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Alexander Haig at Press Briefing
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Brain Freeze: Rick Perry Draws a Blank in GOP Debate

17 November 2011 No Comment

Soldiers are not sent into battle in the hope that they will “wing it” or “rise to the occasion.” They perform at the highest level of training. And that’s exactly what it takes to ace media interviews and debates. Don’t count on your past accomplishment or a flash of verbal inspiration to get you through. On the spot, you are more likely to freeze up or overreact.

Psychologists say it was “brain freeze” that caused Texas Governor Rick Perry’s much-parodied moment during the GOP debate on November 9, 2011. Perry struggled for 10-20-40-60 seconds to recall the third of three federal agencies he would cut if elected president.  Others speculated that Perry was likely the victim of “competing memories.” That’s as good an explanation as any for a moment that moderator John Harwood of CNBC described as “one of the biggest debating calamities ever to befall a presidential contender.”  For my money, the gaffe was caused by the stress of debating on a national stage and the fear of yet another bad performance.

It’s another reminder that responding to questions on the spot is not easy.  Like any skill, it takes training and practice to ace an interview.  Many confuse their or past successes with the skills needed to respond to questions on the spot.

A famous case of a accomplished figure who walked boldly into the spotlight, only to leave in a whimper was Alexander Haig, the Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan. On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley shot President Reagan as he was leaving a Washington hotel.  A few hours later, Haig rushed into the White House press briefing and took questions from reporters who were demanding to know who was in charge.  Haig, a former NATO supreme commander, responded with, “as of now, I am in control here…” Eight words that changed his life.

 Haig was shredded by critics even as the crisis was unfolding. His impressive credentials did not translate into verbal authority on the spot. And as the good soldier predicted, decades later the misstep was reported in his obituaries as the defining moment in his public life.

Who was the man to rise to the occasion? Timothy J. McCarthy, a secret service agent. McCarthy extended his body to shield “the target” — exactly as he was trained to do.

He took a bullet for the President and was a hero before the day was over.

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