10 Questions: For Katie, About "Primary Questions"

Tony Maciulis is a producer for CBSNews.com based in New York.
The "Primary Questions" series has sparked lots of conversations worth sharing on the blog. Katie interviewed 10 presidential contenders, and asked them 10 key questions ranging from their biggest fears to their biggest mistakes.

In the installments already aired on the CBS Evening News, the candidates have revealed something of their character and judgment--and given voters a better picture of who they really are.

Katie sat down earlier today to answer my 10 Questions about her 10 Questions.
(CBS)
1. Why a series focusing primarily on character and the core values of the candidates, as opposed to policy?

We are going to spend a lot of time talking about policy positions and differences after there are two nominees, and certainly we've covered them in recent months. But we had an opportunity here to sit down with every candidate, and we wanted to get beyond positions that many people have heard at debates or seen on their websites.

We wanted a more revelatory interview in terms of character and the things that make them the people they are. I wouldn't advise voters to use this exercise alone to determine who they should support, but there is something to be said for understanding someone's humanity and character and integrity through answers to personal questions.

Character is critical in defining a presidency. When the rubber meets the road in a time of crisis, oftentimes the president's character dictates what he or she will do.

2. You interviewed five Democrats and five Republicans. Why not all the contenders?

That's an excellent question. And I'm sure it's been raised by supporters of Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, Chris Dodd, and others.

Despite the support these people have, we were looking at electability and the candidates—in our judgment—who have a real chance of actually becoming president. I think these other candidates have interesting positions and I know their supporters are passionate. I would like to continue to cover them. And of course, we will cover them even more if their campaigns do better.

But it's a 22 minute broadcast. These interviews are about eight minutes a piece, which is unusual in a network newscast. We had to draw the line somewhere.

3. There are so many questions people would like to ask these candidates. How did you pick 10, and were any omitted that you wish now you would have asked?

We spent a lot of time talking amongst ourselves, as the Queen of Coffee Talk, Linda Richman might say. Rick Kaplan, our Executive producer has been interested in leadership and campaign coverage for many years and spoke with some folks from Harvard (my safety school!), the University of Chicago and Duke.

We also spoke to writers and historians like Douglas Brinkley, Robert Dallek, and Larry Sabato. We spoke to the co-chairmen of the 9-11 Commission, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, as well as business leaders like Lee Iacocca. In each case, we asked them what qualities were important in a national leader, and used their comments to inform our questions.

In retrospect, I wish I had asked a question about religion, particularly with the role it is now playing in the process.

My mom actually came up with a question, "Does a man make the times or do the times make the man?" How much credit can a president take for events that would occur no matter who is in charge? I thought that was interesting, but maybe too esoteric.

4. You can't control the news of the day, and there were times when your scheduled interview coincided with some news worth discussing. What reactions did you get from the candidates and their staffers when you had to steer off course?

(CBS)
"News of the day" happened particularly with Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani and Barack Obama. We talked with Giuliani about a report that questioned the way New York City was billed for his then-girlfriend Judith Nathan's security.

With Hillary Clinton, we asked her about the changing tone of the campaign. In our interview, she acknowledged the change for the first time and addressed the need to respond to attacks being leveled against her.

In the interview with Obama, the issue was his position on negotiations with Iran. It had been a sticking point in one of the debates, a discussion about when this country should come to the table.

In general, I feel an obligation to ask candidates about news of the day, because they are running for president. No one refused.

5. The responses to the question about the most impressive person really split right down party lines, with Ronald Reagan on one side and Nelson Mandela on the other. Did that surprise you? Did any answer to that question stand out for you?

How funny was that? It got to the point where I almost started laughing because it seemed like it was straight out of the "How to Run for President" script.

Of course, John Edwards and Fred Thompson both said their fathers, which is nice. But what about the Moms?

6. One of the questions in the series is on fidelity. When talking to the candidates, you quoted Harry Truman, who said that "a man who isn't honorable in his marital relations is usually not honorable in any other." This is a sensitive issue for a few of the contenders. Did anyone squirm a bit on that?

I did. It is so personal. But I asked it because it is something voters think about and talk about. People have strong opinions one way or the other, and we saw that surface during the Monica Lewinsky affair with President Clinton. We asked it in the context of that Harry Truman quote, and we wanted to know from the candidates whether or not they think it's germane to the race.

It's not as if we asked, "Have you ever cheated on your spouse?" We were basically asking from the perspective of the voters feeling uncomfortable with someone who has not been faithful.

7. Governor Mike Huckabee is a man many voters didn't know too much about, but he's really gaining ground in the polls. You asked him (and the others) what one thing, besides their families, they are most afraid of losing. Were you struck by his answer?

He said his health, and so did Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. I was surprised that more people didn't say "health" because of my own personal experiences—knowing that if you don't have your health, or if you've lost your capacity to be a fully engaged, vibrant person, it has a huge impact on every aspect of your life.

I did know that Mike Huckabee lost a great deal of weight, and so I wasn't as surprised he answered that way. I might have been a bit surprised that John Edwards didn't, given what he has gone through with his wife.

That question was a really personal glimpse into their psyches and what they value.

8. Did you get to interact much with the campaign staffers? Did any experience stand out for you, or give a flavor of what the "vibe" might be within each campaign?

Some of the campaign staffers were more sensitive than others. Some were quite controlling in terms of the setting and time frame allotted, but others were really relaxed.

One of the candidates came in with a staffer who had just been mugged in Washington and had bruises and scrapes on her face.

There were lots of worn out thumbs on the blackberries when the candidates said something revealing in our interviews.

But I think, in general, the candidates really enjoyed it because they liked the nature of the questions. It was kind of like a Proust questionnaire.

As far as the settings, we don't just believe in equal time. We believe in equal lighting. We wanted every one of them to look their best.

9. Were there any funny moments? Is there a "class clown" in this pack?

It's not surprising that Mike Huckabee was fun, and John McCain has a great sense of humor.

McCain was particularly authentic, and seemed to respond in a way that was very visceral. It didn't seem like there was a political playbook that he went through in his head before answering the questions.

10. In the end, people who watch these videos on the Evening News or on CBSNews.com will be hoping to learn something about these people. Is there a lesson you took away from this rare opportunity? What will the viewers get out of it?

It's difficult to see the human side of candidates in a debate format where they have a specific period of time to answer a complicated policy question.

The people in Iowa and New Hampshire, who have one-on-one contact with these candidates, are getting more of a feel for who they are and what they believe. They get more of that intangible "am I comfortable with this person" feeling than people who see the candidates on a national stage. Hopefully our interviews give people more of that personal feel that the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have been getting for months.

It's also important to remember these are all just human beings and they have a lot of the same qualities every American has. They have hopes and dreams and disappointments. I think anytime you can humanize people, it gives the viewer at home an opportunity to evaluate them in a different way.

And I think that should be part of the equation when someone is making such an incredibly important decision—voting for President of the United States.






  • Tony Maciulis

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