Wrestling with Poor Witness Prep


Let’s face facts. We are all ignorant of something. It is impossible not to be. There are far too many things in this world we can learn and far too little time to learn it. There is no real shame in that. And there is no shame in choosing to be so immersed and knowledgeable in some things that you can not conceivably be knowledgeable in something else. No shame at all.

But, where there should be some shame is not being knowledgeable at all and allowing that ignorance to serve as some kind of accomplishment while you disparage those with actual knowledge. And that brings us to the nominee for Secretary or Education, Betsy Devos. A level of ignorance and shame more profound than when Jim Herd wanted to change Ric Flair into “Spartacus”[1]

Now at this point, we can highlight how woefully ignorant Ms. Devos is on issues pertaining to the very department she wishes to run. But that would be too simplistic and inaccurate. Ms. Devos is well versed on education matters, but only in the subjects she has an interest in,  which are the use of public funds for private institutions and vouchers.[2] But the real blame goes not to Ms. Devos, but to her handlers. And if this is how they are going to prepare in the future then they need to fire whoever is handling this.

Congressional hearings are unlike any other kinds of testimony out there. Unlike in Courts of law, the examiners are allowed to give speeches barely disguised as questions. It is as much dog and pony show as it is investigative or informative if not more so. None of that is a secret. In some ways, it is easier on the witness because the witness knows the examiners are often more interested in scoring points with their base than they interested in getting to the truth. Accordingly, all you have to do to prepare a witness is make sure the witness knows basic facts with a few philosophical statements thrown in. Even easier when, for all intents and purposes, the outcome is predetermined because more appointees are approved regardless of party and the odds increase when your party is in control of the committee and legislative chamber.

All of this makes the appearance of Ms.Devos mind-boggling. Her weaknesses were well known (lack of any experience as an educational professional, open hostility to public education). It was not hard to figure out that like all witnesses, they should have met her weaknesses head on either in a statement or at least with her making reference to the educational experts whose expertise she relied upon in coming to her conclusions. The senators on the Committee all had their pet projects and causes on public record so it would have taken very little effort to anticipate what would be asked so that Ms. Devos did not come across as if she knew nothing about the job she is being appointed to.

Make no mistake, Devos is in this position because she contributed gobs of money to the President-Elect and various partisan advocacy groups. She is not the first appointee selected for these reasons and she sure will not be the last. But it was malpractice for anybody to put her in the position and testifying in a fashion that made it so painfully obvious. Follow the Paul Heyman motto of presenting your talent: “Emphasize the strengths, hide the weaknesses”.

Despite the angst over Jeff Sessions, and justified concerns over his views on civil rights and secular thoughts, he is qualified for his position. Elaine Chao and Nikki Haley should fly through confirmation because they are qualified and do well at these hearings. It is those who are not experienced at testifying who are coming across poorly. The ones who are the “Kings and Queens of the Universe” and applauded for their lack of experience in government are the ones who most needed tutoring and did not get it. And it shows.

The lesson here is that weak witnesses can be made better, but only if you take the time to get them ready. No matter if it is in court or at an administrative hearing or in a boardroom, do not do your witness a disservice by not anticipating their weaknesses, areas of concerns, and easily identifiable topics. If you think your witness is so smart they do not have to prep, you are showing how ignorant you both are.

[1] Don’t Ask.

[2] Or how to dismantle Public Education. Might depend on your perspective