A study released today by the Center for Disease Control reports that use of the phrases "That's a good question" and "good question" has reached epidemic proportions.
"We believe this phenomenon correlates directly to an explosion in the number of Americans, particularly politicians, who believe that the traditional use of the phrases -- to convey the belief that a question is good -- is constricting, and boring."
According to the CDC study, a common departure from the conventional use of "That's a good question" or "good question" is the strategic employment of one of the phrases to imply agreement with a patently outrageous proposition, followed by a statement in which the individual who praised the question makes it clear that he really doesn't think very much of it.
An example of this gambit can be found in an April 2008 exchange between a Fox News reporter and Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. Asked whether he agreed that President Obama was a Marxist, the Senator replied:
"Well, you know, I must say that's a good question."
Then, after uttering several content-free sentences, Lieberman turned to disowning his earlier statement: "I will tell ya' that during this campaign, I've learned some things about him, about the kind of environment from which he came ideologically. And I wouldn't... I'd hesitate to say he's a Marxist..."
The "that's a good question" trope can also serve as a placeholder for "I have absolutely no idea." Thus, when earlier this year an ESPN interviewer asked Dallas Cowboy defensive end Jason Hatcher to identify the leaders on the team he answered:
"Dude. I gotta be honest with you. That's a good question."
The CDC report also notes that a few politicians have employed "good question" to stiffen the spines of reporters who ask questions that, by the very fact they are asked, dignify silly or ridiculous positions the politician has taken.
For example, in April of this year Republican Congressman Allen West of Florida was asked by a reporter how many members of Congress are "card-carrying Marxists." When the derisive laughter and hissing of other reporters died down, the Congressman responded:
"[No] it's a good question. I believe there's about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party... It's called the Congressional Progressive Caucus."
Then there's the growing tendency to award the good question badge of merit to queries that score only 50 percent on the meter, i.e questions whose substance is highly attractive to the respondent but whose wording is less than felicitous.
Thus was the case at a 2007 John McCain campaign event, when it was still generally believed that Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic Presidential nominee. When a supporter shouted out "How do we beat the bitch?" the Senator engaged in some jocular banter, then replied:
"That's an excellent question."
In contrast to those who wouldn't recognize a good question if it walked up and put its pinkies in their nostrils, is a group of journalists, authors and bloggers who are capable both of giving fabulous answers to certifiably good questions and of certifying questions that deserve fabulous answers.
Cheryl Fall, a member of this elite group, hosts "Now That's a Good Question!" , an online needlepoint column. Says Fall, "I italicize "That's" and use an exclamation point after "Question!" in order to underscore that unlike many who claim to be needlepoint question experts, I refuse to certify as 'good' any question whose color, clarity and cut are not 94 percent perfect."
The high standard to which Ms. Fall holds herself is evident in a recent column in which she wrote, "I received an email today asking about using embroidery floss in a needlepoint project, and it's a good one!"
This concise, fact-rich sentence reveals everything we need to know about Ms. Fall's work ethic and moral grounding. In a single day she received, evaluated and awarded the exclamation point of goodness to a highly technical and complex question. And as if that were not enough, she then crafted and published a fabulous answer to the question:
"Some stitchers will not use embroidery floss, believing that it frays easily... This belief is unfounded."
Another individual who knows a good question when he sees it is Jason DeRusha, a reporter for Minneapolis television station WCCO who presides over a segment of the ten o'clock news called "Good Question," during which he responds to viewers' questions that are good.
Although he might well have delegated to an independent question certification firm the task of plucking the few good questions from the thousands he receives each week, DeRusha has chosen to take on the job himself. And while most people, if confronted with an indisputably good question that goes to a controversial subject, would quietly slip it into their boxer shorts, Jason DeRusha is not "most people."
Unconfirmed reports suggest that DeRusha takes on good questions as they come, irrespective of whether they may require him to address unpleasant, contentious, or very scary subjects. Indeed, within the past year alone he has provided fabulous answers to edgy questions such as "How Often Should We Wash Towels, Sheets?"; "Why Does Your Stomach Drop On A Roller Coaster?"; "Is Cheap Shampoo As Good As Expensive?" and "Is The Fridge A Saver Or A Spoiler?"
Notwithstanding that there remain a few Americans who care about whether a question is truly good, the CDC report makes it clear that their number is dwindling, leaving no doubt that unless this country returns to the original meaning of "good question," the meaning that God intended when Moses asked Him, "How, exactly, am I supposed to carry two five hundred pound tablets while I'm nursing a hernia?", America will find itself in very serious trouble.
If "good question" loses all meaning, it will only be a matter of time before "good answer" also succumbs, followed in short order by "nice essay," "fine fellow," and "excellent chance for survival."
Will we take action before it's too late? It's impossible to know. But as Congressman Charles Rangel replied when asked whether President Obama was supporting his campaign for reelection,
"God damn, that's a good question."