Why Interviews Are Important

One of the things you have to do when you run for president is submit to the questioning of the press. Much of that questioning is not particularly helpful -- political reporters have a tendency to ask strategic questions ("How are you going to appeal to religious conservatives in Iowa?") or gotcha questions ("Governor, can you tell me the name of the Pakistani prime minister?"), when the answers seldom tell us anything interesting. But interviews can offer the kind of accountability candidates can escape most of the time. For instance, here's an interview Rick Santorum did with Slate's John Dickerson (h/t Andrew Sullivan):

As you can see, Santorum is simply full of it, and Dickerson does a pretty good job of exposing that fact. It could have been better -- a lot of this is about the conservative lie that **Barack Obama** has gone around the world "apologizing for America," when the truth is that he has never apologized for America in any speech, ever (I discuss that in more detail here), and it would have been good if Dickerson had pressed Santorum even harder, forcing him to cite a specific quote in which Obama apologized, which he wouldn't be able to do. On the other hand, Santorum might have just made something up, because during the interview he makes up another fictional Obama quote:

He said it two weeks ago, he said that America was not a great country until 1965. He said that. He said it. He talked about Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and he said "America is a better country because of that," and he went on to say, "I'll go one step further: America was not a great country until those programs were passed." That's what he said.

No, that's not what he said. Dickerson can't be expected to have in front of him anything Santorum might dissemble about, but here's the passage from the speech Santorum was talking about:

We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff may strike any one of us. "There but for the grace of God go I," we say to ourselves. And so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, those with disabilities. We're a better country because of these commitments. I'll go further. We would not be a great country without those commitments.

Saying we would not be a great country today without those commitments -- when he's arguing for why we shouldn't dismantle them -- is totally different than arguing that we weren't a great country before we had them. Nobody thinks the country's greatness in the 19th century was diminished by not having Medicare, at a time when medicine had barely progressed past the prescription of leeches to restore balance to your humours. Santorum knows that, of course, but to him, everything Barack Obama says must be viewed through the least generous interpretation possible. And if to do it he has to make up a fake quote ("He said America was not a great country before 1965"), so what?

Because as the interview reveals, Santorum just knows how much Obama hates America, and "evidence" that is actually "true" is beside the point. He says that you can tell Obama doesn't believe in our awesomeness as a country because of what he has said; when Dickerson confronts him with things Obama has said that contradict this assertion, Santorum says what Obama says is irrelevant, because he's a politician, and politicians say all kinds of stuff; what's important is what Obama does. He ends up being reduced to saying that you can tell Obama doesn't believe in American exceptionalism because he waited a few days to start bombing Libya. And also that Obama cites the Constitution as really important, when instead Santorum thinks he ought to be citing the Declaration of Independence. Seriously.

The nice thing about a presidential campaign is that candidates say the same things over and over -- after all, nobody is going to deliver a half-dozen new speeches every day. That ought to make it easier for reporters to prepare for interviews, and call them on their bullshit. It's not that hard to do.