I did a story on the Martha McSally-Kyrsten Sinema race for Phoenix magazine. For reasons that are neither here nor there, it was one of those articles where the process was a bit messed up, so I haven’t been sharing it on social media.

But there was something in it I have been thinking about and wanted to share.

My conversation with McSally was sour. The campaign gave us just a few minutes (like 11 minutes). The scene was in a nondescript office at a dusty concrete yard in Chandler after a small campaign event.

McSally spent the first minutes of the interview speed-talking about how “radical” and “extreme” Sinema was, with some side attacks on the economy of the state of California. (California has a $9 billion budget surplus and a significantly lower unemployment rate than Arizona.) When I finally got to ask some questions, things went south immediately. I made a bland statement about how Arizona was changing. (After all, there were two women running for Senate—when the state’s 11 previous senators had all been men, and had each served an average of 20 years.)

McSally disagreed, “I don’t know that I buy that the state is changing.”

I thought, OK, let’s talk about the changes. Her opponent identifies as bisexual. Did McSally support gay marriage?

“It’s a state’s issue and the Supreme Court has settled it,” she said.

I pressed her on her own views, and on her position on gay adoption as well, but she avoided the questions, saying it “wasn’t in her foxhole.”

“It’s not something that the federal government gets involved in.” That’s not true on several levels.

I was surprised at the lack of sophistication in her response. The right cloaks the hostility towards gays on the part of many church groups as a religious freedom issue. I would have thought McSally would have pivoted to that talking point.

You’d think that McSally would have been better prepared for such question given that her opponent was Sinema. Was McSally going to stand up in a debate and say her opponent didn’t have the right to marry whom she wanted, or adopt a child?

I moved on to Trump. I noted that a host of former top U.S. intelligence officials were criticizing his dealings with Russia, some saying he wasn’t fit for office.

“Who are they to make these decisions?” she snapped in response.

I was taken aback. “The former director of the CIA?” I ventured.

“Whatever,” she replied.

*     *     *

Again, it was weird she wasn’t prepared for the question. She could have gently suggested that the men were partisan, hinting that, in the past, other intelligence officials had criticized Obama. (They were people like Michael Flynn, but no matter.) I wasn’t prepared for “Whatever.”

This was the second time in two questions she didn’t have a coherent, non-risible answer to a predictable question.

We moved on to specifically the Russian meddling in U.S. elections. She downplayed these attacks on the American electoral process, referring to it as “propaganda.” “The Russians [always] meddle in elections,” she said. “They were doing it long before I was a kid out of the Air Force Academy, when we were studying the propaganda tactics of the Soviet Union.”

We weren’t talking about propaganda, of course. I asked her, “Are you happy with what the Trump Administration has done to fight it?”

To which she answered this: “Not everything is the government’s responsibility.”

*     *     *

She went on a bit, saying that the Department of Homeland Security had done “a lot” and that we “need to protect our election integrity.”

But you didn’t hear her criticize Russia. (But boy had she gotten exercised about California!)

The words “not everything is the government’s responsibility”—delivered in response to a question about attacks on the United States by Russia—I thought were pretty goofy. We see various poltroons deliver glib, nonsensical lines like that on TV (mostly on Fox), but you don’t generally hear them in the real world.

I lived in DC for six or seven years—I lived next door to George Bush’s press secretary—and as you’d expect found most people there smart and reasonable. I was caught off guard by an actual candidate for office in the state where I live deliver preposterous statements like that out loud.

I thought then, and think now, that for the third time in almost literally as many minutes, Martha McSally was not able to answer a simple question on an obvious subject in a way that wasn’t evasive, moronic, or, in the last example, almost patently disqualifying for someone running for national office who is supposed to be protecting the country.

Anyway, this is what happens when campaigns are run as so-called “air wars” of TV commercials. Phoenix magazine is obviously a major state publication, one that had invested a significant amount of time and money to get a story done. Her campaign offered the magazine—and by extension its readers—11 minutes for an interview.

And we saw what happened: When a candidate in a cocoon is exposed to actual substantive questions from an actual journalist, she shuts down.

McSally was the nation’s first female fighter pilot, and is now a U.S. representative from Tucson. She’s obviously not an insignificant person. But I got little sense of it in my chat with her—and certainly didn’t see someone qualified to be a United States senator.

Bill Wyman - Author

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