The “gotcha” question


Back during the 2008 election period – especially after the selection of Sarah Palin as McCain’s VP candidate – I became exceptionally sensitive to the issue of the “gotcha question.”  A reporter asked Sarah a question about (I think) Pakistan, and she gave an honest and unguarded answer (which happened to coincide with Candidate Obama’s stand on the issue).  She later retracted her answer angrily, saying that she’d been asked a “gotcha” question by the media.



Speaking as someone who interviews people from time to time for a living, here are some comments on this, and on the current election cycle:



1)     There is no such thing as a “gotcha” question.  If you’re thinking of something like: “Have you stopped beating your wife? Answer yes or no!”, then you are living in a Marx Brothers universe.

2)     Asking a presidential candidate a question about politics, or foreign affairs, or economics, is perfectly fair.  All of these fall within the job requirements, you see.  Presidents have to work in all of those areas.  If you’re hiring someone for a job, you want to see how well they’ll do under stress, and if they know their stuff.  Sometimes you ask them hard questions.  “Why are you so great?” is a pointless question.  So is “Why is your opponent so wrong-headed?”  Both questions are just opportunities to let the candidate recite his/her talking points. 

3)     Tough questions are what it’s all about. Presidents get asked tough questions all the time.  Presidential candidates who whine about being asked tough questions aren’t really thinking about the job they’re seeking.

4)     Presidents are noted for handling tough questions with good humor and candor.   Really good presidents are able to defuse their questioners with charm and tact.  Roosevelt did it; Truman did it; Kennedy did it; Clinton did it; Reagan did it.  This is a valuable skill (see foreign relations, above).

5)     This one is for Herman Cain: being asked the capital of Uzbekistan is maybe a little bit of a Jeopardy! question, and not so much a foreign-policy question (although, ahem, even I know the answer to that one).  However: being asked about American flyover privileges or airbases in Uzbekistan is perfectly okay, since it has to do with what you will (maybe) be doing for the next four years.

6)     Only stupid people want a stupid president.

7)     Why would a clearly unintelligent / uninformed / untrained candidate (like Rick Perry, for example) run for the Presidency?  Presumably because someone told him that he could learn as he went along.  He’d be able to rely on his advisors and staff for the stuff he didn’t know, and he could rely on his gut for the important stuff.  Sound familiar?  Yes, I thought so. 

8)     Watch the Funny Or Die GOP Presidential Debate.  It says all this better than I ever could.  With Patrick Warburton and Leslie Jordan and Larry King yet.

9)     Presidents work for us, not us for them.  We’re the supervisors; we get a say in hiring them.  We get to ask the hard questions in the interview process.



I hope I live through this election year.  I honestly hope Romney gets the GOP nomination; he’s not electrifying, he’s like the Republican John Kerry.  If it’s someone (god forbid) like Santorum or Gingrich, I may have to drink strychnine. 



But don’t worry, everyone – the world ends in December, only a few weeks after the election!



About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

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