October 3, 2004
As Senator John Edwards trains for Tuesday’s debate, the best advice anyone could give him would be to bring his own questions. He should bring a list of topics he intends to talk about and a list of questions he intends to put to Dick Cheney, because if anything can be predicted safely it is that Gwen Ifill will slant her script in favor of the fat man.
Yesterday evening on PBS Ifill could be seen defending Bush’s debate performance. Which way she leans is never hard to discern. Here’s a typical comment by Ifill from “Meet the Press” on June 27 of this year, as cited and ridiculed by David Sirota:
“Well, as David Brooks pointed out in The New York Times yesterday, in Europe, Michael Moore goes about very widely bashing America and bashing Americans as being stupid and not knowing how to put one foot in front of the other and he’s received like a conquering hero. They love this. They want to hear this. Now, that’s fine. They think he’s a documentarian. They think he is bringing them facts. Now, they don’t vote in American elections, but there is a wider question to be raised about the impact of Americans who take that abroad in a time of war.”
What if Edwards criticizes the Vice President on Tuesday during a time of war? How will Ifill react? If Edwards’ coaches are advising him to maintain respect for the office of the Vice Presidency, or some such crap, and if their stand-in for Ifill is asking fair and substantive questions, Edwards will not be prepared for what he must do on Tuesday. He must face this as a debate between himself and the people who need him, on the one hand, and Cheney and Ifill on the other.
Edwards must be the one to force Cheney to address his secret meetings in which oil barons have written government policy. Edwards is the only one who can make the killing of Iraqis for the profits of Halliburton a topic of debate. Only he can demand to know why the current administration thinks it is good for us to ship jobs overseas and why part of that policy includes offering those who cannot find jobs here high-paying positions at taxpayer expense working for Halliburton in Iraq — at risk to life and limb.
Only Edwards can ask Cheney why he repeatedly cited aluminum tubes as evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq when the CIA and the Energy Department had already debunked that lie, and why he told the same lie that Secretary of State Colin Powell did, as described below.
Ifill will not ask what’s wrong with NAFTA or the WTO or the FTAA, but Edwards can. Ifill almost certainly has no idea what the NLRB is doing to deprive workers of the right to organize, but Edwards can enlighten her and tell her about the Employee Free Choice Act that he and Kerry support. Health Care, education, the minimum wage, affordable housing, protection of the environment: these are all topics on which Cheney’s views and record clash dramatically with those of the American people. Only Edwards can focus the debate on these things. Only Edwards can call Ifill to account if she fails to address the things most people care about.
Only Edwards can point out that by threatening terrorist attacks if he is not elected Cheney has joined in terrorism. Only Edwards can explain how color-coded warning systems, duct tape, and FBI lists of peace demonstrators do the work of terrorists for them.
Ifill sees her role as serving those in power, not the public. She kept to that role when I asked her a question two months ago at the UNITY Journalists of Color convention, an event that brought together several thousand journalists in Washington. Among the speakers to address the gathering were Senator John Kerry, White House Occupant George W. Bush, and Powell. All three events were advertised as including time for questions to the speakers from the audience. But the format was changed so that only a few selected panelists would be asking questions. The bone that convention attendees were thrown was that they would get to ask questions beforehand of the panel that would then question Powell. The panel was moderated by Ifill.
I talked beforehand to Jonathan Schwarz, author of this hilarious blog, and we had a hard time choosing which lie of Powell’s I should call him on. As it turned out, I had to ask the panel to ask Powell my question. I decided to go with the following, which I addressed to the panel when Ifill indicated that it was my turn at the microphone, and which Edwards could address, slightly modified, to Cheney:
“Secretary Powell went to the United Nations and made a case for war. One of the arguments he made was that Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law had said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Powell neglected to add that the same man had said the weapons had been destroyed. So, for one type of evidence he was deemed a reliable source. For another, the American public could not even be trusted with the information. Would you please ask Secretary Powell why he made that decision. And, if it’s not terribly impolite, would you please ask him how he can sleep at night?”
That question won applause, but Powell never heard it. Ifill thanked me with the same robotic expressionless face she’d use to thank her maid for fetching her shoes. She moved on to the next questioner without asking any panelist to respond or doing so herself. Shortly thereafter, she called an end to questions from the floor. She then made clear that each of the three panelists would get to ask only one question, which they had prepared ahead of time.
After the stage had been sniffed by dogs and the dogs had determined it was safe for Powell, he came out and ran his mouth for a while before tackling five softball questions, two of them from Ifill. The toughest line of questioning came at the very end:
IFILL: Mr. Secretary, we are fully aware that you have stayed longer with us than you had intended. But I’m going to abuse my privilege and ask you one final question. You’re not surprised to hear that.
POWELL: Sister gettin’ uppity now!
IFILL: And you would know, wouldn’t you?
POWELL: Go ahead, girl. Go ahead.
IFILL: It’s an election year. It’s an election year. And today we heard from John Kerry. Tomorrow we will hear from President Bush. It’s an unusual election year, in many respects. Four years ago we had not lived through 9/11. Four years ago there was no war in Iraq or Afghanistan. Yet so many people in communities of color are still primarily concerned, they tell us, about the economy, about their jobs, about their lives. Why should or should not foreign policy issues, and especially the issues we’ve been talking about today, play any role at all in the decision that Americans will make, and especially Americans of color will make, this November at the polls? You’ve done a little politics in your life. Perhaps you can tackle this one.
Amazingly, Powell handled that question without breaking a sweat.
To the credit of the UNITY convention, the questioning of Bush broke from the script, because Roland Martin of the Chicago Defender had somehow slipped beneath the radar and landed what was no-doubt his last spot ever on the panel. He asked Bush why he had supported guarantees of voting rights in Afghanistan but not in Florida, and why he opposed considerations of race in college admissions but not consideration of whether an applicants’ parents were alumni. These questions and pointed follow-ups introduced Bush to the unfamiliar world of criticism, and he handled it no more smoothly than he did during last week’s debate. I seriously doubt Martin would have gotten his questions out or been able to follow up on them had Ifill been moderating the panel. But Martin won more applause than Bush, and Edwards would be well advised to consult Martin.
Alternatively, if there’s time, some of us could sit down with Ifill and suggest questions to her before Tuesday.
What would make her give us that kind of time, you ask? That’s easy: money.
On this website you can hire Ifill as a speaker. The downside is that, while she may not cost much (somewhere between $1,000 and $40,000 “and up”), she probably will want to speak before taking questions and comments from the floor.
Here are the things she can talk about and why she makes a good speaker:
“Politics, Policy, and Reality: What’s Really Going on in Washington
“Gwen Ifill is veteran journalist [sic] that [sic] speaks authoritatively with the wit and wisdom that comes from her years of covering some of the toughest beats in Washington. She gives the audience the benefit of her insight on American politics, foreign policy, and the trends that most affect business, family, and government in this presentation.
“This lively program promises something for everyone with any point of view. Gwen Ifill will put on a special session of Washington Week, the longest running news program on PBS, for your organization. Ms. Ifill and other regular Washington Week panelists, chosen with your input, will tackle the topics important to you and your group, as well as give analysis of the hottest issues of the day.”
I recommend that progressives pull back on a couple of television ads or give two or three organizers a vacation (they’ll keep working anyway, Bush is occupying the White House after all) and invest in a special session of Washington Week on the topic of “Why Members of the News Media Have Become a Bunch of Sycophantic Suckups.” I think such a session would be mutually educational. Maybe Edwards can bring it up with Ifill on Tuesday.