OF ALL verbal phenomena in an election campaign, the bogus “interview” in a broadcasting studio is surely the most endearing. With the hope that their exchanges will be accepted by the audience as spontaneous give-and-take, the participants are usually perceived to be reading their lines, surreptitiously, from concealed scripts.
On rare occasions, when there has been enough time for them to memorize the text — and there hardly ever is — the interviewer and the candidate face the TV camera boldly and are obviously not reading at all. That they are nevertheless reciting memorized parts is betrayed only by their rather mechanical style of delivery and the remarkably wooden quality of the text itself. Did one man ever address another in such language? Never.
The audience may wonder why the interview form is chosen, instead of the harangue unabashed, if its disabilities are so evident. Why not have the candidate simply make his speech and let it go at that? The answer lies in the personality of the candidate, his limited budget for the campaign, and the quality of the expert guidance available under the circumstances.
J. Stoughton Doakes, for instance, is running for Congress in Nírvana, Ohio. Doakes bought up enough tax titles in the Depression to set himself up in the real-estate game and now, at age sixty-two, he has decided to spare some time to the public service. It should be added that Doakes is in the wrong party, and that most of Nirvana is in the other camp. That’s how Doakes happened to get the nomination: no one else wanted it.
As a speaker, Doakes is calamitous. No audience could be expected to stick with him for fifteen minutes at any time of day or night; it would be throwing money away to put him on the air. So Doakes’s campaign manager, a low-priced publicity man who believes that anyone can write for radio and TV, decides to broach Doakes to the voting public in an interview. “We’ll just seem to be talking together,” he tells Doakes. “More natural that way. Leave it to me.”
The first great defect in the interview that results is the brevity of the questions in contrast with the voluminous replies supplied to the candidate. The script writer will feed his man a terse question about the other candidate’s voting record, and out comes tumbling a half page or more of dates, statistics, arguments, and issues — all read by Doakes too rapidly and with no great sense of what he is saying.
The listener, who may have missed the question in the first place and who now believes that he is getting a singlehanded speech by Doakes, is therefore staggered, when Doakes stops at the end of his tirade, to hear another voice speak up. The other voice, incidentally, always makes the same remark: “That’s very interesting, Mr. Doakes.” Some further piquancy at this point is lent by the fact that Doakes’s great slab of words had been completely uninteresting, and the listener can only wonder what manner of man is chipping in with any opinion to the contrary.
But the interviewer’s next words quickly restore the semblance of an interview. “Haven’t you been very active, Mr. Doakes,” he goes on, “in the controversy over a protective tariff on — (harmonicas, bath towels, ping-pong balls, piston rings, or whatever else is manufactured in Nirvana)?”
To this question there is, of course, only one answer. “ Yes, I have,” Doakes replies, and another torrent of figures, warnings, and exhortations from Doakes once again reduces his interviewer to a vanished memory.
The people who write this sort of interview are especially fond of a line which is supposed to show how spontaneous and unrehearsed everything is. It shows also — at any rate they hope it does — the candor of the candidate, his willingness to face squarely even the riskiest question. The line, which some writers use on the candidate’s response to every question, is: “I’m glad you asked me that.”
Whole interviews often proceed from start to finish on this note of gladness: Doakes is glad to be asked about Suez or the Air Force, glad to unload on the sales tax, comic books, the farm plan. “A very good question,” Doakes will say. “I’m glad you asked me that.” If he wants to seem really folksy and easygoing about it, an occasional variation is thought to be helpful. “I had a hunch you would want me to say something about — (superhighways, old-age assistance, etc.),” Doakes is made to reply. “I’m glad you asked me that.”
It makes no great difference who does the interviewing in these broadcasts and telecasts. Almost anyone who can read will suffice, although it must be hard to find an adult of either sex who would care to go on record as soliciting the views of such a candidate as Doakes with such uninformed questions on so many tired subjects. In any case, the interview will end, characteristically, with both parties exchanging civilities three minutes too early, after the interviewer has just remarked, with an air of surprise, “Well, I see our time is up, and I wanna thank you, Mr. Doakes, for coming here and answering my questions.”
Major candidates continue to go on the air in big, smooth productions, timed and polished by professional showmen, with everything clicking in the right place at the right instant. But the uncertainty, and thereby some of the valor, is missing. No tug at the heartstrings is felt; indeed, such an idea never arises. I shall continue to attend the Doakeses whenever I happen upon one. I shall wince at much of the content, but I shall share to the full their hopefulness, their gladness, that just the right question has been asked — and answered.