly Ball's wrapup.)

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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