Which was more boring last night: the game or Bill O’Reilly’s pre-game interview with Barack Obama?
Politicians prepare for high-stakes interviews with the precision of athletes preparing for a big game. They study film, look for tendencies, practice their answers to the most likely questions. In my experience, their prep teams are able to predict the vast majority of the questions. The anticipated question isn’t necessarily the easy one, of course; it just means the interviewee is ready for it. On the journalist’s side, the same kind of study takes place, so when the two sides meet, there is the main event, the actual interview and then the game within, where each side is trying to run his play. The smart politician always has an agenda in an important interview; for example, to establish an empathic connection on an issue or to defuse a bad story. The journalist, too, has an agenda: to generate news, perhaps, or to show us a more spontaneous side of the politician.
President Obama’s responsibility for the boring interview last night is minimal. His people knew there was no particular upside to sitting down with O’Reilly, but they didn’t have much choice. His network had the game, so he got the president. (The pre-Super Bowl presidential interview is a budding tradition that should be nipped.) O’Reilly’s performance is a different matter. In trying to channel the anger and frustration that many Republicans feel about the president’s “shiftiness” on his health-care law, Benghazi and IRS scrutiny of conservative groups, O’Reilly not only played to type but also made the president look as well prepared as (sorry) the Seahawks’ defense. Misdirection is often the best strategy in sports as it is in political interviews. But O’Reilly keeps running the same play.