As some readers might know, your humble correspondent (that’s me) will be conducting a live interview with President Obama a few hours before the Super Bowl game begins on Sunday. The chat is scheduled to last about 12 minutes and is fraught with danger — for me, not for the president.
That’s because the rules are different when it comes to interviewing the president of the United States. Since the beginning of our republic, only 44 men have held that office, and when a citizen is in the presence of the chief executive, there is strict protocol. For example, he is addressed as “Mr. President.” No one says “Yo, Barack, how you doin’?” There is a respect for the office that formalizes all conversation.
I well remember President Bush the Elder telling NBC correspondent Stone Phillips to be “careful” after Phillips asked Bush about a rumor concerning his personal life. The president’s tone stopped Stone cold, pardon the pun.
Back in September of 2008, I interviewed then-Sen. Obama on the campaign trail. There was no protocol involved except for civility. I asked Obama a series of specific questions and interrupted him if he didn’t answer them directly. I had 30 minutes of his time and made them count because I could say pretty much what I wanted to say.
But that was then. On Sunday, I can ask the president valid questions, but he doesn’t have to answer them. He can say what he wants. If I interrupt him too much, I look like a dope. With only 12 minutes to work with, I have to frame my questions with precision. The president is an eloquent man; he could easily run out the clock if he wants to. And the interview is live, so there’s no editing. In other words, there’s nowhere to hide if things don’t go well.
Experienced journalists know that any interview with a powerful person is a chess game. Your job is to get information, to deliver something the audience has not heard. Many times, the interviewee does not want to answer certain questions and, indeed, might even refuse to answer them by spinning or deflecting. With anyone else, I could call the spinner on that. With the president of the United States, you have to be careful, as Bush pointed out.
So I fully expect to get hammered after the interview. Depending on how you feel about the president, the questions will either be too soft or too intrusive. The first time around, the interview benefited both Obama and myself, as it was a virtual free-for-all, a spirited back and forth about a variety of subjects.
This time, I will have to bring a completely different game plan to the White House. The president has home-field advantage, an established presence as the world’s most powerful quarterback and the clock running to his advantage. Vegas wouldn’t even put out a line on this one. Can’t wait to see what happens.