In 1980, U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy – still at that moment, believe it or not, a rising national political star – decided to roll the dice big time and challenge a sitting U.S. President (Jimmy Carter) for the presidential nomination of his own party.
Politically, it was a big deal.
CBS News – still at that moment, believe it or not, practicing something called “journalism” – did what news organizations do, and candidates ought to expect: Asked for an interview with the candidate.
Kennedy couldn’t wait – and who could blame him?
He was known as a reliably fiery speaker, known for thinking on his feet in his job in the U.S. Senate; he’d cruise through a nice, friendly, totally self-serving conversation…and, of course, he expected CBS would treat him like a prince.
What’s not to like?
Kennedy immediately accepted the interview invitation, to be broadcast in prime time.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, when the evening comes for interview with tens of millions of curious voters and the political establishment of both parties looking on as the young lion – obviously a bit too comfortable and confident – proceeds to throw up all over himself, politically speaking.
The Roger Mudd interview with Ted Kennedy became an instant classic and, worse for the candidate, instant lesson on what not to do in interviews.
Inexplicably, Teddy never saw it coming.
What happened? The candidate was not ready for prime time.
Moments into the interview, presumably warming up, Mudd tossed Kennedy this gossamer, softest of softballs: “Senator, why do you wish to be president?”
What followed was a moment of sheer television and political horror: Kennedy blinked as if a light electric shock had passed through his body, his eyes darted, his famous incredibly toothy smile suddenly looked like it might get stuck over his lips and crack.
There was a pregnant pause, hemming and hawing.
Here is the great, nay, inevitable candidate – a Kennedy! – asked the simplest (but most important) question of this or any job interview, especially for this one: “Why do you want the job?” and all of America watches, mystified, as Kennedy delivers a series of excruciating ahhs, emms, uhhs, and You know, Rodgers, the Q&A melting into a pool of mortification.
Poooooofff! Went Teddy Kennedy’s free bonus interview – and a large degree of his “presidential stature,” such as it was, not with a bang, but with the proverbial whimper.
And with it, realistic prospects of Teddy Kennedy winning a primary over a member of his own party – all for the want of the horseshoe nail of the simple ability to ask for the job.
Fast forward to Glenn Beck’s Blaze TV/Radio Network show on Aug. 6. The guest, Nancy Mace, a Republican challenger to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R)ino, SC.
Many people want Senator Graham involuntarily retired. Conservatives certainly do.
Absolutely Glenn and Pat and Stu and Jeffie do.
This adds up to quite an opportunity for young Nancy Mace: A huge audience including many conservative voters of her own state, most of them “Anybody-But-Graham Republicans,” and a host of the same sentiment, who would presumably enjoy witnessing this candidate acquit herself well.
What’s not to like?
What could go wrong?
Then the Glenn Beck questions started.
And Nancy Mace threw up all over herself.
I say so as one of those guys who used to get paid a lot of money by candidates to tell them: 1. “Don’t speak to anybody until you speak to me, and 2. “You know what you are going to say – which is THIS…”
Glenn’s questions were not in the least hostile, nor were they in any way peculiar.
The candidate was called upon to respond to such trick, nasty, intricate queries as “What are your principles?” and “Tell us of your mother’s influence on you” and “How is your soul?”
Now one assumes these are matters on which Nancy Mace is not only somewhat expert, but on which she might be expected to be the world’s foremost authority.
These were straightforward, couldn’t-be-fairer (or better opportunities) questions posed by a host doing his job, helping himself and his audience acquire a sense of who this is…what makes her tick…WHY DOES SHE WISH FOR THE JOB?
Nancy Mace’s “answers” were not illuminating. In fact, they were pretty much excruciating. (“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” – and…?!)
It made for absolutely great radio – but at Nancy Mace’s expense.
The candidate was given something she will never see in a campaign, nor in the Senate (in the now diminished event she reaches that location): a second chance.
Glenn and his broadcast partners seemed to be surprised, even disappointed (a wee bit embarrassed?) for her, and proffered second and third opportunities to respond to the fundamental questions, to fill in the blanks.
One almost expected “Your mother? You did HAVE a mother, yes? Can you Identify her from among these photos?”
As Glenn later said with characteristic gentlemanliness (paraphrase), this is nothing like she will face in a campaign. I mean, we would not be doing her any favors going easy on her.
How terribly true.
The next morning, I watched Nancy Mace submit to another interview, this one on Fox.
From a professional standpoint, it wasn’t pretty.
Her interview skills had not improved overnight.
I’d still rate her at about “Ted Kennedy”.
Nancy Mace may displace Senator Graham.
I hope she does.
In the end, we do ourselves no favors if we put our hearts, minds and support behind a candidate who cannot identify and explain her (our?) principles…or her mother.
If you do not learn how to tell us persuasively what you believe, how can we believe in you?
And the questions do typically become a tad more, well, challenging from here.
There is still time for Nancy Mace.
Even so, I’ll bet Lindsey Graham was as happy yesterday after Nancy Mace’s interview as Jimmy Carter was after Teddy Kennedy’s all those years ago.
Because in politics some things change, but many remain the same.
Like “You must be ready for prime time.”
And as of the Glenn Beck Show this week, Nancy Mace isn’t.
You can watch the interview below: