Back in January, I wrote the first part of this series. I talked about the dangers of being too practiced in interview technique — ducking and “bridging” away from issues we don’t want to discuss.
Too much of this type of slick interviewing — combined with an overly aggressive focus on sticking to one’s “messages” — guarantees that the subject of an interview will end up sounding like a typical politician. Not only is this a negative, but the interview sounds so practiced that listeners tune out and the opportunity is wasted.
MCCAIN: … more importantly, I’ve found in my life that when I do what I think is right — for example, on the marriage amendment — it always turns out in the end OK. When I do things for political expediency, which I have from time to time, it’s always turned out poorly. For better or worse, I have a pretty good compass as to what my political philosophy and base and beliefs are, and I have to stick with them.
WALLACE: Give me an example, since you bring it up. What have you done? What would you admit you did for political expediency?
MCCAIN: I went down to South Carolina and said that the flag that was flying over the state capitol, which was a confederate flag, was — that I shouldn’t be involved in it, it was a state issue. It was an act of cowardice.
WALLACE: Act of cowardice on your part.
WALLACE: And you did it because you thought this will help me in the South Carolina primary in 2000.
MCCAIN: Yes, sure, this won’t alienate a certain voting block. But I lost anyway.
WALLACE: And how did you — I mean, did you sit there — because I know you’re a man of strong opinions. How did you sit there and say you know, I don’t believe this, but I’m going to say it anyway?
MCCAIN: Oh, we’re all gifted, no matter how principled we are, with the gift of rationalization. But I knew it was wrong at the time, but I rationalized it: Well, you know, I can use this as a way to avoid a political, you know, downside. And it was wrong.
WALLACE: How do you know that if you were to run and become president that you wouldn’t do that again?
MCCAIN: Well, I’ve learned a lot of lessons in my life. I’m older than dirt. I’ve got more scars than Frankenstein, but I’ve learned a lot of things along the way. And that was a very strong lesson for me. And there have been other times in my life. But I can tell you that I know the difference between right and wrong.
Now, the major “rule” violation here is Sen. McCain brought up a negative, “When I do things for political expediency…” and Wallace picked up on it immediately, “Give me an example, since you bring it up.”
Did Sen. McCain make an error? Somehow, I doubt it. Was he being very, very clever by prompting Wallace to take up this line of discussion? Perhaps, but I’m guessing no.
So what happened here? I believe Sen. McCain instinctively stays away from those techniques that make some politicians sound like robots. He says what he wants and isn’t afraid to admit errors. In fact, in the above segment he does just that, “… it was wrong.”
Am I suggesting everyone take the McCain approach? No. In order to pull this off you’re got to be very experienced, quick on your feet, and have tremdendous natural instincts about what works and what does not. Bringing up errors and apologizing for mistakes is inherently dangerous. However, we can all learn something from Sen. McCain’s interview.
We can resist the temptation to avoid all tough questions. We can fight the urge to drive every conversation to safe — prepared — ground. We can inject a little reality into our public personas.
And by doing this, we can create a feeling of honesty and straight shooting that more “polished” politicians and executives often lack.
I don’t know if you like Sen. McCain politically or not. But one thing’s certain: He is a man who rejects conventional wisdom, says what he wants and is willing to live with the consequences. That’s awfully refreshing today.