Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Hardball Hucksters. What was Senator Miller about to say?


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Have you ever wanted to ask a politician a question during a TV interview? Me too.

I ease forward on the couch, jut my head toward the TV screen, furrow my brow, and grit my teeth - hoping the interviewer will ask THE question. Or in the case of a heated interview by MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews one late night in August - allow the interviewee to answer the question just posed.

Yesterday, one of my fantasies came true. I spotted Sen. Zell Miller at a book signing and asked if I could interview him for this blog. He graciously consented. My first question was, "What did you mean when you said you wished you could have a duel with Chris Matthews - when he cut you off?"

Surprisingly, his gaze dropped toward the floor and he said, "I don't want to talk about it. Next question?"

My heart raced. I had not anticipated that response. My face flushed. Now what!

"I thought you'd want to get your thoughts out since he cut you off." Expecting him to be grateful to make his point, the cement wall shocked me.

That infamous interview is still etched in my mind. Sen. Zell Miller, a blue dog Democrat from Georgia, had just spoken at the Republican Nominating Convention in New York City on the night of President Bush's acceptance speech. Chris Matthews hammered the Senator, peppering him with the usual polemics such as whether he was in favor of starving children and killing old people.

Though clearly frustrated, Sen. Miller attempted to maintain the focus on Sen. Kerry's record and fitness for our critical national defense programs.

Here's how it went:

MATTHEWS: Well, it's a tough question. It takes a few words.
MILLER: Get out of my face. If you are going to ask me a question, step back and let me answer.
MATTHEWS: Senator, please.
MILLER: You know, I wish we… I wish we lived in the day where you could challenge a person to a duel.

Pundits jumped on the exchange. Don Imus on his morning MSNBC show Imus in the Morning, called Matthews' questions of Sen. Miller "idiotic" and "out of line." I was perplexed as to why Sen. Miller wasn't willing to comment on the interview.

In desperation, I gave him my list of concluded possibilities, and jokingly asked him to nod if I was close. He laughed. He must have thought I was nuts. But the noble Marine listened.

1. "Were you saying, Listening just doesn't work for you Chris, so how about settling it in a non-verbal way as they did in the old days?"
2. "Were you trying to say that there's no civility today in public discourse?"
3. "Were you trying to say that we must respect each other despite our different opinions?"

Sen. Miller didn't respond. I wasn't getting anywhere. Now it was my turn to drop my gaze in exasperation. In his graciousness, Sen. Miller began to speak, as if to lift me out of my funk.

"It was a remote interview. I think we couldn't hear each other. My 15 year grandson Bryan was with me. The interview did not go well. I regret it."

Sen. Miller's new book Deficit of Civility, published by Stroud & Hall, devotes a chapter titled “Hardball Huff” to the incident. He explained, "Since being in the Senate, I had come to detest Chris Matthews' know-it-all attitude and his bullying way of interviewing, especially when he had the person by remote and not in the same studio.”

While attempting to minimize that contentious interview, everyone standing in line to have his new book Deficit of Civility autographed, complimented the author on his speech at the Republican convention and his forcefulness during the Matthews interview.

"I'm a Republican, but when I heard Miller's speech I knew I could vote for that Democrat," said Logan Reed of Pawling, NY. Many in the line praised Miller's courage for criticizing the Democrat party. Reed said he respects politicians who just don’t vote their party’s line all the time.

Mark Hodge, an oil company employee from Bellaire, TX felt Miller's duel challenge was the result of provocation - not a threat. "He should have told Matthews that he was rude," said Hodge, "He could have settled the dispute without having to consent to Matthews' constant rudeness."

Sen. Miller acknowledges that style can be more impressionable than words. "I come off strong. I'm trying to correct myself when I talk. But I let others finish their sentences."

Delivery style, rather than content, appears to becoming more influential with voters. Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill said of his speech at the Republican Nominating convention, "I think Zell Miller will be the lasting impression. People remember gasoline.”

Sen. Miller believes civility of interaction with others has deteriorated in the last decade. Rather than respect being accorded to everyone despite political or personal affiliations, it is reserved for people that they “like”. "Clinton polarized Americans' lack of morality," said Miller.

Miller speculates that political bias may influence interview style. "Chris interviewed Jane Fonda last week, but didn't interrupt her,” Miller said, “So it must be what you say."

Polarization, a key survival issue here at Lead our Leaders, is the foundation to Sen. Miller's sense of duty that lead him to criticize his own party. He thinks outside the box to independently evaluate public policy initiatives. In a speech from the Senate floor in January 2004, Sen. Miller said, "So, as the sand empties through my hourglass at warp speed - and with my time running out in this Senate and on this earth - I feel compelled to speak out. For I truly believe that at times like this, silence is not golden. It is yellow."

"There's been polarization from the beginning of this county," said Sen. Miller, a former history teacher. "Our founding fathers disagreed, but they were civil and worked to do the right thing." Miller continued to make his point, "The founding fathers fought over bigger issues - small vs. big states and slavery, but despite their differences, they were able to compromise and create a system that everyone agreed upon.”

Sen. Miller told me that Benjamin Franklin was one of the most experienced men among the founding fathers. He observed a style that was challenging as the founding fathers met in Philadelphia to birth our nation. “Write with the learned, pronounce with the vulgar,” said Franklin. His humorous and conciliatory style was disarming. According to Miller, when the chamber erupted he asked the men to pause for prayer in order to calm them and re-focus.

As I listened to Miller quote Franklin, the words rang with a wisdom that transcends centuries. "I have lived a long time. The longer I live the more convinced I am of this truth: God governs the affairs of man. If a sparrow can not fall to the ground without his notice. How can a country begin without his aid? I say we should take a break (for prayer)." Miller said the founding fathers came back to the table in Philadelphia with new resolve.

In another example, he told of this happening, “Dr. Rush was only 30 years old. People asked which of the two political parties he was affiliated with - Aristocrats or Democrats. Neither - he replied - I'm a Christocrat."

Miller's stories about our polarized founding fathers captured my attention. Some things never change. The founding fathers were wary of polarization, but were not fettered by a plethora of special interests. Their stylized differences were kept in check by their common Christian faith.

Unlike contemporary politics that for all appearances is marginalized by special interests, the founding fathers focused on the best outcome for the people, and not their own reelection.

Miller pondered how our country would have been shaped had special interests controlled our founding fathers and the citizenry. He observed, “If George Soros had printed a few thousand brochures back then, he could have torpedoed us.”

Sen. Miller and Benjamin Franklin observed the process as wise men. They warned that style can be as crucial as content. Even if we disagree with someone, we can be respectful in our civil discourse.

Perhaps our national political system would function more smoothly if there was someone like my first grade teacher at Arthur McGill School, Miss Maxwell, to grade our leaders on if they “play well with others.”


Click here to read excerpts from Sen. Miller's book, and for a schedule of his upcoming media and book signing appearances.

Click here for more practical advice from Benjamin Franklin.

Please share with us an example of how a “style change” improved your communications during a challenging conversation.

I place my faith in the individual development of character. Human nature changes very little. Eleanor Roosevelt, Radio broadcast, NBC, December 23, 1932.