Simon Says

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NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small

Trivia on the Campaign Trail

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Scott Simon reflects on why trivial questions seem to become important in presidential campaigns.


So why do we fasten on to what Dan Schorr just called trivial questions, like whether a candidate for president left a tip, wears briefs or boxers, or prefers diamonds to pearls. That last by the way was a question a voter asked candidates this week. Though it turns out, she was prompted by a CNN producer who was just looking to lighten up the debate.

Candidates spend an awful lot of time and effort. You can hear them on the debates, prating on about Iraq, Iran and nuclear policy, taxes, social security, and immigration. Then news reports leap on whether they left a tip or can name the prime minister of Canada, who by the way is Stephen Harper.

Even all the attention paid to whether Senator Clinton did or didn't agree with a proposal to enable illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, focused on whether she'd flip-flopped, not the sense or nonsense at the proposal. Policy exchanges can be a little like Bergman films - dense, complicated. And when they're over, you don't know what to think.

So many reporters, who after all are as eager to be shown in post-debate highlights as a basketball player is to be seen making a slam dunk on a sports center, looks for slips or quips that they're convinced disclose a candidate's true nature.

I think candidates disclose their true natures by running for president. By nature, they are plotting, methodical, self-absorbed and willing to say almost anything to please. Questions like who's the leader of Kyrgyzstan remind me of an old "Monty Python" routine where the British army concocts a killer joke that when uttered aloud makes enemy soldiers fall down laughing. Reporters and voters in forums try to come up with questions that make candidates fall back stuttering. What does that really accomplish?

Someone who can unflinchingly repeat the names of the leaders of Canada or Kyrgyzstan should be able to win prizes on "Deal or No Deal." But you may notice that the man who asked Fred Thompson about the prime minister of Canada didn't follow through with a few really potentially provocative questions. Has the North American Free Trade Agreement benefitted the U.S. and Canada? Why is their dollar strong while ours is down? Should the U.S. reward Canada for bearing disproportionate casualties among its troops in Afghanistan and resisting domestic pressure to withdraw?

But those questions are so clunky. The answers had been slowed by facts. What a snooze. Maybe gifted screenwriters can come up with a single, sharp stupefying question and answer to reveal a candidate's true nature. But they're on strike right now.

Listening and thinking will have to do. How boring is that?

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Simon Says

Simon SaysSimon Says

NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small

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