09/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What to Do When You Don't Know the Answer

When you don't know the answer to a question, just say you don't know -- as simple as that.

It's perfectly permissible to admit that you are not the repository of every minute fact known to humankind. No one expects you to be a walking encyclopedia. But also say that you'll find the answer and get it to your questioner.

If only President Obama had followed this advice in this most recent press conference. You read about his control -- and loss of control -- of his "ums" and "ahs" in that event in two separate posts last week, but I let the dust settle on the storm that followed regarding what has become known as "Henry Louis Gates-gate" before commenting on Obama's Q&A handling techniques.

In the session, he fielded nine questions about his health care proposals and then called on Lynn Sweet, the Washington Bureau Chief for his hometown newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, who asked, "Recently Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested at his home in Cambridge. What does that incident say to you and what does it say about race relations in America?"

Obama replied, "Well, I should say at the outset that 'Skip' Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here. I don't know all the facts."

This was where he should have stopped -- but didn't. He went on for another 164 words recounting the salient facts of the case, and then said, "Now, I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts..."

This was another stopping point -- but Obama didn't. He continued, "...what role race played in that, but I think it's fair to say..."

On The Daily Show playback of this moment, Jon Stewart froze the video tape, came out of his seat, stretched both arms out to the camera and, in a desperate rush of words, said what Obama should have said, "...that's it's a complicated issue and I don't really have any comments at this time because I wasn't there and I don't have all the facts."

But instead Obama went on to say, "...number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge Police acted stupidly..."

Jon Stewart froze the videotape again, threw his hands up in the air, fell backwards, shouting a word that the show's censors beeped out. Stewart then fell forward, his head in his arms, sobbing, "I couldn't save him! I couldn't save him!"

Stewart's comedic treatment of the moment came from a position of support for the president. But even one of Obama's constant critics saw the same turning point. Shelby Steele, a research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, and the author of a 2007 book called, A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win, wrote an article about "Gates-gate" in the Wall Street Journal in which he said, "I saw Mr. Obama -- with every escape route available to him -- wade right into the Gates affair at the end of his health-care news conference."

Jon Stewart and Shelby Steele, opposite ends of the political spectrum, saw the same escape route for Obama that is also open to you: If you don't have all the facts, or the answer to any question, just say you don't know -- and stop right there.