Smile, You're On Candid Camera

Regular Public Eye readers may think me a little obsessed with talking about ways in which this new media world is changing how newsmakers interact with it. Certainly my theory that public officials will increasingly be far more cautious and scripted in any public appearance than they already are isn't exactly supported by today's story about Virginia Senator George Allen.

The Republican incumbent was speaking to supporters at a campaign event when he inexplicably singled out a volunteer from his opponent's campaign who was videotaping the Allen's remarks. Calling the young man (of Indian descent) the name "macaca," Allen welcomed him "to America and the real world of Virginia." The strange scene is all the more bizarre when one realizes that Allen clearly understood the whole thing was being taped – a real, what-was-he-thinking moment.

It seems pretty clear that politicians of all stripes need to understand that they are always being watched these days – and likely recorded somehow, usually by those not sympathetic to their cause. They will be scrutinized for even the smallest perceived transgression. Just ask Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a potential GOP presidential candidate who recently got stuck in the "tar baby" flap. Ironically, as the Boston Globe reminds us this morning, Romney has a much more personal understanding of how dominant technologies can derail a candidacy. It was 1967 and television was reaching the apex of its power. As the Globe's Neil Swidey tells it:

On August 31, 1967, George Romney, the voluble, vigorous three-term governor of Michigan and former automotive executive, walked into a Detroit TV station to be interviewed by a local broadcaster with a lousy hairpiece. For more than a year, Romney had been talked about as the Republicans' best chance for winning the White House in 1968. But the national campaign trail, at first welcoming, had become bumpy. Reporters pressed Romney repeatedly to explain his ever-evolving and often confusing position on military involvement in Vietnam, which he had strongly supported after a visit to South Vietnam in 1965 but later declared a tragic mistake. Polls showed his lead fading.

So, during that August interview, when he was asked to explain his inconsistent position on the war, Romney replied, "Well, you know, when I came back from Vietnam, I had just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get."

There, he said it. One word, brainwashing, and his presidential campaign would never recover. Worse, that one politically charged word became not just the shorthand for his aborted White House run, but the bumper sticker for his entire life's work. Forget the poor boy who rose, Horatio Alger-style, to national acclaim. Forget the visionary of Detroit, who successfully championed the compact car over what he termed "gas-guzzling dinosaurs." Forget the straight-talking politician who steered Michigan government from financial ruin and pushed through a new state constitution.
In the four decades since that interview, there has been a Pavlovian response to the American political trivia question, "Who was George Romney?" Answer: The brainwashed guy.

The entire article is well worth a good read for the details of that story alone, to see how that one word became the defining moment for George Romney. But the piece is also there to signal that this Romney is more well aware of the communications challenges that exist today.

Since George Romney's ill-fated Detroit interview, politicians and the pros around them have learned to play the medium of television like a finely-crafted Stradivarius. "Telegenic" is more than a plus for today's politician, it's just about a necessity (think Abe Lincoln could have won in 2004?). But in the new landscape of digital cameras, citizen journalism, blogs and the like, the political class is still adapting. One lesson certainly might be to never insult a guy with a video camera, no matter how annoyed you are with his presence.