The one-word response as debate ploy

By Kent Ward,
Posted June 17, 2011, at 10:08 p.m.

Before the resignation of Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., on Thursday many lawmakers had publicly commented on the congressman’s situation, but few as succinctly as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

When he was asked by a reporter at a news conference if Weiner — who had admitted sending lewd photos of himself to women he had met online — should resign from Congress, Boehner cut to the chase with a refreshingly uncomplicated one-word reply: “Yes.”

That was it. No long-winded political blather about how the matter should be decided by Weiner’s constituents, as some had argued. No talk of conducting an investigation of the scandal. No suggestion that the New York congressman should be given a leave of absence to seek professional help. No equivocation or excuses; no ifs, ands or buts. A simple unqualified “yes” from the Speaker, who had earlier sent a member of his own party packing for similar bad behavior, had magnificently carried the day.

It was a response worthy of a two thumbs-up rating from most any Down East Yankee who believes that those who strive mightily to conserve their allotted supply of words shall get their reward in heaven. As I watched a rerun on an evening network news show it struck me that it would be an improvement if, in much of today’s political debate in high places, the debaters skipped the partisan talking-points rhetoric and went right to the one-word response to questions posed.

I raise the proposition knowing full well that the one-word reply in interviews causes problems for news reporters, especially those who work in television or radio. Most anyone who has been in the news reporting business in Maine for any length of time has had occasion to interview some laconic native whose replies to detailed questions run the gamut from “yup” to “nope,” with the occasional “maybe” inserted as a variation on the theme.

For the reporter, the experience is not unlike the joy of beginning the day with double root canal surgery. Print reporters can generally come up with some sort of paraphrase to bridge any potential gap in their news stories that might result from dealing with a less-than-talkative source. But if the interview occurs on live television or radio the reporter can be left to twist uncomfortably in the dead air and pregnant pauses that often result — up the airwaves without a quote, so to speak, and with the viewing and listening public taking vicarious pleasure from it all.

The late Gerald Lewis, author of the classic “How to Talk Yankee,” a collection of Yankee-isms offered as a guide for tourists, wrote in the book’s introduction, “Supposedly, the Yankee is of few words, his occasional utterances punctuated with many pauses as he whittles, puffs contemplatively on his pipe, or draws circles in the dirt with a stick. ‘Well, naow,’ he is supposed to drawl, ‘I ain’t so sure about that…’ And if a subject is pursued, his opinion may drag on with the pace of a tortoise.”

Lewis cautioned that the case might very well be quiet different, though, “depending on your Yankee,” because some will go rapid-fire on their interviewer, leaving a note taker dazzled and struggling to catch up.

If you were to give me my druthers, I’d take the interview with the Down East Yankee — whether dawdler in speech, or his fast-talking cousin — over the likes of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who in his press briefings preferred to answer questions of his own asking, rather than those that reporters might spring on him. (“Is the war going as well as we’d like? Of course not. These things never do. Do I wish we could wind things up by tomorrow morning? Well, sure. But that‘s not going to happen.”)

Meanwhile, back at the proposition that the world would be a better place if we had more one-word replies to questions — especially on the Sunday morning television talk shows —  I can recall times when I would have given five bucks if the victim of some host’s 3-minute harangue disguised as a question had retaliated with an economically phrased one-word response.

Not all questions can be answered with a single word, of course. But many can, the Weiner situation providing John Boehner’s Exhibit A.

“Mr. Speaker, do you think Congressman Weiner should resign?”

“Yes.”

Next question.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is maineolddawg@gmail.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/06/17/opinion/contributors/the-one-word-response-as-debate-ploy/ printed on November 27, 2014