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If only I had Tammy Wynette’s hair!

May 31, 2009

Sometimes I wear my hair in an up-do with a clip like Sarah Palin did during the presidential campaign but it never gets to the height of the teased-and-sprayed poofs of the early 1960s. A little back combing and hairspray might have helped my rendition of “Stand by Your Man” in Reporting class. I hesitated before I warbled but then thought, “What the heck.” It was brief and off key, but remarkably, an undergraduate broke out in song along with me. I had been trying to practice the notion of “authenticity” in class — the idea that students respond better to professors as people, not authority figures.

Anyway, what precipitated this miscarriage of juke-ness was my playing of a video of the 1992 interview that then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton had with correspondent Steve Croft of CBS News 60 Minutes. At the time, Clinton admitted causing pain in his marriage in response to allegations by Arkansas mini-celebrity Gennifer Flowers that she had had a 12-year affair with Clinton. This occurred prior to the New Hampshire primary.

I use this video when talking about interviewing, specifically the best way to ask a “bomb” question. The bomb is the question that is uncomfortable to ask and can make long-held enemies for reporters. It’s one of the things that differentiates a journalistic interview from a casual conversation.

I tell the class to watch Croft’s body language, and particularly his eyes. They’re like lasers that bore into your soul.

For nine minutes, he is relentless. Some excerpts, in order:

“I’m assuming … that you’re categorically denying that you ever had an affair with Gennifer Flowers.”

“You’ve said that your marriage has had problems, that you’ve had difficulties. What do you mean by that? What does that mean? Is that some kind of, help us break the code. Does that mean you were separated … does it mean adultery?”

“You’ve been saying all week that you’ve got to put this issue behind you. Are you prepared tonight to say that you’ve never had an extramarital affair?”

“You’re trying to put this issue behind you and the problem with the answer is it’s not a denial, and people are sitting out there, voters, and they’re saying, ‘Look, it’s really pretty simple. If he’s never had an extramarital affair, why doesn’t he just say so?'”

And, then the journalistic payoff heard round the world.

Clinton: “You’re looking at two people who love each other. This is not an arrangement or an understanding. This is a marriage. That’s a very different thing.”

Hillary: “You know, I’m not sittin’ here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I’m sittin’ here because I love him and I respect him and I honor what he’s been through and what we’ve been through together. And, you know, if that’s not enough for people, then heck, don’t vote for him.”

The students are riveted by this act of journalistic chutzpah. They’re also taken by Hillary’s pronounced Southern accent. They laugh knowingly at the irony of Clinton’s response considering what followed after he became president. That’s one part of presidential history they all know about, even if only one of them could conjure the most famous words from Tammy’s ode from 40 years ago: “Stand by Your Man.”

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