Friday, August 13, 2004

The Ten-Word Answer

The other night one of my favorite episodes of The West Wing was re-run on Bravo. It’s called “Game On.” President Bartlet is in a debate with his re-election opponent, Governor Robert Ritchie of Florida, a plain-spoken and unengaged conservative who is proud of the fact that he’s not as “smart” as President Bartlet. In the debate prep, the president’s staff is searching for the “the Ten-Word Answer;” a short snippet that can answer a complex question such as how to deal with Social Security or high crime rates. During the debate Governor Ritchie is able to zing out these folksy quips to the delight of his audience and aggravation of the liberals. But then he’s asked by one of the panelists to explain the thinking behind the massive tax cut he’s proposing, and he replies with a smirk that is eerily familiar: “The American people know best how to spend their money.” For a second President Barlet stares at him, and then he grins. “That’s it,” he says. “That’s the ten-word answer my staff has been looking for all week. But the problem is, Governor Ritchie, what are the next ten words? And the ten after that?”

It may be some cosmic coincidence that recently Vice President Cheney launched into John Kerry for saying he’d fight a more “sensitive” war. He derided his call to run a more nuanced and intelligent battle as namby-mamby liberalism, and he got a lot of mileage out of it from his hand-picked crowd. Cheney gave them the ten-word answer: We Know How to Fight Terrorism and They Do Not.

That may be the way to run a political rally, and it may even get some traction with some of the voters, but I don’t believe that the American people, with all our faults, our idiosyncrasies, and our short attention span, really want to elect a president who cannot hold an unscripted press conference or who cannot explain how he plans to bring the war in Iraq to a conclusion. This country cannot afford to have as its leader someone who sneers at the concept of “nuance” (much less pronounce it properly) or who cannot appreciate the fact that the war that he has so blithely led us into is not some Arthurian battle of Right vs. Wrong and that those who oppose it are not unpatriotic, or worse, traitors. We cannot have a leader who thinks, acts, and reacts in sentence fragments and mocks those who actually think about things before they do them, such as launch a pre-emptive war against a country that presented no clear or present danger.

The Ten-Word Answer works best if it’s done as a put-down with the intent to silence all opposition and end the discussion with a powerful measure of humiliation, directed both at the target and the questioner. They’re very useful in putting people in their place, leaving no room for argument. It’s the tactic of a bully. But if we are cowed into believing that seeking to understand and overcome the reasons other people in other countries scorn or even hate us is a sign of weakness, than the future of this country belongs to those who can manipulate our fears and keep us on the edge of terror, and we will have earned the right to our paranoia.

Elections have been fought – and sometimes won – on Ten-Word Anwsers, but the country can’t run on them. And the country cannot afford to elect a man who does not know what the next ten words are. And the ten after that.