But that was before Reality TV. And way before Reality TV met the Internet-and politics. Now voters are the ones laughing, but for the candidates it's more like a horror show: political campaigns filled with video voyeurs, recording the enemy's every mistake, posting them on the Internet, and sending them around the globe in a trice via websites like YouTube. In the last presidential cycle, the elites of both parties were all atwitter about Howard Dean's cool discovery that he could raise millions of dollars on his website. Building a campaign over the Internet is now the old news; destroying a campaign with Internet video-that's what's really new, if maybe not so cool.
This year's poster child for the dangers of downloading is Virginia Sen. George Allen. He called his Democratic opponent's campaign worker a "macaca" as the young man let the videotape roll. If "macaca" is a racial slur meaning "monkey," as some say, then Allen is really dumb-since the aide is Indian-American. "Let's give a welcome to Macaca here," Allen said, clearly irked at being taped. "Welcome to America." And welcome to the echo chamber-with Allen's gaffe quickly moving from YouTube to the Washington Post to a punch line on the late-night shows. The story line paved the way for new charges last week that Allen may have a racist past. So a man once regarded (that's past tense) as a top GOP presidential contender now finds himself struggling just to keep his Senate seat.
But, hey, don't feel bad for Allen. He said something awfully stupid, at the very least. He also knew he was talking to a guy pointing a camera at him who worked for his opponent. And he's supposed to be savvy. So no excuses. But here's the larger point: The new digital technology has completely changed the face of campaigning, so candidates beware. "Everyone's learning in this political cycle that not only do you need to be taping your political opponent, but you also need to be taping yourself protectively," says Dan Hazelwood, a Republican political consultant. "You need to be able to prove what happened to your candidate at an event." Just in case it winds up on the Web.
Infamy. Hazelwood knows. He was working with Tramm Hudson, a GOP congressional candidate in a Florida House race, when Hudson was taped saying something really dumb, even racist. "I know this from my own experience, that blacks are not the greatest swimmers or may not even know how to swim," Hudson told a gathering. The tape quickly made its way onto a conservative website, then popped up on YouTube, and then Hudson had his inevitable moment of infamy on The Daily Show-all within six short days. The campaign cried foul, accusing his primary opponent of leaking the video in the homestretch of the campaign. Hudson, to almost nobody's surprise, lost.
You might argue that that's a good thing. You could also make the point that Internet video can be a good thing, too-democratizing the process, allowing the public to see the candidates warts and all, providing a place where campaigns can post their ads and networks can replay their candidate debates-civil discourse and all that good stuff. But the dark underside plays into the negative politics people hate and campaigns love-and every campaign is now dealing in the black market of "gotcha" videos.
Even if you agree that it's a good thing for voters to see the candidates as they really are, I'd make the point that the constant videotaping guarntees that nothing authentic ever comes out of a candidate's mouth. There will be no dry runs, no room for mistakes of any kind-honest or dumb. "This ups the pressure on candidates to perform all the time," says Hazelwood. "If they get coffee stains on their shirts, that's going to be taped. ... Pretty soon they will start to ask if their hair is blowing in the right direction when they walk out of their driveway." Some do that already. But get ready for more. And welcome to Candidate TV.
By Gloria Borger