Sometimes our politicians lie to us. Sometimes we give them no choice.
Toward the end of a debate last week among the three Democratic candidates for Massachusetts governor, the moderator asked each of them, “What is your biggest weakness?”
Steve Grossman, the long-shot in the race, answered, “When I should be using 10 words, I tend to use 20. I’m a little long-winded.”
Martha Coakley, the front-runner, offered, “Coffee.”
And from Donald Berwick, who has been polling in the single digits: “I have a very big heart. My compassion drives me to want to help, sometimes more than I can. But I’ll never stop trying.”
I recount these responses in ascending order of hilariousness (in real time, they were given in reverse) to illustrate how queries that look valuable on paper can become utterly useless in practice, how some political clichés write themselves, and how sometimes it’s our own damn fault.
Let us consider this question, “What is your biggest weakness?”
On the surface, it seems like a perfectly sensible thing to ask the people who wish to become our representatives in government. Knowing a prospective leader’s virtues and strengths is all well and good, but it is often in one’s faults that one’s true measure can be taken. In any case, there is enormous benefit to gleaning as much info about such a person as possible.
(To wit: In 1992, Bill Clinton struck most voters as intelligent and empathetic, but knowing that he was also a horndog and a liar would have saved us a great deal of grief later on.)
However, this ostensible advantage from probing for one’s personal flaws is immediately negated by a very obvious problem: Very few politicians are going to offer up their ugliest warts voluntarily. Doubtless some don’t think that they have any, while the rest will simply exercise their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves in front of an unforgiving public in the middle of a campaign. How stupid do we think they are?
What we are really doing with this “greatest weakness” question, and others like it, is setting our candidates a big, fat trap. We are daring them to be honest about themselves in a way that would immediately repel us if they actually complied. We are making ourselves to be hypocrites and our candidates to be liars.
We say we want our leaders to be straight with us, but what would happen if they actually were? What if, say, Walter Mondale said in 1984 that he would raise all of our taxes because it was the fiscally responsible thing to do, or if Jimmy Carter in 1979 implored everyone to use less gasoline for the same reason?
Oh that’s right: They did say those things, and it cost them their political lives.
Strictly on the matter of one’s personal shortcomings, the principle is the same: Honesty is demanded, and then punished. We know this to be true, and so do our politicians.
The result, then, is the string of predictably stupid responses like we got in Massachusetts last week. They range from the safely banal—Coakley’s professed powerlessness in the face of caffeine, as if anyone today would ever dock points for such a thing—to the full-throated humble brag—Berwick’s apparently crippling empathy and sense of social justice (the horror!).
Steve Grossman, citing long-windedness as his most regrettable quality, came the closest to actually answering the question, although even his response could hardly be called politically risky: Presumably his uncommon verbosity was already known to those following the race closely, and anyway, isn’t “I talk too much” essentially a modest-sounding way of saying, “I’m just so darned smart that I can’t help myself”?
But at least he recognized, however sheepishly, that he is not perfect and, unlike his opponents, is capable of genuine introspection in front of a camera.
That, in the end, is the secret to mastering (or at least surviving) this whole “straight talk” dance with the public: You have to be honest, but not too honest. You have to be prepared to acknowledge certain faults, but not ones that might actually get the voters to think twice about supporting you.
You have to speak the truth, but not the whole truth. We, the people, are far too fragile to handle it.