At this stage of the campaign, don’t we pretty much know everything we’re ever going to know about the candidates? We’ve seen President Obama do his thing for almost four years, and Mitt Romney has carefully crafted a political and personal image most apt to attract voters (or least apt to repel voters). Because both candidates are acutely aware of the dangers of being too candid, neither has revealed more of himself than is necessary.
Jim Lehrer, moderator of last Wednesday’s presidential debate, missed a golden opportunity. He could have asked these men any idiosyncratic questions he wished—questions that not only would have elicited revealing answers, but couldn’t have been censored and couldn’t have been rehearsed in advance. Indeed, in that unique setting (live TV, with 67 million people watching), Lehrer was the only man on earth with the power to pull this off.
True, had he done it, his career in broadcasting would have ended, and he likely would’ve been sued by the RNC. But on the positive side he would have gone down in history as the rogue journalist who, in front of a national television audience, asked the candidates questions that were halfway interesting.
Here are 10 questions Jim Lehrer could have asked:
1. What was the most difficult class you took in college? Good question. Gives them a chance to come off as pleasantly humble. If they say Organic Chemistry, we know they’re not lying. If they can’t recall even one class that gave them trouble, it’s not going to ruin them, but they’ll come off as inattentive or evasive.
2. What trait or talent does your opponent possess that you most admire or wish you possessed? Wouldn’t we all like to know this? Mitt might say he wished he could debate or play basketball as well as the President, and Obama might say he envied Mitt because, as a Mormon, he gets to wear magic underwear.
3. With the exception of your wife or mother, what woman has had the most profound effect on your life? Tough question, especially being sprung without warning. That’s why it would be fascinating to hear their answers.
4. Who are your favorite writers? They better have some, otherwise they’re going to sound uninformed, uninquisitive and uncultured….positively Palinesque.
5. Who are your favorite singers or musical groups? We’d all like to know this. Wouldn’t it be shocking if Obama said he liked the Carpenters and Eagles, and Romney admitted to being a fan of Lil’ Kim?
6. Do you believe that, even with its atrocious human rights record, we should continue to give financial aid to Ruwati? A trick question meant to test their honesty. There is no such country as Ruwati. Would these guys admit to having never heard of the place, or would they try to bullshit us?
7. (to Obama) Not counting Abraham Lincoln, who is your favorite Republican president? It’s Obama’s opportunity to answer with Dwight Eisenhower.
8. (to Romney) Not counting Harry Truman, who is your favorite Democratic president? This one could really hurt Mitt because he’s never followed politics, and doesn’t know who’s who. Moreover, shifting gears like this is alien to him. He must be careful not mention Ben Franklin or Alexander Hamilton, who were neither Democrats nor presidents.
9. What’s the last thing you did that you’re ashamed of? Granted, this bombshell could bring the whole shebang to a screeching halt, but it would be interesting to see them struggle with it.
10. What part of the Bible seems the most far-fetched? If Obama answers “None,” he’s clearly lying. If he says it’s Adam and Eve or Noah’s Ark, he risks alienating those Christians who don’t already think he’s a Muslim. As for Mitt, he’d be forced to admit that the Book of Mormon takes precedence over the Bible, finally bringing the topic of religion into the open. Not good.
These questions would not only be a mild exercise in psychodrama, they would force Obama and Romney to provide the American public with some genuine insight. If the point of the debates is to offer a close-up glimpse of the candidates, then why not do it right? Why not ask questions the public really wants to hear?
Are we more interested in the candidates giving their well-rehearsed, well-oiled views on Dodd-Frank, Simpson-Bowles, and deficit reduction, or would we rather hear them respond spontaneously to the oddball questions above?
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org