Two public officeholders recently contacted me in the hush-hush style that’s common in Santa Fe. They requested off-the-record meetings to outline the failings of highly paid government administrators. I declined.
Then a political operative asked for an off-the record conversation, teasing that he had some dirty laundry about a rival candidate. I said no thanks.
In exceptional circumstances, such as a whistleblower in a corrupt or inefficient government office, off-the-record tips are invaluable.
But whistleblowers are outnumbered by politicians whose interest in going off the record is almost always self-serving. They hope to tar someone without any of the nasty residue being traced to them.
This is why I have a policy of refusing off-the-record discussions with politicians or those who are paid to speak for them.
In an act of stupidity, I broke my rule several months ago. It happened toward the end of a long interview with a state legislator.
The coffee was cold and we were wrapping up when the lawmaker’s eyes widened and his cadence quickened. He had something important to tell me, but he said it had to be off the record.
He mentioned details about a controversy swirling around the state Capitol. I already knew about them.
Weeks earlier, the legislator’s public Facebook page had provided the information he was now offering off the record. I pointed this out, but the lawmaker insisted none of what he’d just told me had appeared on social media.
Perhaps his memory was fading at a young age. More likely, he hadn’t read what an ally wrote, then posted for the legislator.
There’s another reason politicians want to go off the record. They fear they might reveal themselves in a moment of candor.
No one went off the record more than former state Sen. John Ryan, R-Los Ranchos. This became his practice after he offered one of the shortest and more offensive quotes in state political history.
Standing in a Capitol corridor before a vote on redistricting, Ryan complained about gerrymandering by Democrats. It looked like he would be placed in the same district with another sitting senator, Democrat Dede Feldman of Albuquerque.
Loud, cocksure and on the record, Ryan announced in front of me and several legislators why he didn’t fear running against Feldman.
“She’s old,” he said.
I wrote a news story highlighting his comment. Feldman, then 64, added an inspired rebuff.
“Regarding Senator Ryan’s comment that I am old: In the coming campaign, I just want him to know that I will not exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
She knew her history. President Ronald Reagan had spoken those words to challenger Walter Mondale in 1984.
Feldman wasn’t finished with Ryan. She put on a white wig and a shawl. Then she used a wheelchair as a prop to enter the Senate Chamber. She announced that her advanced age wouldn’t stop her from going to Furr’s Cafeteria for the early bird special.
Ryan, then 50, looked shaken. He asked to be heard. In front of the full Senate, he apologized to Feldman for “my bad taste.”
“There are days when you are humbled, and I have never been more humbled,” Ryan said.
As it turned out, he and Feldman were not thrown into the same district. Both remained in the Senate.
Each time Ryan saw me, he would offer a pleasant greeting. Then he would say, “This is off the record.”
His shield was unnecessary. Ryan never again said much of substance to anyone with a notepad and tape recorder. But he remained quite quotable in debates with other senators.
Many politicians will say “no comment” to certain questions, but add that they’re willing to answer if it’s off the record. Better to turn them down then be dragged into those murky waters.
Politicians and press aides facing a gaggle can’t go off the record. They have to be more creative.
In 1983, Larry Speakes, who was Reagan’s chief White House spokesman, said: “There are 1,000 ways to say no comment.”
Two years later, Speakes amended his statement: “There are 10,000 ways to say no comment, and I’ve used 9,999 of them.”
President Bill Clinton, when mired in scandal because of his sexual pursuit and probable harassment of a White House intern, might have wanted to go off the record with select reporters. In public, Clinton used the diversion of empty promises.
“I’d like you to have more rather than less, sooner rather than later,” he said during the early stages of the scandal.
With interrogators still circling, he decided not to provide more of anything.
“There are questions you need to ask and answer without my involvement,” Clinton said.
Jimmy Hoffa, the late Teamsters leader, was more entertaining than the politicians. He decided amnesia was a good tactic when facing reporters or testifying before a U.S. Senate committee investigating corruption in his union.
“I’ve refreshed my memory to the best of my recollection and as nearly as I can recall, I don’t remember nothin’,” Hoffa said.
Hoffa’s middle name was Riddle. He carried it like a badge.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at email@example.com or 505-986-3080.