In the games of bridge and chess, as well as in warfare, there is a particular kind of strategy that is called an “endplay”. It is aimed at maneuvering the opponent into a situation where he or she is obligated to make a move and yet every possible move that is available results in a loss.
In a real sense this was the situation in which Wesley Clark found himself yesterday. By now – and with the benefit of hindsight – virtually every Democratic activist in America has thought of some clever response that Clark might have used to avoid the manufactured scandal and outrage over his remarks.
Rather than add to this specific discussion, however, it is worth stepping back a little and noting that an “endplay” situation of this general kind will invariably present itself whenever McCain’s military service is offered as proof of his superior qualifications for the presidency:
1. Any reply that suggests McCain’s military experience – – either as a pilot or prisoner of war – is not clear evidence of his qualifications for high office can easily be spun as denigrating him personally, his service, bravery, fortitude etc. (This can be easier or harder depending on the exact words of the particular response, but an “outrageous denigration of John McCain” can always be concocted. If the actual reply itself is not sufficient, it can be re-edited, words can be taken out of context or simply mischaracterized by partisan commentators).
2. On the other hand, any response that tries to express respect for aspects of McCain’s biography can always be used as a rhetorical stepping stone to launch increasingly more provocatively phrased questions that finally demand some kind of clear dissent from the person being interviewed (this is, in part, what happened to Clark; Obama, on the other hand, handles similar situations with great patience and skill).
There is no iron-clad strategy for evading this trap – litigation lawyers and partisan commentators are both expert in framing no-win, “so tell the jury, when did you stop beating your wife” questions that are extremely difficult to answer well in the high-pressure, unscripted environment of a courtroom or media interview.
One specific approach worth keeping in mind, however, is that it is usually effective to directly quote the opposing candidate himself in order to refute him.
For example, in his 2004 book “Why Courage Matters – The Way to a Braver Life” John McCain said:
“I don’t really need much courage for the challenges most frequently encountered in a political career. Political courage in our consensual political system is seldom all that courageous”.
In that same book, McCain also goes out of his way to cite not only military examples of courage and heroism but courage and heroism of other kinds as well – Eleanor Roosevelt, Navajo Chiefs Manuelito and Barboncito, Burmese Buddhist leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Congressman John Lewis.
Here is what McCain says about John Lewis and nonviolent protest:
Martin Luther King Jr. had the physical courage to defend his moral convictions without resorting to violence. He had the courage to face the possible, if not probable, consequences of his success. How different is that kind of courage from the soldier’s?
In some instances it may be more sublime…If it takes courage to kill or be killed in war, it is a courage often prompted by an instinct for survival…but the person who forswears violence while intent on challenging a violent threat must have hope of something greater than survival.
During my congressional career I’ve had the privilege to become acquainted and friendly with John Lewis. [During the civil rights movement] John Lewis was as courageous as anyone could ever hope to be…he had courage that would not quit, the rarest kind.… [The segregationists] couldn’t scare the courage out of him. They could not beat it out of him, either. By the time he got to Selma, Alabama, they had teargassed him, arrested him, and beaten him more times than he could remember…
I’ve seen courage in action on many occasions. I can’t say I’ve seen anyone possess more of it, and use it for any better purpose and to any greater effect, than John Lewis.
Quoting John McCain himself to the effect that (1) courage is not really the most vital virtue in the modern political system and (2) that people deeply committed to nonviolent social change can be every bit as brave as soldiers has two distinct and useful effects.
On the one hand these two points inherently undermine the notion that John McCain’s military experiences, by themselves, automatically make him a superior candidate for president. But, in addition, quoting McCain himself to refute arguments for his own superiority will tend to disrupt the hard-charging rhetorical strategy aggressive interviewers and commentators employ. It makes it hard for hostile interviewers to avoid giving the impression that they are somehow contradicting themselves when McCain himself is quoted against them (For similar reasons criminal prosecutors frequently seek to expose a witness apparently contradicting himself even if the subject matter is not central to the issue in dispute).
There are no sure-fire strategies for dealing with situations like those that arose during the Clark interview, but recognizing certain basic and recurring rhetorical tactics such as the Endplay strategy is the first step toward overcoming them.