Public Comment

Commentary: How to Make a Break-Out Question Live Up to its Name

By Zelda Bronstein
Tuesday August 21, 2007

Of all the news that came out of the recent Yearly Kos convention, the story that lingers in my mind tells how Hillary Clinton was put on the spot by San Francisco blogger Paul Hogarth. Hogarth, a lawyer who is the managing editor of the online newspaper BeyondChron (and a former member of the Berkeley Rent Board), pitched his humdinger in a break-out session with the senator. Writing online (of course), he recounted the exchange: 

“Senator Clinton,” I said. “My name is Paul Hogarth, and I am from BeyondChron in San Francisco. First, I’d like to thank you for having gone on the record saying that you would repeal ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,’ which passed during your husband’s administration. I want to ask you about four other pieces of legislation that happened in the Clinton years, and whether you would be willing to advocate their repeal—the Defense of Marriage Act, the Telecommunications Act, NAFTA, and the Welfare Bill.” 

Clinton’s response, Hogarth reported, “was absolutely awful.” Exposing herself “as an anti-progressive triangulator,” she ambiguously defended three of the four reactionary laws and blamed the fourth, the Telecommunications Act—which expedited the consolidation of the media a la Rupert Murdoch—on Al Gore.  

Even more interesting than the senator’s reply, however, is the fact that her dialogue with Hogarth happened at all, which is to say, the fact that a seasoned politician found herself having to answer a tough question in a public forum. Indeed, the candidate had apparently tried to ensure that the 30-minute Q & A would be a banal affair. Questioners were selected by her Internet Director, Peter Daou. As Hogarth tells it, until he was chosen, the senator’s knowledgeable staffer had called on four familiar and reliably unchallenging interrogators. But with only five minutes to go, Daou took a chance and picked Hogarth. That choice led to what the Washington Post called “the only moment of tension” in the program. That such uneasy moments are rare in the Clinton campaign is suggested by the attention that the mainstream press paid to this one: the Associated Press’s veteran correspondent Ron Fournier devoted a whole article to the senator’s uncharacteristic equivocations.  

But the episode revealed something far more more troubling than Hillary Clinton’s reluctance to grapple with her husband’s legislative legacy—namely, the sorry state of American political discourse. A pointed query caught a seasoned campaigner off guard precisely because it was so unexpected, just as the questioner knew it would be. “Politicians,” Hogarth later observed in BeyondChron, “are trained ‘stay on message.’” Public figures deflect disconcerting questions and comments with a variety of rhetorical defenses. They answer the question that they wish had been asked rather than the off-message one at hand. They dither and dally: Early in the break-out session, Clinton took nine minutes to respond to a softball query; by running the clock, she cut down the total number of questions she would have to field. Such diversionary tactics can be foiled by a good format and a competent moderator. Sad to say, nowadays a good format and a competent moderator are hard to find. The upshot is that Americans rarely witness a meaningful political debate, much less participate in one. 

That said, the Yearly Kos incident demonstrates that one well-crafted question can, if only momentarily, turn an innocuous, highly managed forum into a riveting event. Formulating such a question and then getting the chance to ask it requires a little luck and a lot of forethought. Hogarth offers some tips: “[N]ever walk into the room without having memorized the question you’re planning to ask.” He spent two days preparing his question for Clinton. “Ask an original question they don’t expect.” In this case, that meant not bringing up Iraq. “[U]nless my question [about Iraq] had been brilliant,” Hogarth explains, “she probably would have had a pre-arranged sound bite” for a response. “Avoid sounding mean and shrill.” Hogarth opened by thanking the senator for her willingness to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” “Wear a bright shirt.” Clinton’s Internet Director called on all the other questioners by name; he identified Hogarth as “the man in the red shirt.”  

For the complete list of Hogarth’s suggestions, see “I Stumped Hillary at Yearly Kos…So Can You,” in the BeyondChron archives for September 8, 2007. All his ideas are worthwhile; just remember that they work best when a would-be interlocutor is unknown to those running the show (Hogarth notes that it’s unlikely he’ll ever get called upon at another Clinton event). Even then, the show has to provide a genuine opportunity to ask a question in your own voice—none of this writing your question on a slip of paper and handing it to someone who hands it to the moderator, who may or may not choose to ask it, or who may rephrase it in terms that mangle your intent. Berkeley citizens deserve many more such opportunities, but that’s a subject for another column. For now, start working on your questions, and make sure your wardrobe includes a bright shirt. 



Zelda Bronstein is a former chair of the Planning Commission and ran for mayor in 2006.