An Anecdote of Government Media Strategy

Samantha Power, who was forced to resign from the Obama campaign in 2008 and was later black-balled from serving at the State Department in the first term of the Obama administration due to calling Hillary Clinton a “monster,” has written a lovely memoir: The Education of An Idealist. This hawkish Democratic foreign policy wonk has a beautiful anecdote about being instructed by a government bureaucrat (Kurtis Cooper, her Deputy Spokesman when she was Obama’s U.S. Ambassador the U.N.) on how to give nonanswers to audience questions:

As I was leaving, one of the students, a refugee from Afghanistan, asked a question I had not been anticipating: “What do you think about communism?”

A small group of UN reporters who had accompanied me on the school visit leaned in to hear my response. Once I got over my surprise at the question, I expressed my disdain for the suffering caused by communist rule. Kurtis whispered to me as we walked out, “It is my job to be paranoid, but that was a fine answer.”

Kurtis added, though, that I needed to get comfortable not answering questions. My press spokeswoman, Erin Pelton, would soon sit me down for media training, rattling off the list of “safe harbors” I could turn to when confronted with a question that was either new or difficult:

“I’m not fully familiar with what you are describing, but I will look into it, and we will get back to you with a response.”

“Rather than commenting on the specifics, let me say this generally . . .”

“I’m not going to speculate on . . .”

“What we should all be focused on is . . .”

I’m sure various versions of this moment have transpired for many years. If you’ve sat through policymakers’ speeches where they drone on, but say nothing, take questions but avoid answering them, keep in mind that it sometimes requires some coaching. Not all of us are naturally inauthentic.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.