After he lost the 2004 presidential election, it looked as though, like many who had been in his position before -- Adlai Stevenson, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey -- John Kerry might take one more shot at reaching the Oval Office four years after falling short. But then on Monday, October 30, 2006, the local NBC affiliate in Los Angeles aired a story on Kerry's appearance that day at a campaign event. The story included a clip of Kerry delivering what quickly came to be known as the "botched joke," in which what was intended as a dig at President Bush's history as an inattentive student and all-around nincompoop came out sounding like an allegation that American troops are uneducated.
One hour later, a popular conservative talk show host in Los Angeles played the clip on his show, complete with the absurd yet predictable allegation that Kerry was intentionally maligning America's brave troops. At 2:34 a.m. Eastern time the next morning, a link to the clip appeared on the Drudge Report. At noon that day, Rush Limbaugh led his show with a discussion of the botched joke. That evening, ABC, NBC, and CBS all led their national newscasts with the story. The next day, Kerry announced that he wouldn't be doing any more campaign appearances before the midterm elections. Whatever slim chance he had at becoming his party's presidential nominee a second time had vanished completely.
From a local radio host to Drudge to Limbaugh to 30 million viewers of the national news, the alacrity with which the botched joke went when from meaningless remark to national story was no accident. Now consider a more recent incident in which media wags obsessed over something that emerged from a Democrat's lips. On the stump in Iowa, Michelle Obama spoke to an audience about the struggles of balancing family obligations with a life in politics. "If you can't run your own house, you certainly can't run the White House," she said, going into a description of the efforts she and husband Barack undertake to minimize the disruption the presidential campaign causes to their daughters' lives.
An article in the Chicago Sun-Times said the quote "could be interpreted as a swipe at the Clintons," and it was off to the races. Like a pack of hormone-addled 16-year-old boys, reporters and pundits shouted in unison, "Reeowr! Catfight!" Fox News ran a photo of the two women over the title, "The Claws Come Out."
So once again, Democrats found themselves explaining their words, over and over and over, something that doesn't seem to happen very often to Republicans.
It isn't that GOP candidates never get in trouble for their statements. But when they do say something false or ridiculous or abominable, the controversy seems to be much slighter in intensity and shorter in duration. Heard much about Mitt Romney's varmint hunting lately? The former Massachusetts governor got a bit of well-deserved ridicule when, in his almost endearingly shameless attempts to pander to the Republican base, he claimed to be a "lifelong hunter," a history that turned out to have consisted of two outings to blast away at "varmints." Yet what could easily have become an oft-repeated symbol of pandering and phoniness simply disappeared from stories about Romney.
The contrast with what often happens to the other side could barely be clearer. One can come up with a whole list of statements made by Democrats which were used to bludgeon them into submission for weeks or months. Al Gore spent his entire 2000 campaign defending and explaining one statement after another -- many of which he never actually made, beginning with the apocryphal tale that he had claimed to have invented the internet. Four years later George W. Bush practically built his entire campaign around John Kerry's statement that he had "voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it." George Allen's "macaca moment" is about the only Republican equivalent that comes to mind.
Is the fact that Democrats more often suffer through these controversies the fault of the Republican spin machine, or the fault of the media? Ultimately, the two become one and the same when the media so willingly take their cues from people like Drudge.
Media hype over candidate gaffes -- and rival campaigns seeking to push that hype along -- is hardly new a phenomenon. Lyndon Johnson's 1964 campaign gleefully pounced on a number of outrageous statements Barry Goldwater made, including the suggestion that we "lob one into the men's room of the Kremlin," and his colorful musing, "Sometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea." The latter was dramatized in a crude but effective Johnson ad in which a saw cuts off the east coast from a cardboard map of the United States floating in what appears to be a bathtub. Other candidates caught grief for ill-spoken remarks; Jimmy Carter created controversy in 1976 when he told Playboy magazine, "I've committed adultery in my heart many times."
But in recent years the GOP has turned the technique of making hay from their opponents' words into a reliable formula for success. Here's how it works: First, find something your opponent said that might be open to multiple interpretations. Next, take it out of context. After that, distort it beyond all recognition (and don't worry, the truth-seeking press will offer you no sanction for this deception). Express your consternation, your anger, your amazement that your opponent has revealed him/herself to be such a deplorable reprobate for whom no decent American could consider voting. Finally, repeat the offending statement over and over, from now until election day.
The technique will work against nearly any candidate. Imagine for a moment if a pack of reporters followed you around for a day, recording every word that came out of your mouth. No doubt there would be a few things you said that you didn't really mean in the way they came out, and that certainly would be misunderstood if taken out of context -- particularly if this was a day on which you did a lot of talking, as candidates do. Now imagine that that pack of reporters was following you around not for a day, but for a year.
Why does it work so well? It gives television news programs a piece of video they can play again and again, and newspapers something they can quote repeatedly. But more important, it takes an abstract argument and makes it concrete. "Al Gore is a liar" is a judgment that might be persuasively refuted; "Al Gore said he invented the internet" is a compelling piece of evidence leading one to the same conclusion. The fact that Gore never actually said he invented the internet is only marginally relevant, yet more evidence that facts don't matter much to the journalists Republicans count on to do their work for them.
Another reason it works is that all too often, Democrats give Republicans a helping hand. On the occasion of the "botched joke," Kerry was criticized by some Democrats, who despite their zeal for looking "tough" could not possibly be so stupid as to think Kerry was actually insulting soldiers. Nonetheless, a number took to the cameras to attack Kerry. The critics included Harold Ford and Hillary Clinton, who said, "What Senator Kerry said was inappropriate."
It's also true that a couple of recent candidate-statement controversies have been driven along by intra-partisan criticism on the Democratic side (and it should be noted that the press has been far more intrigued when the Democratic presidential candidates criticize each other than when the Republicans do the same). Nonetheless, the insincere outrage at the statements of one's opponents remains largely a Republican tactic.
There is some measure of irony in the fact that this party -- led by a man whose relationship with his mother tongue is, to put it charitably, uneasy -- is positively obsessed with words. And none is more obsessed than Bush himself, who can barely open his mouth without warning of the dangers of "sending the wrong message" to someone. There will be plenty of occasions between now and next November in which Republicans will insist that something a Democrat said is the distilled essence of that candidate's animating spirit, either darkly malevolent or weak and pathetic (depending on the message of the day). And reporters will be sure to drop repeated mentions of the offending words into their stories from that point forward, as though the paramount question in voters' minds ought to be whether they can find a president who has never made a statement he or she would have phrased a different way upon reflection.
To paraphrase former White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer, (who just returned to the national scene like some terrifying reanimated zombie of spin), Democrats had better watch what they say.