John King, in his polite way, tried to play a little “gotcha” journalism to start off Thursday night’s presidential debate. Instead, he got burned.
King asked candidate Newt Gingrich to respond to his ex-wife’s assertion that the candidate once asked her to accept an open marriage. This as the first question of a presidential debate? Gingrich was ready to pounce.
“I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that,” Gingrich said as the South Carolina audience applauded. “… To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”
In my book, Newt Gingrich is a philandering hypocrite who hides behind a veneer of pious propriety. This is, after all, the moral man who led the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
But last night, in the eyes of the Republican faithful, he floored King with a roundhouse punch. (Though I couldn’t for the life of me figure out his assertion that the “elite media” are “protecting President Obama.” From what?)
This morning, the buzz in media circles keyed on whether King should have asked his question, especially to start the debate. The New York Times quoted public television’s Jim Lehrer, who said, “This is a two-hour debate. CNN would have been much better off if they’d waited.”
But that’s the wrong issue. The key question isn’t when King asked his question, but why and how he asked it. That Nightline aired an interview with Gingrich’s ex-wife, Marianne Gingrich, two days before the South Carolina Republican primary, raises some legitimate ethical questions. Was the timing fair? Was the information meaningful or merely salacious? Did the story say something about the candidate?
The answer to the last question is “definitely, yes, but only in context.” John King should have considered that context, informed his question by conveying where it fit in the Newt Gingrich narrative. Because the overarching narrative is fair: Issues of trust and credibility are central to concerns about Newt Gingrich as a presidential candidate. And so, John King could and should have started right there.
He might have tried something like this:
Mr. Gingrich, questions of trust have come up repeatedly in this presidential campaign. A PAC supporting your rival, Mitt Romney, has questioned what it calls your “erratic” behavior as a leader. So have some of those who once served under you as Speaker of the House. You were the subject of an ethics investigation in the House. You’ve been criticized for taking sizable consulting fees from very the federal housing agencies you now chastise. And now your ex-wife is publicly questioning your commitment to the institution of marriage, saying you wanted an open relationship with her. Tell me, sir, why the issue of trust has continued to dog your campaign for this country’s highest office?
With a bit more research (and CNN does have a staff), King could have improved on this question. But even my first pass is a lot more substantive than a thinly veiled version of, “Did you cheat on your wife?”
I like John King. I find him an honest and hard-working political reporting who, on election nights, makes a concerted effort to interpret results in a sober and intelligent way. But last night he wasn’t prepared. And by playing Gingrich’s willing foil, he handed the candidate the debate.