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Thursday, April 26, 2018


I don’t get it.  Politicians seem incapable of doing things that strike me as so obvious as to be no-brainers.  Let me give you a case in point.  I have now watched Michael Avenatti on television a good many times.  Avenatti, for those of you abroad or not paying attention, is the lawyer for Stephanie Clifford, the porn star who appears in porn films as Stormy Daniels.  Avenatti has become the darling of cable news interviewers for one very simple reason:  he answers the questions he is asked simply and directly.  “Have other women come forward to you with stories about Trump and non-disclosure agreements [NDAs]?”  Answer, “Yes.”  “Can you identify the man whom Ms. Clifford says threatened her?””  Answer, “Not yet.”  “Was Ms. Clifford verbally bullied into signing the NDA?”  Answer, “Yes.”  “Will you tell us how?”  “No.”

The effect, at least on me, is galvanic.  You simply never hear a public figure give straight answers to straight questions, even when they are willing to do so.  They seem incapable of it, as though they have been programmed by handlers and focus groups to spew tested word salads. 

Let me tell you what has provoked this rant.  Yesterday or the day before I was watching Tom Perez being interviewed by Chuck Todd on MSNBC.  Perez was Obama’s Secretary of Labor for four years and is now Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a Clinton choice.  The DNC has launched a civil suit against the Republican National Committee for twenty million dollars in damages to compensate for the Republicans’ role in the hacking of the DNC e-mails.  I did not know, or had forgotten, that in the aftermath of Watergate, the DNC actually won a $700,000 civil judgment against the RNC for the break-in at the Watergate Apartment Complex that started the whole affair.

Todd observed that County Democratic branches were upset about the suit, fearing that it would drain away money that ought to be used in the 2018 mid-term elections to support local Democratic candidates.  Then he asked Perez, “How much will the suit cost the DNC?”  Perez replied with a word salad of talking points that did not answer the question and left me completely unwilling to believe anything Perez said.

Here is what should have happened [figures invented for the purpose of making a point]:

Question:  “How much will the suit cost?”

Answer:  “4.2 million dollars.  Maybe more or less depending on how things go.  But not one penny will come from the DNC.  We have set up a separate DNC Legal Defense Fund [ed. cf the NAACP Legal Defense Fund] and no expenses of the suit will be paid for by DNC funds that must be used to support local candidates this Fall.”

Just that.  Period.  Now, to be sure, the answer is somewhat duplicitous, since presumably anyone who would donate to the DNCLDF would also be willing to give to the DNC.  But the psychological effect on the listener would be electric.

These people are not stupid.  They may be pigs, but they are not stupid.  Why can’t they see this?


marktheknife said...

Having taken a class in law school from someone who coaches politicians for interviews, the training is this:

1. Study your rhetorical talking points which are designed to score points with voters.
2. When asked a question, think about how to tie that back to a talking point.
3. Say the words bridging the gap from the question asked back to your chosen talking point.
4. State talking point (although don’t say it word for word and pull a Rubio).
5. Repeat steps 2 through 4 until interview finishes.

The theory here is that an interview is not really a question and answer session, but a platform for spewing your narrative. People may hate your non answers, but they will know your narrative which may resonate later. Also, you may be annoying, but your chance of gaffes decreases by this method (which is important as most people are not gifted interviewees, and interviews can hurt much more than they help).

Deviating from that class to my own speculation, the concept of being direct and honest works especially well when your cause is obviously just to most viewers. In that situation, the truth is your talking point, and gaffes are unlikely.

All that said, I do think you’re right that honesty and directness has its own rhetorical appeal. People who responded to Trump responded to the feeling he was “telling it like it is”, which is probably their (comparatively thoughtless) equivalent to what you’re feeling. (This last point seems ripe for some discussion about social epistemology, but that’s a lot to tackle.)

s. wallerstein said...

You yourself (Professor Wolff) previously told us that you met Henry Kissinger and that intellectually, he is no Wittgenstein. However, in U.S. political circles Kissinger is considered Wittgenstein and David Hume combined and squared, and from there intellectual prowess goes downhill.

You say that they're not stupid. In my experience with professional politicians (mostly in Chile admittedly) they're very cunning, very fast at short-term calculations which enable them to win political infighting and very opportunistic at advancing their political careers and those of their gang. Hannah Arendt comments that Eichmann wasn't stupid, but that he didn't think. I'd say that that is true for most professional politicians. They don't think: they calculate (in short-terms goals), they scheme, etc.

You all know the expression "the best and the brightest", which refers to the geniuses who got the U.S. into Viet Nam, which if you think about it, wasn't so bright at all.
So if those characters were the best and the brightest, I wouldn't expect much from other members of the political elite, not much at all.

Charles Pigden said...

