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The Crouton Theory of Political Gaffes

Journalists want gaffes; politicians want to avoid them; which makes journalists want them all the more. It’s a vicious cycle, but one that long predates 24/7 coverage and social media… as Mitt Romney’s dad could have told you.

Mitt Romney speech

 

Like fiction/non-fiction writer David Foster Wallace before him, Wells Tower was dispatched to write a long think piece on the presidential campaign. It’s nominally about Mitt Romney, but it’s more a piece about how presidential campaigns are covered and framed, a genre that dates back at least to Timothy Crouse’s wonderful, influential, The Boys on the Bus. Tower presents himself as a naive outsider, literally reading up on Romney’s biography while riding the bus itself, giving him the rhetorical space to write about the insiders on the bus. And in it is a revealing scene of “gotcha” journalism, revolving around Mitt Romney’s “gaffe” in which he said that, while he didn’t follow NASCAR, he has good friends who are NASCAR team owners (because, right, he’s rich):

Within seconds, everybody has gobbled it up: the Times, The Washington Post, NBC News, Good Morning America, some bloggers, NPR. Ari Shapiro is already recording a spot citing the quote for tomorrow morning’s broadcast, which he records under his jacket in the seat behind me: “…he may have done some damage by drawing attention to his wealth once again.”

You might remember that (or not; I’d completely forgotten about it). Tower has a convincing theory as to why so many journalists seized on what a normal person might view as an honest, boring answer:

Just to be clear, the thrill here doesn’t have the feel of a liberal-media feeding frenzy so much as the joy of people who, after many days of being force-fed the same “I love the hymns of America” wheat paste all day every day, have finally filched a good crunchy crouton from their minders. You see, if the campaign’s job is to get the press to reiterate its contrived fictions, the media’s job is to contrive our own fiction—not necessarily one that countermands or calls attention to the campaign’s flimsy stagecraft, just one that makes the horse race more entertaining for the viewers at home. What Sophocles knew, what every Hollywood hack knows, is that a story is not a story without tragic flaws and dramatic obstacles. And the NASCAR quote is a perfectly simple and juicy plot point in our tale about the man who would be president if he could only shut up about his enormous wealth.

What’s odd is that while it may be entertaining for the viewers at home, or at least providing fodder for the hosts who make entertaining jokes out of it, is that the “viewers at home” don’t seem to care that much. You may recall that the last two-term president was not merely friends with sports-team owners, he was a sports team owner, and semi-realistically considered holding out not for the presidency but commissioner of baseball (an utterly sensible desire). Instead, that scion of a wealthy, powerful family went on to beat… two scions of weathly, powerful families in a row.

Romney may have done some damage how? By making himself sound like the last two Republican presidents?

The wealth issue is the new draft-dodger issue, and seems to be about as relevant at the polls. Decorated war veterans have been taking it on the chin for awhile: John McCain, John Kerry, Al Gore, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush. The ranks of the primaries are littered with candidates chock full of Appealing Biographical Details. I understand the narrative theory behind it, but the historical record just doesn’t back it up.

Romney’s response has been to not say much of anything, sensible in the context that Tower describes, but problematic if you’re running from behind, which he currently is. (Well, he did say that London didn’t seem entirely prepared for the Olympics—which is true, though the politics of international relations made it legitimately ill-advised—and it turned into #Romneyshambles.) In a compelling piece, Rick Perlstein argues that Romney’s campaign style is rooted in his father’s downfall and a correct and reasonable point reported as a crippling gaffe:

Then, most famously, there was the Vietnam War. He supported it after returning from a trip there in 1965. Then, courageously, after a second trip in 1967, he began to criticize it. On September 4, 1967, a TV interviewer asked, “Isn’t your position a bit inconsistent with what it was, and what do you propose we do now?”

The line everyone remembers from his response: “When I came back from Vietnam in 1965, I just had the greatest brainwashing anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam.” But he continued with a devastating, prophetic, and one-thousand-percent-correct assessment: that staying in Vietnam would be a disaster. The public, and certainly the pundits, weren’t ready to hear it. All they heard was the word “brainwashing” – not in the colloquial sense in which Romney obviously intended it, but as something literal.

George Romney phrased a salient point awkwardly—just as Barack Obama’s sweet rhetorical nothings about the relationship between infrastructure and business were warped into an attack on the American Way of Life through a grammatical loophole—and was crushed by the feverishly disciplined Richard Nixon. As Perlstein writes, “Mitt learned at an impressionable age that in politics, authenticity kills.” It’s an old lesson, and one he’s being taught again.

PS: With the Center for Tax Policy’s analysis of Romney’s tax framework, we finally have our first real grist of the campaign.

 

Photograph: BU Interactive News (CC by 2.0)

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