On Sunday evening, Betsy DeVos went viral in the worst way.
During an excruciating interview with 60 Minutes‘ Lesley Stahl, the U.S. Education secretary appeared to not know very much about education in the United States. She shrugged and slithered through a series of vacuous answers, unable to speak to key tenets of her policies, making bold claims (which she could not back up) about the failure of investing in public schools, and just generally appearing out of her depth. To top it off, DeVos delivered the entire performance with a perma-Cheshire grin suggesting a person proud of her ignorance and lack of curiosity.
It was the kind of embarrassing moment that may have once spurred an outcry for her ouster. Nowadays all it means is one rough night of getting roasted on Twitter.
Sec. of Education Betsy DeVos struggles to answer fairly basic questions on school performance on 60 Minutes pic.twitter.com/lFVq3USwUW
— Axios (@axios) March 12, 2018
For anyone without the psychological strength to watch, here is a representative sample, where Stahl asks DeVos about the underperforming charter schools in her home state of Michigan that she’s touted as a success.
STAHL: Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?
DEVOS: I don’t know. Overall, I– I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better.
STAHL: The whole state is not doing well.
DEVOS: Well, there are certainly lots of pockets where this–the students are doing well and–
STAHL: No, but your argument that if you take funds away that the schools will get better, is not working in Michigan where you had a huge impact and influence over the direction of the school system here.
DEVOS: I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them.
STAHL: The public schools here are doing worse than they did.
DEVOS: Michigan schools need to do better. There is no doubt about it.
Oof. The DeVos interview reminded me of another politician who was once exposed as an intellectual fraud on national TV. Back in September of 2008, Katie Couric sat down with Sarah Palin for an interview that could generously be described as “Hindenburg-esque.” (The Hindenburg disaster at least had some survivors.) Although Palin’s inability to articulate policy positions was damaging enough, it was one simple question–and Couric’s tenacity in going after the answer–that spelled doom for her reputation.
COURIC: And when it comes to establishing your worldview, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this—to stay informed and to understand the world?
PALIN: I’ve read most of them again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media, coming f—
COURIC: But like which ones specifically? I’m curious that you—
PALIN: Um, all of ’em, any of ’em that, um, have, have been in front of me over all these years. Um, I have a va—
COURIC: Can you name a few?
PALIN: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news too. Alaska isn’t a foreign country, where, it’s kind of suggested and it seems like, ‘Wow, how could you keep in touch with what the rest of Washington, D.C., may be thinking and doing when you live up there in Alaska?’ Believe me, Alaska is like a microcosm of America.
Whether she truly did not know any publications well enough to mention, or was simply dumbstruck by the intimidating specter of Katie Couric, Palin revealed herself as someone citizens might not want in high-pressure situations at the highest levels of government. Conservative voters suddenly had to be honest with themselves about this person potentially a heartbeat away from the presidency, and it proved sobering. Palin’s reputation never recovered, and the fact that she quit her governorship the following year to be a pundit, author, and reality TV star bore out the maxim that when people tell you who they are–believe them.
Betsy DeVos’s disgraceful interview should have a similar impact. But it won’t. The pronounced Twitter backlash is already evaporating, with the interview not likely to be remembered much beyond tomorrow. People are still talking about 60 Minutes interviews at the moment, but mostly in the context of Stormy Daniels maybe being barred from appearing on next week’s show.
Viral outrage has a short shelf-life. It has wide breadth but zero depth. The head-spinning news cycle of the past two years has a numbing effect, creating both a sense of resignation and the assurance that something worse will happen any minute now. It’s a miracle the Parkland shooting still remains in the national conversation three weeks later, for instance, a potential indicator that things could change. Overall, though, the country that was shocked by Sarah Palin’s ignorance has since been rendered unshockable. (Unless, you know, the shock somehow involves Hillary Clinton.) Our old methods for responding to wake-up calls like that one now feel quaint. The shocking thing just happens, we process it, and move on–perhaps simultaneously. Imagine a world where Donald Trump’s fabled “pee tape” drops and not much really changes. Guess what? That’s this world.
Of course, one major difference between Betsy DeVos and Sarah Palin is popularity. Palin came in like a wrecking ball, winning a lot of conservative fans instantly at the Republican National Convention. When the Couric interview aired, it was a big comedown. Betsy DeVos, on the other hand, has never been popular. Her confirmation hearing was widely protested and she has gone on to bear the distinction of being the most hated of Trump’s cabinet secretaries, another thing she was asked about on 60 Minutes. The revelation that she can’t answer simple questions about education won’t magically disqualify her from a job a majority of Americans thought she should never have had. Why, that would require some integrity on the part of the Republican Congress! All it will do is remind people of how angry they got when DeVos couldn’t answer simple questions about education during her confirmation hearing back in early 2017, and how nothing came of that outrage either.
Why bother appealing to anyone in the government to remove DeVos and replace her with someone who isn’t grotesquely unqualified? Who cares? It’s only the education of our children.