Great Question. Glad I Asked It.

Hillary Clinton gets snared by a planted question.

Hillary Clinton

I was at the biodiesel plant in Newton, Iowa, when Hillary Clinton was asked the now-famous question that had been set up by her staff. We had just finished a tour of the facility where Clinton nodded, as all candidates do, while officials spoke so that the cameramen wearing hard hats could film her standing among tubes and vats. (This is for B-roll that makes the candidate look engaged in local issues while the television announcer talks about her trip.) Then Clinton gave a nearly hour-long policy speech before taking questions from the audience. Nineteen-year-old Muriel Gallo-Chasanoff asked: “As a young person, I’m worried about the long-term effects of global warming. How does your plan combat climate change?”

Now we know, though, that it was Clinton’s staff that gave Gallo-Chasanoff that question to ask. Which makes the senator’s answer amusing. “It’s usually young people who ask me about global warming,” she said. Perhaps it’s usually young people because in the binder where a staffer showed Gallo-Chasanoff the question for her to ask, it was under the category marked “college student.”

What are we to make of the flap over the planted question? It is tempting to recline into the posture that this is a phony media-generated noncontroversy, like the questions about whether Clinton did or didn’t tip an Iowa waitress (a story we must denounce as frivolous but keep milking anyway). Except that exchanges between voters and candidates are supposed to be the antidote to the failings of the mainstream media—free of all of the gimmickry and game-playing. Q-and-As by nature aren’t as phony as the candidate plant tour or the planned stop at a roadside diner. They’re as close as we get to an honest exchange. So, politicians should pay a price when they try to game them.

George Bush debased the town-hall format with many stage-managed charades, and it’s politically dangerous for a Democratic candidate to get tagged with imitating him. Clinton has answered hundreds of town-hall questions with no hint of this, and so her offense falls well short of Bush’s repeated infractions. (The audience members didn’t have little windup keys in their backs.) But the timing couldn’t be worse for her. The last week or so, the Iowa campaign has seen a new phase, in which Obama and Edwards, her neck-and-neck rivals, have questioned Clinton’s honesty in almost every news cycle, a job that used to be handed off to staffers. In his well-received speech Saturday to Iowa Democrats, Barack Obama talked about the poll-driven politics and triangulation that are code words for the worst noncorporal sins of the Clinton years in Democratic circles. Clinton already fueled this with her switchback answer about driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants in the last debate. Now, she has produced an easy-to-tell anecdote that makes her look highly calculating.

And it’s an anecdote that involves a real, live Iowa voter. A lot of media firestorms take place in Washington green rooms and cable chat shows, but this event took place in their state and to one of their own. When politicians pander to them, the whole idea of the sage Iowa voter gets so tedious, I want to flee to the border. But then you talk to Iowa voters and are reminded that they are thoroughly normal and do take the process seriously. You can make fun of them, but I’m not going to. After one of Barack Obama’s speeches last week, Pam Schroder of Bettendorf told me that while she was leaning toward Obama, she wanted to see Clinton speak in person to give her a fair shot to make her case. Voters who take the process that seriously can’t like being played with planted questions.

Did Clinton know what her staff was doing? She says she didn’t. Can that be so? She answered only a handful of questions at the event, and she somehow found her way to the person in the crowd who’d been put up to the task. Either her luck is smashing, or she’s fibbing. Any staffer who prints up audience questions and carries them in a neat little binder doesn’t then leave it to chance whether the candidate finds the one plant in a room of 300. Campaign aides insist that this moment was an act of pure happenstance. That still means that staffers feel it’s OK to freelance at confecting artifice. Shouldn’t someone have hesitated and thought, yikes, this is the kind of campaign where if I get caught doing this, I’m going to get fired? Even if it never winds up on the Jumbo-Tron in Times Square?

On the other hand, more politically devious questions could have been planted. The question Gallo-Chasanoff was actually planning to ask on her own is one of them. How is your plan different than your opponents’ plans? This would have allowed Clinton to then ding her rivals while looking like she was just answering a question. (Romney may have employed this very technique.)

I didn’t think the question was a plant at the time. It sounded a little general and prerehearsed, but a lot of town-hall questions sound that way. Days before the controversy broke, Bhagyashree Garekar, a correspondent for Singapore’s Straits Times, asked me if I thought the questions had been planted at Clinton events we had both attended. I said I didn’t think so. No candidate would be so stupid. When news broke that at least one had been, I called Garekar to ask what had tipped her off, since she hadn’t made it to the Newton event. “This is common practice in many foreign countries, particularly India,” she said. What was supposed to be a free-flowing exchange sounded rehearsed to someone with firsthand knowledge of the practice.

I thought a question from a waitress last week in the town of Oelwein, about increasing the minimum wage, seemed far more likely plant material, because the woman was from a crucial voting bloc, and Clinton answered her so well and retold of the exchange throughout her visit. A campaign aide assures me the exchange was genuine. They should put that answer on tape: They’ll be asked that question a lot from now on.