Note to politicians: 'Gotcha questions' are ever with us, but not always fatal

'Gotcha questions' sometimes elicit memorable answers. That's why they're asked. But the more time reporters can spend interviewing a candidate, the less likely they are to be asked. 

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (c.) and North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple (r.) talk at their table before President Obama arrived to speak to members of the National Governors Association, in the State Dining Room of White House on Monday.

Gotcha Question. Politicians’ popular fallback response to queries they regard as irrelevant – but that many in the media say deserve not to be ignored.

The expression “gotcha” is more than a century old. The late New York Times language columnist William Safire noted that F. Scott Fitzgerald used the term as a variation of “I got you!” in his 1920 novel, "This Side of Paradise." Half a century later, a group of New Jersey state troopers known as the “I Gotcha Squad” was accused of intimidating politicians. But “gotcha journalism” didn’t come into vogue until the mid-1990s.

A leading 2016 Republican presidential candidate, Scott Walker, has of late sought to fend off what he and allies dismiss as gotcha questions. The Wisconsin governor says the inquiries – about his views about evolution, whether President Obama loves America, and other topics – are meant only to embarrass him. In a speech and a fundraising pitch, Walker criticized such “gotcha moments.”

Other conservatives – most notably Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum – have grumbled about liberal media bias in gotcha questions. “Republicans are asked about evolution. Fine. But I want to know: How many genders does @hillaryclinton believe there are?” mused Weekly Standard Online Editor Daniel Halper.

But office seekers have long confused gotcha journalism with legitimate questioning. Sometimes, argues National Journal’s Ron Fournier, these out-of-left field questions elicit memorable answers – like his own 2001 question, as an Associated Press reporter, to new President George W. Bush at a news conference with Vladimir Putin about whether Americans could trust the Russian leader. “I looked the man in the eye ... I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country,” Bush famously responded. 

And politicians often don’t see the correlation between how much access they grant and the tendency for gotcha accusations to fly. In other words, the more time reporters can spend interviewing a candidate, the less likely uncomfortable moments are going to occur. As veteran political reporter Jules Witcover wrote in 2013 about the earlier decades of presidential coverage: “In dealing with the candidates and campaigns, reporters with personal access usually avoided the sort of ‘gotcha journalism’ that became vogue in the wake of Watergate (along with reporters’ resultant quest for celebrity in the television era).”

Some conservatives agree that this line of questioning is an enduring – if unfair – part of the campaign process. “The ‘gotcha’ journalism Walker and his supporters are denouncing is as old as American democracy,” wrote Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin. “But even if we concede, as we should, that conservatives face a higher bar than liberals and that the bias of the press ensures that they will focus more on trying to make candidates like Walker look stupid, that doesn’t absolve the governor of his obligation to rise above this test and to even turn it to his advantage.”

Witness the response of another politician who sought to rise above the test – Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida. Asked about ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s accusation that Obama doesn’t love America, Rubio replied: “I don’t feel like I’m in a position to have to answer for every person in my party that makes a claim. Democrats aren’t asked to answer every time Joe Biden says something embarrassing, so I don’t know why I should answer every time a Republican does. I’ll suffice it to say that I believe the president loves America; I think his ideas are bad.”

That answer, said The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake, was “just about perfect.” It showed the senator as being above the fray while managing to ding Obama, Biden and the media. 

Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark write their "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Decoder Voices. 

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