Mark the knife is no doubt correct about the conventional wisdom on how to do interviews and this probably explains the behavior that Professor Wolff is complaining about. But I am not sure that the Conventional Wisdom is really all that wise. New Zealand’s last but one Prime Minister (who I loathed) and our current one (who I like a lot more) are both adept at *appearing* to give reasonably straight answer to reasonably straight questions. This means that when they have to fluff (as all Prime Ministers have to fluff from time to time, for instance when one of their ministers does something egregiously stupid or dishonest but has to be defended out of party loyalty) they can do it more effectively. Now NZ Prime Ministers regularly appear on TV and radio (particularly the National show Morning Report) where they can expect to get a grilling from *one* usually reasonably smart reporter who will press them hard if they give an unduly evasive answer. So it is actually rather difficult to get away with the kind of fluffing that Professor Wolff is complaining about. But it seems to me that they do a lot better if they do not even try. One of the big differences between the current Prime Minister and her predecessor as leader of the Labour Party (who she replaced in the immediate run-up to the General Election) is that she sounds straightforward even when she is fluffing and that he sounded evasive and dishonest even when he was telling truth. And yes he sounded evasive and dishonest because he was a ‘stick to the talking points’ kind of guy. Also, full marks to Avenatti for saying straight out ‘I am not going to answer that question’ rather than giving an as answer that is not an answer.

Michael Llenos said...

Dr. Wolff,

Perhaps all politicians have skeletons in their closets. Perhaps they fear if they speak their heart but not their mind, all of the time, those skeletons will soon come out of their closets and lead them to their ultimate ruin... But I believe I get the idea. Politicians must tell the truth when the truth is good for everyone involved. That's the problem though: How do I as an individual (and all others) know when to lie and when to tell the truth to my own and everyone else's advantage? Isn't that why satirists like Jonathan Swift wrote satire in the first place? because sometimes telling the straight forward truth is detrimental to one's health? And until we see any results, how do we know what's going to happen? and which path was the best path to pursue? so perhaps using satire is the safer path to choose? Cicero made the comment in one of his writings that if Socrates had obeyed the rules and laws of "eloquence" he most likely would not have been condemned by the Athenian assembly. Socrates of course didn't care--just so he could tell the truth--but that's beside the point. If you read the Apology, that is an example on how not to give a defense speech. If you read the Crito, that's how you're supposed to give one. In the Apology, Socrates speaks only truth. In the Crito, Socrates uses "eloquence" (or rhetorical flourishes) to convince Crito of the greater good. But I believe I get the idea. People are so mad at being lied to all of the time that being told the truth in politics (or being told any truth for that matter) is refreshing to them. Perhaps that's why one Roman lady swooned over the thought of Marcellus' comrade when she heard Virgil read the end of Book 6 of the Aeneid. Perhaps it wasn't because of his undefeated hand, or his piety, but rather because of his old trust and old fashioned truthfulness that she found so remarkable.

Jerry Fresia said...

"But the psychological effect on the listener would be electric.
These people are not stupid. They may be pigs, but they are not stupid. Why can’t they see this?"

For starters, the last thing the Democrats want is an electrified base; they are doing back flips right now to convince progressives to "get out of the way" for security state candidates (former military intel, State Department) whom they are heavily recruiting this cycle.

Second, our institutions pull to the right; thus right wing Republicans don't have to hide in the political closet; hence they sound authentic, albeit wacko. Democrats, often, are right wingers with a liberal patina. Most are frauds and know it and spew out word salads when they speak because they know that whoever is watching can see right through them. Classic case, of course, is Hillary. Few have Obama's gift of charisma which allowed him, in the poetry of John Lennon,to "smile as he killed."

RobinM said...

To follow up on Jerry Fresia's remarks:

Jerry Fresia said...

FYI: I thought it might be worthwhile to add specificity:

Here's is a taped conversation that records House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer informing progressive primary challenger Levi Tillemann (CO)he will be running against not just the chosen establishment candidate Jason Crow, but against the full might of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) as well:

Recent research reveals that Democrats are pushing former intelligence and military operatives from the CIA, Pentagon, National Security Council and State Department as
candidates this cyle:

Anonymous said...

All the more reason to endorse Alex Rosenberg's contention that "...narrative explanation is worthless in history, politics and biography... ." That goes double for politicians and their talking points.

LFC said...

Perez is not a "pig" and is indeed not stupid (my impression is he's v. smart), and he was, or such is my impression, a good Sec. of Labor. His answer to the question should have been something like: "I'm not sure what the suit will cost [how can he be sure? the complaint was only filed v. recently] but none of the money will come from funds that go to campaigns." -- in other words, along the lines suggested in the OP.

Anonymous said...

To be fair, politicians are under constant surveillance by the media and the public and every word they say may be turned against them, immediately or at some later point. So they tend to be cautious.

But that is just one part of the story. It is true that they seem to have forgotten how refreshing honesty and real communication can be. Sometimes they try to simulate it, but this usually makes it even worse. Instead they are trying to place some message, regardless of the actual topic of conversation. That is also what they are being taught in communication seminars