When Bill met Jeffy
A while back we lamented the fact that the Neighborhood Notes website pulled our friend Bill McDonald off the detail of interviewing Portland's mayoral candidates. McDonald had done a bang-up job with Max Brumm and Charlie Hales, and we looked forward to some great interviews with the others in the field. But alas, it wasn't to be -- the Jefferson Smith interview that NN published was conducted by a lesser talent than McDonald, and it wasn't much of a read.
As it turns out, that is only part of the story. According to McDonald, he did in fact interview Smith, but the piece was pulled after Smith was unhappy with the way the session went. And so it never saw the light of day, until now.
Here's audio of the latter part of the interview -- it's painfully awkward. Neither guy was at his best. We think it's valid to publish it here, and we'll leave it to readers to make of it what they will. We have never had any use for Smith, and this episode dies not change our view of the fellow.
Here's McDonald's account of what happened:
I'm sending you this out of a sense of civic responsibility. After giving me good reviews for my interviews with mayoral candidates Max Brumm and Charlie Hales, you noted that I had been "benched" for the next politician.... My interview in early November with Jefferson Smith had turned contentious, with the candidate's campaign team calling my clients to complain. I was told I had been hostile to him. They decided not to use the piece, and also canceled my interview with Eileen Brady, so if Jefferson Smith is running on a platform to help local small businesses get jobs, it sure as hell isn't working with me.
I want to stress right now that this is not about politics. As a fellow progressive, I bet I'm in line with a lot of what Jefferson Smith believes, although I have a much better understanding of the reasons behind the economic meltdown. Perhaps I'll share some of his answers on that as the campaign grinds on. Yikes.
Oh, and the timing? I wanted to spend the weeks after this trying to salvage things with these particular clients, so I am just now free to address my interview. The clients have nothing to do with this -- they are free and clear of all responsibility here, and I'm actually quite fond of them and regret any stress I sent their way. I would have run with this much sooner, but as a freelancer, I admit commerce comes before civic responsibility, especially in this economy. Six weeks has been a long break after working diligently to get in this outfit's rotation, so I focused on winning them back, and that part was not all business. This whole mess bothered me on a personal level a great deal.
So what about the holidays? Is this an appropriate time to share this particular joy with the world? That part of it is unfortunate, but this has been on my "to do" list for way too long already. So I'm thinking of it as my Christmas card to Portland. Here goes:
The problem with the interview was that I have concluded that Mr. Smith is a pr**k. A pompous, power-happy, blowhard bully. I may be wrong about that. This is just my opinion, but I do make a living sizing up politicians, and my takes have been broadcast on television and radio in dozens of countries since 1993 and 1996 respectively. As we conclude the Iraq War, I would like to point out that I have even had my protests about that disaster in Time Magazine -- in comedy form of course.
I believe in myself as a judge of this life form known as the politician, and I believe Jefferson Smith is a reckless, dangerous loser with what is probably a psychopathic personality, and believe me, politics draws more than its fair share of those. One sign is a person who appears to show little empathy, until he or she figures out what is called for, and then pours it on in a learned way that seems calculated and phony. I believe this tape illustrates that quite well.
I also admit I formulated this opinion of Mr. Smith prior to meeting him. I just watched his speeches and other interviews. In one of his dumbest points, he seems to believe I should have had no opinion of him whatsoever until we met, even though our democracy is built on listening to debates and speeches, etc., and drawing conclusions about the character of the candidates. How he got through Harvard with logic like this is a mystery, but it did clear up how Bush got through Yale.
What I suspect is that he was more concerned about the conclusions I had reached about him than the methodology I used to get there. People like this are often on the lookout for those who see through them, and switch into a confrontational mode early to try and head it off, which is what I believed happened here. Oh, and it was also quite revealing how he handled it with my clients after the interview, throwing his weight around and seeming to confirm my theories that he's a bully.
I also maintain that I arrived at the interview willing to be won over, and to be proven wrong. Longtime readers of Jack's blog know that I have no problem apologizing if I get something incorrect. I certainly was not thrilled that a major Portland race would have a serious candidate of this caliber, so if anything, I was hoping to be charmed out of my earlier fears. However, I soon realized I was probably right....
So when did I reaffirm my opinion of Mr. Smith? The moment came after a question about banks, when he said, "I don’t know if I will accept the premise of your line of questioning, or that question itself, but I will ask you to repeat it because I thought your question was such crap." Incidentally, this was 10 questions into the interview. It sort of degenerated from there.
Admittedly, the opening bit had not gone well. I do believe that a person's sense of humor is a valuable gauge of character, so some of my questions are tests to see how they handle a comical twist. Incidentally, I also throw in some questions to test their heat gauge, but not every interview question is designed to be used. All politicians should know that. So where did the comical one at the beginning go off track? It's never wise to explain why something wasn't funny after all, but you'll need this to understand a reference in the tape. Here goes:
Jefferson Smith, a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School, and founder of the Bus Project, was named after Thomas Jefferson, but so was just about every person given the name Jefferson after that point in history. The President of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis, was named after Thomas Jefferson.
However, Jefferson Smith is also the character that Jimmy Stewart plays in the landmark political film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," though that was not enough to introduce it into evidence for this interview. What put it in play was the name of Portland candidate Jefferson Smith’s consulting firm. Jimmy Stewart was the head of the Boy Rangers in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and our mayoral candidate named his consulting firm "Boy Ranger Consulting." If you’re going to make the comparison yourself, then don’t be surprised if others run with it.
See, as a teenage American boy growing up overseas, I would travel a lot at a young age. One day, I was wandering the streets of London and I came upon a stage door and a crowd. I stood with them, enjoying the feeling of not knowing what would happen next. Who should come out of that stage door but the legendary Jimmy Stewart. It really was quite amazing to see such a familiar Hollywood actor hobnobbing with the crowd, talking with the voice that launched a million impressions. This is not a generational thing. Who hasn’t seen "It’s a Wonderful Life"?
I thought it would be a good beginning to a lighthearted exchange so I told the candidate: "I have seen the man who played Jefferson Smith in, 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.' I have heard that familiar voice in person, and it felt like I knew him and knew the character in the movie. And you, Jefferson Smith, are no Jefferson Smith. Your thoughts?"
Smith was not thrilled but showed some sense of humor with an Eminem reference: "Well, I would say that I’m a real person. That’s really my name, and I would say to anyone else who has a fictional name of Jefferson Smith, that they’re not Jefferson Smith. I am the real Slim Shady."
Later, when things had become contentious and he was going through my pages of prepared questions looking for examples of how unfair I had been to him, he would point out this bit and the phrase, "Your thoughts?" as an example of my offensive questions. You'll hear him do that in this tape.
Fortunately, by then he had also revealed that he had gotten it -- he knew it was a reference to the famous moment from the vice presidential debates when Lloyd Bentsen said a similar thing to Dan Quayle, so we were okay there. But he was profoundly unimpressed that I had compared him to this character in a film, despite the fact that he had done the same thing through the name of his consulting firm.
Oh, well. I simply want to get this off my list and out there. I'm not that concerned about him winning, but I remember hearing George W. in person early on -- as he talked about compassionate conservatism -- and thinking, "There is no way they'll go for this clown." I do not want to be wrong again. So here's my contribution to the city I love. You're welcome, Portland.
Smith says he doesn't read this blog, and so we guess we'll never hear from him. But if we do, we'll report it here. Verbatim.