Governor Nixon is being kicked around for his rambling, stumbling, bumbling, garbled, nonsensical, jumbled, non-answer to a simple question in this week’s conference-call news conference about calling out the National Guard for “just in case” duty in Ferguson. He was asked if the buck stops with him on such decisions. Mike Lear has covered the Nixon verbally dribbling the ball off his foot elsewhere on the Missourinet page. And the undignified tumble down the linguistic stairs has made headlines or drawn comments nationwide if not wider.
It has become a national matter because this is the first time some of the reporters on that call encountered Jay Nixon in a situation where he wasn’t reading from a script. He speaks very well when he has a text. But he often leaves reporters shaking their heads in ad-lib situations, especially when he has to defend a position. We’re going to share another one with you today.
This attention to his ungraceful way of expressing thoughts is a bit of a shame because Jay Nixon is a smart, savvy, politician who is unafraid to butt heads with any members of the legislature, a style that upsets members of the opposite party who seem to think he should be more amenable to their wishes because they are, after all, more than two-thirds of the membership of another branch of government.
We have written often of the Nixon administration’s efforts to keep reporters from talking to people in state agencies who have the expertise to answer our questions. A few days ago Nixon announced a new director of the Department of Revenue. That led to this exchange—and imagine you are a reporter hoping desperately for a good quote for your article or your newscast:
Bob Priddy, the Missourinet: “Is this going to be another department director people like us (referring to the Capitol press corps) won’t be allowed to talk to?”
Nixon: “Well I mean we’ll continue to uh, uh, uhm, provide , uh, public information , uh, in a uh, uhm, in a way that attempts to uh to service the needs of you all and Missourians and uh –”
Priddy: “That doesn’t really answer the question. Will I be able to call her up and talk to her–”
Nixon: “She will, she will be like all of the other directors and uh operating under the policies we have to try to get information out in a consistent way so that we’re making sure the folks uh uhm, you know, so that she is fully informed, her staff is fully informed and everybody is on what the position of the government is on something.”
Priddy: “I’ll take that as a ‘no.'”
(Later in the press conference):
Rudi Keller, Columbia Daily Tribune: “I just want to follow up on what Bob asked about earlier. You’re saying you want consistent information from your departments. Does that mean, I just want to make it clear, are you saying all statements, all information—-”
Nixon: “No I’m not saying that. Six years in, guys, we’re going to keep the same rules of engagement we had before.”
“Like if I call the state Department of Health I might get to talk to the state epidemiologist about an outbreak of disease.”
Nixon: “Well maybe the state epidemiologist is working. not sitting there and waiting for somebody to call. You know, I mean, we, we, we make information available and we make it in, we, we try to make sure what we say is accurate, we try to make sure what we do is timely, uh and we have an obligation to you all to get that information to you an, and we try to live up that obligation. Uhm, and so, you know, it, it, that’s the way it rolls.”
Phill Brooks, Missouri Digital News: “Picking up on Rudi’s question, when you were Attorney General Denny Donnell was the state epidemiologist. He was the go-to source–”
Nixon: “Guys, we, we spent, the whole country spent—”
Nixon: “Yeah, the whole country spent three weeks, four weeks, five weeks, six weeks with people saying all sorts of things about Ebola and four years ago about H1N1. On health matters, having a consistent, appropriate, mature, hu hu, verifiable position, hu, not just getting somebody on the phone saying what they think is really important. So you bet we’re going to make sure we’re communicating directly, consistently and appropriately on these matters involving public health. I mean, uh, h, it’s , I mean, you got, uh, I mean, this, these are very, the way that, especially with this Ebola thing, I mean, my golly, uh you’ve got, you know, some of the things that that were said and done in the first few weeks of that, uh you know, have been very uh-huh, eh, very, just challenging. So on public health things especially where you have outbreaks of this nature when people have a great deal of fear when it’s in some people’s interest to stoke that interest for reasons other–I’m not saying it’s the media–I meant there are other people that would stoke that fear for, especially during an election cycle some of the stuff that was said was, was health-wise very irresponsible, very irresponsible around the country and just wasn’t–you know, we wanted to make sure that that we were a solid source, that we were consistent in our policies, that we were appropriately prepared for whatever might occur, uh, but that we were doing that while balancing the rights of Missourians and not try to see situations where in other states you’ve had schools closing, you’ve have people locked up when they came to America with no rights, and no, and all that sort of stuff. And we were very involved and disciplined in how that was communicated publicly because failure to do so could lead to significant fear out there uhm uhm at times that that that it’s not warranted. So we’ll continue on matters of that nature to, to, be, be responsible and timely uhm but uh uhm I just think uh uh, Dr. Vasterling and her teams uh have done a great job of being out front, training, working, of being calm and uhm uh, you know, it’s uh, we will continue on matters of public health to have that manner of discipline. Thank you very much.” (and he left the room).
It is now about two weeks after that press conference. And we’ve listened to that recording several times including numerous times when we tried to transcribe it for this blog. We probably missed a few of the times he said “Uh” or variations of it but you get the gist.
And the gist is that no, we can’t speak to people who have the expertise in the matters we need to tell you about, whether it is information about the collection of taxes or how dangerous the Swine Flu might be. It is true that the state epidemiologist doesn’t just sit around waiting for somebody from the press to call. In fact, the state epidemiologist better not be doing that regardless of whether the Nixon Communications Ministry has built a wall around him (or her. It’s been so long since we talked to that person that we don’t know who it is, which probably pleases the NCM). But the state epidemiologist has been free under previous administrations to call us back at his convenience and give us expert information, not information that is “the position of government” delivered by a department spokesman. Reporters and the public should want information, especially information about serious health issues, from an expert, not somebody who can spout the—let’s see if we can get all of the appropriate words in here–consistent, accurate, timely, mature, appropriate, verifiable POSITION of the government.
In fairness to these spokesman, we should note that one of them told us once, “Do you suppose we LIKE to do it this way?”
Remember Mayor Larry Vaughn of the fictional village of Amity, who said, “As you see, it’s a beautiful day, the beaches are open and people are having a wonderful time. Amity, as you know, means ‘friendship'”. That was the consistent, accurate, timely, mature, appropriate, verifiable position of the government.
But Matt Hooper was the expert the Mayor didn’t want the people to hear. And he said, “What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that’s all.”
So can reporters talk directly to the Matt Hoopers of state government? Take Governor Nixon’s meander through the forest of communication, tripping over the stumps of incomplete sentences and walking into verbal cobwebs and syntactical low-hanging limbs, as a “no.”
One observer after the Ferguson/National Guard conference called likened Governor Nixon to Caitlin Upton, then an 18-year old Miss South Carolina contestant in the 2007 Miss Teen USA Pageant who was asked, “Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can’t locate the U. S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?” Her response made her an internet superstar:
“I personally believe that U. S. Americans are unable to do so because, um, some people out there in our nation don’t have maps and, uh, I believe that our, uh, education like such as, uh, South Africa and, uhm, the Iraq and everywhere like such as, and I believe that they should, uh, our education over here in the U. S. should help the U.S, uh, should help South Africa and should help Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future.”
She later told the TODAY show she froze and when given a do-over change on the program said, “If the statistics are correct, I believe there should be more emphasis on geography in our education so people will learn how to read maps better.”
She’s 25 now, has done some modeling work and has been in some commercials, finished third–with her boyfriend–on one of the “Amazing Race” television shows, and now is a real estate agent in California.
Perhaps Caitlin Upton should send Governor Nixon a comforting letter emphasizing that people who cannot get out of the way of their own tongues can still have a future.
A consistent, accurate, timely, mature, appropriate, verifiable future.