When I was CEO and I said, 'Jump,' people
said, 'How high?' As secretary of the
Treasury, when I said, 'Jump,' people would
say . . . , 'What do you mean by jump? How
do you describe high?'
Presidential chief of staff Donald Regan
said that at a question-and-answer session
with the White House press corps. Inevitably
more questions followed. Washington so loves questions that generally the answers are beside the point. The best- loved answers are those that elicit a hundred more questions.
Donald Regan, welcome to Washington, the city of questions.
Let's thumb through the public record and count the ways Washington inquires. In January 1984, the White House press corps asked 2,691 questions during the twice-daily White House press briefings with deputy press secretary Larry Speakes. Between July 25 and Aug. 2, 1984, the heat of the debating season when Congress actually passes bills, there were 1,165 questions asked on the floors of the House and Senate, not counting procedural questions such as "Will the senator yield?" In two morning sessions on the House Appropriations subcommittee on interior and related agencies in 1984, Chairman Sidney Yates asked the staff of the Smithsonian Institution 717 questions. In 1984, House Appropriations subcommittees filled 103 volumes of testimony and Senate Appropriations subcommittees 60 volumes. In his 1984 and 1985 hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Edwin Meese ran the gauntlet of 1,434 questions. Meese had it easy. Donald Regan appeared before congressional committees 80 times during his four years as secretary of the Treasury. In 1983 Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger spent 55 hours and 31 minutes with congressional committees, mostly fielding questions.
But what about the president? Doesn't Reagan avoid press conferences? Don't count the conferences. Count the questions. Recently Reagan fended off this: "Your aides have said they have innovative, interesting ideas if the negotiations are resumed. What are your ideas? Defensive weapons aside, what are your ideas for reducing offensive systems, ideas that were not put forward in the negotiations that were aborted and that could offer some hope for progress in this new round of negotiations?" In the first half of 1950, the press asked Harry Truman 742 questions at press conferences. But thanks to complex compound questions that the likes of Harry Truman would have probably slugged a reporter for asking, Reagan was only 63 questions off Truman's mark. He fielded 679 questions in various settings during the first six months of 1982.
Surprising statistic, but few questions even raised an eyebrow. Washington questions are not only notable for their quantity. There's a special quality about them: They're so predictable.
In researching his book The Government/Press Connection: Press Officers and Their Offices, Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution kibitzed at five press offices around town. Hess relays the wisdom of one former State Department press officer: 80 percent of the questions at the daily press briefing are predictable. What about the other 20 percent? Completely off the wall, especially at the White House, where they are as predictable as a sophomore. Hess reports, "Reporters and press officers are sort of locked in together for so much of their working lives (that) a certain type of camaraderie, almost of a fraternity variety, glib and irreverent, creeps into it." For instance:
"Do you have any comment on the report in Time magazine that the president's brain is missing?"
Larry Speakes didn't answer that one.In other parts of town, questions can't be so easily ignored. "They are a pain in the butt," averred John McCain as he recalled his days in the Defense Department's office of congressional liaison. "I'll bet the vast majority of questions come from staff who get a hold of signature machines." Now McCain is a congressman from Arizona, and admits his staff is now churning out questions for the bureaucracy. They are getting ammo for the congressman to use at hearings, which McCain characterizes as a "propaganda forum for advocates and adversaries . . . I've never known a hearing that revealed any new information."
At hearings the old trial lawyer's adage is at work: Never ask a question if you don't already know the answer. Witness Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) at the Meese hearings quizzing John McKean, the Postal Service governor who arranged a friendly loan for Meese.
Q.Was this your money, Mr. McKean?
Q.Was it the money of a member of your family?
Q.Was it the money of a partner of yours?
Q.Was it the money of a member of family of a partner of yours?
A.Yes, it was.
Get a feeling Metzenbaum knew all along where the money came from?
Before many hearings the committee prepares a book of questions and the witness a book of answers. Why not shuffle the two books together and let the big picture emerge? The networks wouldn't touch it. Phil Schiliro, an aide to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), has seen his man star on the nightly news. No thanks to him: "Whenever the staff tries to plant something for the press, it bombs," he says. "The questions have to be spontaneous."
For example, after the recent methyl isocyanate disaster in Bhopal, India, Waxman's subcommittee on health and the environment summoned the EPA bureaucrats who still disdained speeding up regulation. Here's the Waxman question that made the news:
"If 3,000 people died tomorrow of MIC, would you find it hazardous enough to regulate?" That question didn't come from a staff list. As Schiliro puts it, "Waxman was on automatic." Note also, questions usually answer themselves. Don't mistake those 1,155 congressional questions, one 1984 week's worth, as old fashioned give- and-take -- 60 percent were rhetorical, no answers needed because, by golly, we all know the answers.
Men in power often use questions to cut the tongues out of their opponents, so to speak. Assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle revealed this technique in a recent profile: "I remember going around the room and saying, 'Does anyone beliueve that they (the Soviets) would give up all their chemical weapons?' and nobody raised their hand. Nobody. I said, 'I take it then that everyone agrees that they would be likely to retain some chemical weeapons,' and there was kind of a silence."
In this city people lead with questions. How did administration insiders first know that President Reagan was gung-ho for his strategic defense initiative? When he asked his advisers, "Would it not be better to defend lives to avenge them?" How did the president signal to his aides and, thanks to the inevitable leak, to all of us that he was not sure about the new Treasury tax simplification plan? He asked those briefing him on the program, "What about country club dues?"
leaks didn't report the answers the president got to those questions. But we all know the answers. That's why he asked the questions. He's the Great Communicator. In the first six months of 1982 Reagan asked 201 rhetorical questions in speeches and press conferences, including "Would we say that the Boy Scouts should be turned over to government? That that should be a government program?" Recall the high point of the second inaugural address: "If not us, who? If not now, when?" Now that's a great Washington question. How do we answer it? We ask, "What? Why? How? Where? Washington? Are you kidding? Next question."