Columns » John Brummett

Candidates fumble for answers

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I'm sensitive to demands on politicians. They're on the live stage in front of television cameras engaging in a debate. They've been primed by advisers on how to pose and where to turn and what to emphasize in nearly every conceivable circumstance.

Their first assignment is to do themselves no harm. Critics who couldn't ever perform competently under such pressure lean forward anxiously, primed to pounce on errors perceived or otherwise.

That's why I don't much like that kind of question, though others do. It's designed to catch the edgy combatants off balance and reveal something beyond what they're programmed to deliver. It's kind of a "gotcha" thing.

I refer to the query put to Mike Beebe and Asa Hutchinson the other night in Fayetteville. Would they please reveal something they'd ever changed their minds about?

In other words: Now that we have you here under pressure not to make a mistake, please, on a fully impromptu basis, tell us about having made one.

A further unfairness is that, by random draw, one of the debaters has to answer instantly while the other at least has time to think of something as his hard-luck rival fumbles around.

It was Hutchinson who fumbled around. He mouthed words, but said nothing. It reminded me of that local weatherman who, years ago, would close his segment by drawing a cartoon character called "Gusty." He was obliged to keep talking as he drew, since silence is never permitted in broadcasting. But it was apparent that his focus on the drawing was so intense that his concurrent verbal exercise was rendered utter nonsense. Fortunately for him, the viewer tended to focus as well on the unfolding drawing instead of the absolute blather being uttered.

Asa needed to be drawing something, maybe a caricature of Beebe's hair.

Eventually, Asa wended his way to saying that he'd started out not emphasizing repeal of the grocery tax, but that now he was wild about repealing it. So, he managed to get to one of his key talking points. But, to get there, he had to admit that he'd previously been opposed to his own talking point.

Hutchinson might have said that he once was against all abortions, even from pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, but now permitted those exceptions. But he probably didn't want to admit to moderates that he'd ever been that radical. And he probably didn't want to tell his right-wing extremist base that he'd become less crazed.

He might have said that if he had it to do over again, he'd go to college somewhere other than that racist, sexist Bob Jones University. But, again, he probably didn't want to remind sane people that he went there or signal to his crazed base that he had any qualms about it.

With about 90 seconds to think of something, Beebe said he knew now that he needed the Lord more than he used to think he needed the Lord.

Forgive my cynicism, but, as I've told you previously, Beebe is trying to run Mark Pryor's race from 2002. He goes hunting. He believes in Arkansas. He slices and dices the abortion issue. One thing Pryor had done that Beebe hadn't until this debate - Pryor being an avowed evangelical and Beebe being Episcopalian - was get all showy in public about his religion.

I'm thinking Beebe took those 90 seconds and decided that if there ever might be a time to play the God card, this would seem to be it.

Then, as a JFK freak, he pulled out some soaring old Kennedy quote.

Maybe I'm simply too cynical about religious showiness. It was Janet Huckabee who once said that I must have been run over by a church bus as a child.

What else might Beebe have said? How about that he let somebody do that to his hair?

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