Recess Lesson: ‘There Is No Private’ Anymore

Posted July 28, 2010 at 3:28pm

These are things that strike fear in the hearts of Members of Congress hitting the campaign trail this August recess: angry voters, bad poll numbers, damaging political ads by opponents. But perhaps most of all, they fear the unflattering video clip.

It’s no longer just a matter of avoiding a “macaca moment,” a term coined in 2006 when former Sen. George Allen’s campaign famously tanked after a video surfaced of the Virginia Republican calling an opponent’s Indian-American staffer a name reserved for monkeys.

Now, Members and communication professionals advising them say they worry about a new landscape in which opponents actively try to bait politicians into anger (which can look bad in a YouTube clip), catch them in an unguarded moment when they don’t think a camera is near or edit an innocuous incident to look anything but.

Cautionary tales abound. And the result just might be dampened political discourse and cautious politicians afraid not just of putting a foot in their mouths, but of having it jammed in for them.

Take Rep. Dan Lungren, who felt the sting of his own words turned against him. When a constituent asked during a 2008 town hall what the Congressman had done for him, the California Republican says he responded with an answer that explored two different visions of the role of government.

“I said something like, ‘I didn’t come to Washington to do anything for you, I came to Washington to help you do something for yourself,'” he says.

Of course, the clip used by opponents focused on him saying he didn’t want to do anything for his constituents and omitted the subsequent explanation, he says.

Such selective use of his words troubles him, and he says it caused him to check his speeches for anything that might be misconstrued.

“It gives you pause,” he says. “Sometimes you say something slightly intellectually provocative to get a conversation going, and you have to realize it could be used in isolation.”

Candidates of both parties describe a heated atmosphere where aggressive “trackers,” operatives from an opposing campaign like the one who caught Allen’s gaffe, don’t just passively record candidates’ speeches and events; they yell questions designed to provoke them, follow their cars and even pursue them into the bathroom.

Activists, too, not just paid campaign staffers, are training their lenses on candidates whom they hope to nudge — or shove, in some cases — into a meltdown.

The Democratic National Committee recently launched the Accountability Project, an effort to catch GOP candidates in embarrassing moments. Though the initiative urges participants to be well-mannered and not to disrupt public events, Members of both parties say not everyone wielding a flip-cam plays by those rules.

“There are people uttering racist and sexual slurs to get people to blow up,” says Rep. David Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who is known for his own fiery temper. “It’s a piggish transformation of the political process, and the people who practice it should be ashamed.”

Rep. Steve Cohen recalls a man in a clown costume who would show up at events.

“He was yelling, ‘Hey Stevie, how many crack babies do you have in your district?'” recalls Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat who represents a majority-black district. “Then he’d say, ‘Hey Stevie, how many kosher crack babies?’ which is a reference to my religion. I got really mad, but I just had to hold my tongue. That’s very difficult.”

Also troubling to candidates is the prospect that something uttered in what they might assume is privacy will end up being aired. Colorado Republican Senate hopeful Ken Buck notoriously called tea party activists “dumbasses” in an offhand comment to a Democratic operative. And California Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina didn’t realize the camera was rolling when she mocked Democratic opponent Sen. Barbara Boxer’s hairstyle.

“There is no private,” Rep. Robert Andrews says. The New Jersey Democrat says the only conversations he considers truly confidential are those with his family and a close circle of friends. But as much as Andrews finds the open-book life of a modern politician to be disconcerting, he says it shouldn’t be feared — unless there’s something to hide.

Allen uttering the “macaca” slur and Buck’s “dumbasses” insult were damaging because they contradicted a public image each man tried to project, he says, Allen of an inclusive modern politician and Buck of a Republican who embraces the tea party’s support.

“The public has a great hypocrisy detector,” he says. “If your unguarded moments reveal hypocrisy, that’s one thing, but if they reveal that you’re human — that you stub your toe and say a word you don’t usually use — that’s another.”

Still, even innocent moments can prove distracting.

Cohen had one such “humanizing” experience when video of him wearing a sweat-soaked shirt and dancing to live rap music at a campaign event provoked widespread mocking by Internet commentators.

“Let’s just say maybe Fred Astaire wouldn’t be impressed,” he says. Still, he says, the cruel taunts didn’t translate into political damage.

How have politicians adjusted to life in the cross hairs of a handheld camera? Ironically, by putting themselves in front of more cameras. Most candidates say they make sure their own camp is recording and filming everything itself, so that it can at least counter an opponent’s edited clip with a full version of its own.