what i do with politicians

I went to a press conference this week and asked a few questions. That in itself is unusual because I’m basically a news bureaucrat, the guy who signs time cards and looks at stories other, usually much younger, people write. But I went, because I hadn’t seen this politician in the flesh, and I wanted to.

Why I wanted to is what I want to note here, first noting that ‘why’ is not important at all to anyone but me. The questions and answers, and the context in which they took place, is what counts. This politician, and his counterpart in the other major party, have been taking some heat for not answering questions well or often or, in some cases, at all. We the press have solemnly noted that a political campaign is one long job interview, that answering our questions is what democracy is all about, that failure to do so is a Bad Thing. All of which is true, but doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.

So, at the press conference, with the candidate behind the podium in bright sunlight and a group of supporters flanking him, holding signs, I asked my questions. A few things: when you ask in that situation, in public, it’s always theater. Your role may be to be the reporter-who-doesn’t-care-about-the-theater-of-it, but it’s always there just the same, and when you ask you’re by definition performing. I know this, and I had a weird case of the jitters; I couldn’t figure out where to look or quite what to do with the rest of me. I brought a notebook, but my note-taking, to be charitable, sucks. I had trouble focusing on the sentences long enough to get them down. I was grateful we had a camera rolling.

What I shoot for is that state of grace where I’m not really thinking about any of this, where I’m just asking and the other person is just answering. I like to be all antennae when I ask a question; it goes out like a radio transmission, and I sit by the receiver, waiting to get something back. What that something is, I don’t know, and it’s the brief, nervous excitement of waiting, and listening as the question gets parsed and replied to, that I’m there for. That and all the other signals I think I’m getting – is the politician nervous? Is the crowd interested? Who’s smiling, who’s frowning?

Of course, what you usually get back is as predictable as a press release, and you often end up in the unsatisfying business of trying to make small distinctions – You said ‘no’ yesterday and ‘not’ today, and has your position changed? Anyway, neither the candidate nor I had good footing, so nothing much interesting happened, and I walked away no wiser.

The photographer Lee Friedlander was asked once about the act of photographing as art, and he corrected the questioner, said it was more like what an athlete does. You hit a ball or catch one or run fast because you can, because the act and your wiring agree with each other. Asking questions is like that, even though I hate intruding on peoples’ privacy, hate hurting people, hate being difficult or being seen as difficult. Sometimes – more so as I get older – I walk away, but sometimes still I ask and wait, and hope for the blessedly unexpected.

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