Newt Gingrich figured it out after he said, “Spanish is the language of living in the ghetto.” Rudy Giuliani realized it after he waded into the issue of public funding for abortions. What did they recognize that few politicians do? It is better to apologize (for Gingrich, in Spanish no less) or “walk it back” within the same news cycle.
Historically, most politicians don’t know when they have made a fatal gaffe. Ed Muskie crying in the snow. George Allen and “macaca.” Dean screaming. They all learned the hard way. Do not underestimate the media’s ability to fixate on an isolated event, replay it endlessly, and hold up an errant moment as emblematic of a candidate’s character.
Sometimes the “moment” is really a non-moment. Hillary is now plagued by the dog that hasn’t barked: the apology for her Iraq war vote which the Democratic base finds abhorrent. First media and now opposing candidates are fixating on this non-event. Now like anchors staked out in windbreakers waiting for the hurricane, the media has gone on “apology alert” waiting for some hint of contrition.
Less frequently a media moment can work to a candidate’s advantage. “I paid for that microphone!” and “There he goes again” cemented the public’s view of Reagan as the strong but amiable leader. More often however the candidate becomes the victim of an endless media cycle where the episode migrates from news to late night comedians’ monologues. What is a candidate to do?
In a YouTube world where every move is captured and every utterance preserved is it too much to expect that a candidate can get through an entire campaign without falling prey to the gotcha moment? Unfortunately candidates adopt one of two tactics, neither of which is helpful. First, they try to avoid saying anything of consequence. Perhaps singed by the healthcare fiasco and imprisoned by her natural caution Hillary Clinton rarely has an unscripted moment. If Joe Biden has no delay between his brain and his mouth, Hillary has a pollster and a focus group. If every statement is couched with caveats the errors are fewer but the candidate pays a heavy price in losing the attention and ultimately the affection of the party faithful.
Alternatively, candidates may adopt the tactic of railing at the press for covering this petty event rather than the big issues of the day. Telling the press their editorial choices are wrong rarely works and usually backfires. “Trying to shift the subject today…” or “While trying to avoid the subject of” then precedes each opening paragraph describing the hapless candidate’s efforts to get back on track.
If these tactics don’t work, what does? If the candidate is an incumbent he can “change the subject,” or “wag the dog” if you are commander in chief. If the state of the union speech is good enough or the air strike dramatic enough as it was for President Clinton the press will usually take the bait.
But one tactic is rarely tried but perhaps the best option. That is what we do in real lives: apologize with self-deprecating humor and move on. What if George Allen had said, “You know my heart is in the right place but sometimes things come out of my mouth that shouldn’t. Just ask my wife.”? He might still be Senator. What if Dennis Hastert had said “We are decent people and didn’t expect our colleague to be so indecent. We missed the signals and it never should have come to this”? He likely would have chopped a few days off the Foley news cycle and maybe a few seats off the Democratic majority.
Both Barack Obama and John McCain figured this out and promptly apologized for their remarks that soldiers’ lives had been “wasted” in Iraq. They, unlike the hapless George Allen, escaped the media pack howling for a recantation. Gingrich made an eloquent plea in Spanish explaining he meant no offense and was himself taking Spanish lessons. Hillary is taking the opposite tack — holding firm, apologizing for nothing and attempting to shift blame to that sneaky President who used the war authorization to, well, go to war.
Mea culpas won’t immunize a candidate or eliminate a story but they can minimize the pain and maybe engender some sympathy. If politicians learned what husbands have known for years — you might as well apologize right away and get it over with — they would fare better. Besides, heartfelt apologies play very well on YouTube.