In Defense of Gotcha Questions

Sometimes a dumb question is the smartest way to test a candidate.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker stands on the North Lawn of the White House before making remarks to the news media after a meeting of the National Governors Association with President Barack Obama February 27, 2012 in Washington, DC. (National Journal)

Years ago, an Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton walked into the state Capitol media room at the end of a hectic legislative session and asked the journalists if we needed anything else from him.  We had asked Clinton questions all day. We were tired. We wanted him to shut up and go home.

So I said, "Yes, governor. I know you don't know much about baseball, but when there's a pop-up behind the third baseman, whose ball is it?" The other reporters snickered. Finally, they figured: a gotcha question Clinton wouldn't answer.

The governor bit his lower lip, lifted his eyes to the ceiling, and mulled. "Never played the game much," he finally replied, "but wouldn't the shortstop have the best angle on the ball?"

That innocuous exchange has stuck with me for nearly 30 years because it revealed much about Clinton as governor. He was ultra-accessible, intellectually fearless, and—more often than I liked to admit it—right.

This column is a defense of the stupid or seemingly irrelevant question. Do you believe in evolution? Do you agree with Rudy Giuliani that the president doesn't love his country? Republican presidential hopeful Scott Walker is the latest in a long line of politicians to grapple with a gotcha.

I'm a firm believer in the principle that the only dumb question is the one a journalist doesn't ask. The media should use their access to elicit leaders' views on big and salient questions, of course. But we also must test them. As PBS Newshour reporter Domenico Montanaro wrote Monday:

Presidential candidates have to answer all kinds of questions. Sometimes they are relevant or germane to the event they're at or the campaign at large—and sometimes they're not. But how they answer, even these "gotcha" questions—designed as a litmus test of rationality—can be revealing of their mindset, their depth, and their mettle as a candidate.

In 1999, I asked Texas Gov. George W. Bush a series of questions designed to trip him up on abortion—or at least knock him off balance. His staff dismissed them as gotchas; I suppose they were right. And yet the governor's answers revealed the inherent conflicts of his compassionate conservatism.

While backing a constitutional ban on abortions, Bush said, "America is not ready to ban abortions."

Two years later, I asked Bush the first question at a news conference in Slovenia with Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Is this a man that Americans can trust?" My editor and I had scripted a meatier two-part question about the U.S.-Russia relationship. This was a throwaway line, appended hastily to the end of the substantial stuff.

"Yes," Bush replied, before allowing Putin to answer a separate question. A few minutes later, the American president elaborated: "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country."

Bush told his staff later that I had caught him off guard. I had put him on the spot. Not wanting to openly question Putin's credibility, Bush nervously riffed his way into a quote that still reflects the tendency of U.S. officials to underestimate the Russian leader.

Bush's answer made it a good question.

Same thing with Walker. Simple answers would have grounded the gotcha questions. "Yes, the president loves his country, but I think he's destroying it." Next question. "Of course, I believe in evolution. Science doesn't conflict with my belief in God."

Democrats fall into the same trap. In the midterm elections, Alison Lundergan Grimes looked silly refusing to say whether she voted for President Obama.

When NBC reporter Kasie Hunt asked then-Sen. Mark Pryor whether the Obama administration had responded appropriately to Ebola, the Democrat stammered and stalled. "You're acting like she found your porn!" mocked Jon Stewart.

Hunt has a knack for knowing when and how to ask devastatingly simple questions. She tripped up Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn by asking, "Would you have voted for the Affordable Care Act?" Republican presidential hopeful Chris Christie stumbled on a question about vaccinations.

Hunt asked former Gov. Rick Perry whether he's smart enough to be president. Cheap shot? I don't think so. It is a question some GOP voters are asking themselves, and one that Perry wanted to answer.

In 2006, Congressional Quarterly reporter Jeff Stein asked members of Congress a self-described gotcha question: What's the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni? Many didn't know, which told readers something important about the men and women overseeing U.S. warfare.

In a brief history of the gotcha question, Washington Post reporter Colby Itkowitz recalls that Bill Clinton called queries about his fidelity "a game of gotcha." Obama dismissed as "gotcha games" the controversy over comments about Pennsylvanians clinging to guns and religion. Bush griped about "gotcha" questions when reporters asked about whether he'd used cocaine. Sarah Palin dismissed any question she fumbled as "a gotcha."

Many politicians respond by portraying themselves as the victim of media abuse—then ask for donations to fight back. That's called gaming the gotcha.