By Robert Reich
My coaches helped me cram for the Senate confirmation hearing. (They were the three lawyers who investigated me before Clinton sent my name to the Hill along with five Democratic staffers from the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Education and Labor Committee.)
The cramming was intense. I felt like a prizefighter getting ready for the big one.
We did a mock run. My coaches played the parts of Senators on the committee. I sat facing them. They tried to be as difficult and nasty as possible.
“Mr. Reich, you’ve had absolutely no experience managing a big organization, have you?”
“Mr. Reich, do you believe that employers should have the right to permanently replace striking workers?”
“Mr. Reich, are you a socialist?”
“Mr. Reich, have you ever had to meet a payroll?”
“Mr. Reich, do you believe that defined-benefit pension plans are underfunded, and if so, what should be done about the problem?”
I groped for words. I babbled. I got angry. On the rare occasions when I actually had something intelligent to say, I gave long and complicated answers.
“Time out,” said my chief interrogator, a rotund, middle-aged Hill staffer with graying red hair and decade of experience at this sort of thing. “Let’s stop here and critique your performance so far.” I wished he wouldn’t.
“You gotta understand …” he said, stepping out from behind the table that served as a mock committee rostrum. “This hearing isn’t designed to test your knowledge. It’s designed to test your respect. For them.”
I was confused and hurt. I felt like I’d failed an exam. He sensed it.
“You don’t have to come up with the right answer,” he continued, pacing around the room. “I hope you don’t take offense but you’ve got a big handicap, professor. Your whole life you’ve been trying to show people how smart you are. That’s not what you should do before the committee. You try to show them how smart you are, you’re in big trouble.”
“But I have to answer their questions, don’t I?”
“Yes and no. You have to respond to their questions. But you don’t have to answer them. You shouldn’t answer them. You’re not expected to answer them.”
The others laughed. I was bewildered. “What’s the difference between answering and responding?” I asked, feeling stupid for even asking.
“Respect! Respect!” my chief interrogator nearly shouted.
He walked over to me and leaned down so his face was close to mine. “This is all about respect. Your respect for them. The President’s respect for them. The executive branch of government’s respect for the legislative branch. Look: The President has nominated you to be a cabinet secretary. The senators have to consent to the nomination. The Democrats are in control of the Senate, so barring an unforeseen scandal, they will. But first you have to genuflect.” He got down on his knees, grabbed my hand and kissed it. The others roared. “You have to let them know you respect their power and you’ll continue to do so for as long as you hold office.”
I joined in the laugh but was still confused. “What does this have to do with the difference between answering their questions and responding to their questions?”
He sat down again. He lowered his voice. The others in the room enjoyed the spectacle. “If you lecture them, they won’t feel you respect them. But if you respond to their questions with utter humility, they will feel you do.”
“Have you ever in your life admitted you don’t know something?” he grinned, relishing the moment.
“But have you ever admitted you didn’t know when you knew just enough to bullshit your way through?”
I paused. “Not often.”
He was up again, pacing. “So when you’re sitting there in front of the committee and one of the senators asks you a question that you’re not absolutely sure of the answer to, I want you to say simply, ‘I don’t know, Senator.’”
He stopped and pointed his finger at me. “Practice saying it. I … don’t … know …, Senator.”
“I don’t know, Senator.”
“I don’t know, Senator.”
“I don’t know, Senator.” The others applauded.
“Fine.” He looked toward the group. “I think he’s catching on.”
Then back to me again. “And even when you’re absolutely sure, and you have it all worked out in your head, I want you to give a simple answer. One sentence. Two at most. Simple and general. No specifics. Don’t show off what you know.”
This was going to be hard.
“And” — he brought his face closer and looked me dead in the eye — “as often as you can say it without it sounding contrived, I want you to tell them how much you look forward to working with them. I look forward to working with you on that, Senator.”
“I look forward to working with you on that, Senator.”
“I don’t know, Senator. But I look forward to working with you on it.”
“I don’t know, Senator, but I look forward to working with you on it,” I repeated.
“G-o-o-o-o-d.” He smiled and was up and pacing again. “And whenever you can do so without sounding like your nose is completely up their asshole, I want you to compliment them. Praise their leadership on this issue. Tell them you’ll need their help and guidance. Mention their years of diligence and hard work.”
I rehearsed. “Senator, you know far more about that issue than I do, and I look forward to hearing your views in the months and hears to come.”
“Wonderful!” he beamed, and pointed at me. “And remember, if they ask anything personal — about your writings, your political views, even your friendship with the President, whatever — don’t take it personally. They are not interested in an answer. They’re interested in how you respond.”
“How I respond?”
“Deferentially. Good-naturedly. If they are nasty, don’t be nasty back. If they’re sarcastic, refrain from sarcasm. Never get angry. Never lose your balance. Never take the bait.”
I felt like a child learning how to ride a bike. It looked so easy. It wasn’t.
My interrogator put an arm around my shoulder and addressed the others. “He’ll do just fine, won’t he?”
They all said encouraging things, but they weren’t convinced.
The session ended. We’d try again tomorrow. I wished the hearing were two weeks away instead of two days.