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A foolproof method of picking the loser

ASK THIS | July 08, 2004

Columnist Gene Weingarten offers questions for the presidential candidates based on a theory he first heard when he was a Nieman Fellow in 1988.

By Gene Weingarten

Question for George W. Bush: I think we can all agree that ethnic and racial stereotypes are hurtful, and inimical to better relations among people. But honestly now, aren't Norwegians a hoot?

Question for John Kerry: Please outline the key elements of your plan to reduce injuries and deaths from the misuse of yo-yos.

Question for George W. Bush: Please disclose the single fact about yourself that, if published, would reveal you to be a morally deficient person and might even doom your reelection.

Question for John Kerry: You have been criticized, in some circles, for being a little boring. Along these lines, which phrase do you find more compelling: "Prudent fiscal management" or "huge, heaving bosoms"? Explain.

Question for George W. Bush: Your political adversaries seem to enjoy making unfair insinuations that your cognitive abilities are deficient. Just for the record, to clear this up once and for all, please explain how the proof for Fermat's last theorem can be established through use of the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture.

Question for John Kerry: Senator, just how rich are you? For example, do you buy yachts and throw them away after using them once, like disposable razors?

During the 1987-88 year, Nieman curator Howard Simons took all of us Fellows to meet a man who was running for president. Michael Dukakis, then governor of Massachusetts, invited us into his office and graciously answered our questions for the better part of an hour.

He was, in a word, magnificent: personable, articulate, never at a loss for an answer. This was still early in the campaign, but his grasp of the issues was encyclopedic. He consulted no notes, but quoted facts and figures effortlessly. When Nieman fellow Frank del Olmo, a Mexican American, asked a question about Latino affairs, the governor answered him in flawless Spanish.

After the interview, as we were walking away from the governor's mansion, Howard asked all of us what we thought of the man.

Being asked a question by Howard was always a little intimidating, because Howard always seemed like the oldest and wisest person in the room. He would have given this impression if the other people in the room were Nelson Mandela, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Confucius. Howard tended to analyze situations quickly and succinctly, nimbly cutting through crap to get to basic truths. So usually, when Howard asked a question, we would gather our thoughts carefully before answering. But in this case, most of us were quite instantly voluble.

Dukakis was terrific, we said. Impressive. Commanding. Presidential. We were falling all over each other to find adequate superlatives. Howard heard us all out, then shook his head and said:

"Won't win. No sense of humor."

He was, as always, right. Dukakis's campaign became a sad pratfall, largely because the candidate showed himself lacking juice and the sort of inner joy and playfulness that accompanies a formidable sense of humor. These things go hand in hand.

And thus, my questions. Let's find out which of these candidates, given the opportunity, can be spontaneously funnier. Great leaders need great senses of humor. No joke.


07/10/2004, 01:04 PM

What Gene! No VP Questions? I would like to ask John Edward. Why someone who obviously is a Steelers fan,(Remember the Steelers, that team in a Penn steel town. The team, in which that bald headed sport caster, won four rings for.),would make his FIRST public appearance,as a VP candidate, in the town that LOVES, the team, which is Pittsburgh, biggest rival? What I am really wondering is why some hot shot paper like the WP,(love your art section), did not pick up on this irony?

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