The Last Word

Have you ever noticed that politicians almost never come right out and tell us they’re not going to answer a question? They generally avoid one by pretending to answer it — which has, I’ll admit, a certain entertainment value, like ballet or tap dancing. It is often amazing how long a political pro can go on “responding” to a question without bumping into an answer.

I recently heard John Edwards, the former U.S. senator and vice presidential candidate, go on for several minutes not answering a simple straightforward question from ABC’s George Stephanopoulos: “If you were still in the Senate, would you have voted for or against the confirmation of (Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice and (Attorney General) Alberto Gonzalez?”

“Well, that’s one of the advantages of not being in the Senate,” Edwards smiled. “I don’t have to vote on that.”

He then went on at some length about how on the one hand the president is entitled to have the cabinet he wants, but on the other hand there were some serious problems with both nominees and …

Stephanopoulos had to stop him before he ran out of hands.

“It sounds like you would have voted no,” the host suggested.

“I’m doing my best to avoid answering that,” Edwards admitted — with a smile, of course.

Now, there is nothing new under the fog, and sometimes a candidate or even a president can’t give you a clear explanation of his policy because he hasn’t formulated one —and has no intention of doing so before events force his hand.

“My policy is to have no policy,” Abraham Lincoln was fond of saying. But at least in saying that, semi-honest Abe wasn’t pretending to have a policy and then expounding on the pretense. He simply stated that he had no policy, and that was his policy. And the nation could depend on it.

Compare that with the circumlocutions of the late Nelson Rockefeller. In 1968, when he was alternately running and not running for president, the New York governor was asked at one of his press conferences if he had any suggestions about Vietnam, where we were still following that illusory “light at the end of the tunnel.”

“Sure,” said Rocky with his usual confident air. Then he went on to talk about working toward a “solution” that would be mutually acceptable to all parties, would lead to an end to the conflict and would be compatible with the goals and aspirations of “the peoples indigenous to that part of the world.” That left reporters scratching their heads.

“What does that mean, governor?” one of them asked.

“Just what I said,” the governor insisted.

You don’t have to like the lack of candor in politics to appreciate the artistry of it. I learned early in life that I could never be a ballplayer, but it wasn’t until I was in college that I discovered I couldn’t be a politician either. Delivering one of those non-answers is almost as hard as hitting a curve ball or trying to throw a knuckler. I hadn’t the knack.

“So how did you do last semester, Jack?” asked a professor with whom I had struggled through a course the year before. From the foggy depths of my memory, a non-answer sprang to mind.

“Well, if I were to give a direct answer at this time, it would be a premature and prejudicial conclusion, based on information about which all the pertinent facts have not yet been assimilated.” It was an answer I had heard the late Sen. Everett Dirksen give to a question I no longer remember. (I think it was “Senator, how are you?”) The professor was not impressed.

“Still running along the lower echelons, eh, Jack?” was the verdict on my verbal evasion.

Giving non-answers is a performing art, like juggling or walking on a high wire. Which is why you seldom see circus acts on television anymore.

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