Apologies for the untimeliness; this article ensconced itself in the bowels of a rarely checked folder. Anyway, I thought I’d amend and post it, since press-campaign relations aren’t likely to get any less inane or ornery in the foreseeable future. A few weeks back, Mitt Romney’s traveling press secretary Rick Gorka told heckling reporters to “kiss [his] ass” and “show some respect” as the campaign cadre disembarked from Poland’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Background here is, as ever, important: the reporters were ticked off because Romney had taken only three questions over the duration of his entire trip; Gorka and co. were probably fending off aneurysms from Romney’s inability to stay on message and refrain from hand-crafting dumb soundbites. Reactions to the episode split rather predictably, with liberal commentators decrying the harshness of Gorka’s language or, like Jon Stewart, noting the irony of Gorka’s swearing as he delivered an exhortation for the press to shut up at a holy site. And Romney supporters have dutifully lined up behind Gorka, the newly christened one-week Fox News hero of the week (since transferred to ex-Navy Seal Birther-cum-Swift-Boater Larry Bailey.) And they’re right for the wrong reasons. We have no need of such specious sewage-spewing in American politics, especially in the context of foreign affairs.
Both factions should be chided for naivete: did those reporters really believe they’d magically gain access as the candidate stepped out from his last public appearance? And did Gorka really think closing Romney off wouldn’t be immediately contrasted with Obama’s 2008 candor in his foreign adventure? The traveling press should criticize Romney for refusing to take questions, but perhaps not at the tail-end of a trip to Polish war memorials. Salon scribbler Alex Pareene summarized well the dynamics at work:
“Governor Romney, what about your gaffes?” yelled one reporter at the Polish memorial, a question that would have been as objectionable had it occurred anywhere else on Earth. This campaign has seen the literal bowdlerization of the word “gaffe” itself, originally defined by Michael Kinsley as “a politician accidentally telling the truth.” Neither of Romney’s “gaffes” qualify as such, and gaffes aren’t necessarily negative occurrences. In London, Romney’s reporting that Olympic preparations were “disconcerting” wasn’t accidental—he’s the single American, next to semi-sailfish Michael Phelps, associated in the public mind with the Olympic games. He’s quite prudently using that as evidence of his leadership outside of private equity. His second “gaffe,” contrasting Israeli and Palestinian culture in “making all the difference” in economic development also fails to qualify because it’s not true. It’s not a gaffe—it’s a pandering, politically directed comment rooted in ahistoricity.
Well, Rick, you pedantic cretin, what qualifies as a gaffe? Easy—Obama’s telling Medvedev that he’d have more room to operate after the election passes the gaffe test with flying colors. Not only is that true, but it was accidental, as he was unaware of the hot mic. Over a year ago, one could feel the intellectual tide pulling out in anticipation of a tsunami of overreaction and vacuity when Romney caught heat for saying he’d hang the Obama Misery Index (whatever ad-hoc stupidity that represents) around Obama’s neck in what was clearly a reference to the cultural trope of an albatross around one’s neck. Seems reporters no longer verse themselves in Samuel Taylor Coleridge. So Romney went on to vary that remark a few sentences later by saying his campaign would hang Obama with the OMI, catching himself as soon as the idiotic phrase left his lips and blundering to make clear his metaphorical intentions, basically activating the Dr. Johnson Effect.
When Samuel Johnson completed his incredible tour de force in 1755, a number of haughty ladies approached him with commendations for censoring dirty language from his dictionary. “The tale has all you need to know about the mind of the censor,” Hitchens once wrote, and has a lot to say about excited imaginations opening doors previously unconsidered. Romney quite obviously wasn’t referencing the age-old American practice of lynching—he just misspoke the second time around.
The whole point of the “gaffe industry” is to manufacture stories: if you expand the definition, you expand the possible targets and available copy. Like my two preceding paragraphs: overkill, really. “That was unfortunate for Romney—distorting a cultural trope in an ad-hoc response, but he clearly was horrified at the implications of his sentence, resulting in a sputtering attempt to walk it back, which ended up making the whole situation worse.” That’s all that needed to be written about the event, but instead we were treated to endless stories speculating on Romney’s prejudices and wider observations about race.
Almost every claimed “gaffe” has followed the same formula since. See poorly formed candidate or surrogate statement, interpret in conspiratorial manner, write expansive thesis on why it will end said candidate’s chances. We should shun these artificial controversies no matter our political affiliation. We’ve got better things to do—like authentically debating what foreign policy will look like in 2013—and the electorate’s alone here because the campaigns won’t be addressing it.