It was, perhaps, the best opportunity she had to patch up her reputation since starting her new job.
Betsy DeVos, the country’s highly unpopular education secretary, had been asked to participate in an interview on 60 Minutes, and the news-media-shy billionaire philanthropist and school-choice advocate accepted the invitation. The media appearance would be a high-stakes endeavor, and not only because it was pegged to the newly announced White House school-safety commission that she’ll be leading. It had been a little over a year since DeVos’s Senate confirmation hearing, a saga in which she had to convince key members of Congress that she, a person with very little experience in public schools, was fit to be the nation’s education chief. The January 2017 hearing had so many gaffes that it, along with the social-media buzz leading up to it, generated mainstream interest in issues typically familiar only to education wonks.
The brouhaha quickly came and slowly went, and aside from a few fiascos hereand there, DeVos over time made fewer and fewer headlines. After all, she gave the media little to talk about, establishing a formidable barrier between herself and journalists, keeping public-speaking engagements somewhat to a minimum, and spearheading few newsworthy policy initiatives. And when she did make public appearances or announce regulatory changes, she typically stuck to talking points. None of this did much to warm her critics’ hearts, but she generally escaped the sort of ridicule and vitriol that had accompanied her initiation in Washington.
Then 60 Minutes happened. In a segment with the veteran journalist Lesley Stahl that aired on Sunday, the education secretary stumbled and fumbled once again. And this time, education scholars and public-school advocates contend, her delivery was even worse than it was last January: With sometimes awkward body language and tense facial expressions, the businesswoman-turned-cabinet-member reiterated her default talking points—“We should be funding and investing in students, not in school—school buildings, not in institutions, not in systems”—and at times seemed to unwittingly debunk them, saying she didn’t know enough about a given issue or providing a response that conflicted with a previous statement. She didn’t elaborate on research to back up her claims about, for example, the merits of charter schools and voucher programs or the best school-discipline practices. At one point, after lamenting America’s struggling K-12 institutions and being asked whether she’d sought to actually spend time in them, DeVos acknowledged, “I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.”
“Maybe you should,” Stahl responded.
“Maybe I should. Yes,” a smiling DeVos concurred, in a tone that left some viewers wondering about her sincerity.
Stahl called DeVos out early on in the interview: “This sounds like talking—instead of acting.” But critics contend it was a particularly egregious genre of talking—one marked by apparent ignorance and contradictions. The ensuing news coverage and analyses (and satires) of Trump’s “most hated cabinet secretary” were as amusing as they were scathing, as were the reactions on Twitter, with countless users attempting to one-up each other with roasts. CNN reported that DeVos’s 60 Minutes appearance even had the White House on edge.
“I wasn’t surprised” that the interview turned out the way it did, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, who oversees the policy and advocacy arm of the School Superintendents Association, “but I think the naive portion of my personality wanted to see her do better.”DeVos could’ve spent the many months since her Senate confirmation hearing preparing for high-pressure interviews, acquainting herself with the intricacies of education policy, and consulting with her education-secretary predecessors to learn the best practices for the job. Even though her school-choice advocacy and other conservative positions make it unlikely she’ll convert her critics into allies, there’s nevertheless room for improvement on her presentation alone: She could have at least studied the research analyzing policies she’s endorsed and visited the underperforming schools she’s so intent on reforming. In short, she could have demonstrated that she’d grown more savvy at advocating for her positions, even if those positions remained unchanged. Surely she didn’t want to inspire another Saturday Night Live skit or to again be the butt of grizzly-bear-style jokes.
Yet DeVos’s 60 Minutes appearance made it seem like she didn’t do any of those things, and now many experts and advocates are wondering why?: Why did she perform so poorly? Why didn’t she use the opportunity to rectify the mistakes she made at her confirmation hearing? Why are her answers to serious policy questions often so rhetorical? …