What in the world would cable news and talk radio do without Texas politicians? These characters provide a constant drumbeat of hilarity and outrage for the pundits to tut-tut and holler about. If it’s not Rick Perry making a neo-Confederate clown of himself, or Joe Barton tenderly caressing the hind quarters of BP CEO Tony Hayward on national TV, it’s—well, it’s always something. Always. Which is a godsend for Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck, even if it’s a curse for the rest of us.
But while Texas Republicans seem particularly adept at filling the nation’s airwaves with their special brand of Lone Star lunacy, our Democrats are not immune to whatever it is that compels our elected officials to do stupid politician tricks for the cameras.
This week, in fact, Texas’ special contribution to the political circus came from a Democrat—Ciro Rodriguez, the two-term congressman from San Antonio. Running against a Republican with an outside shot at unseating him, Rodriguez has been taking advantage of Congress’ summer recess to hold town hall meetings—or, rather, “Congress on Your Corners” gatherings. The purpose, according to his website, is to let “constituents … meet one on one with Congressman Rodriguez and share their ideas, concerns, and feedback.”
Which is good to know, because it sure didn’t look that way on YouTube—or Fox—as Rodriguez starred in the latest installment of Politicians Gone Wild.
The video stems from a constituent meeting in a restaurant, and begins with Rodriguez talking about the budgetary benefits of heath-care reform. When a woman—apparently the same woman holding the camera and trying to instigate a “gotcha” moment—points out that the Congressional Budget Office has recently revised its estimates of the costs of “ObamaCare,” Rodriguez gets defensive. The woman pointedly asks him to tell the truth.
Cue angry pol losing control!
“Ma’am, don’t accuse me of not saying the truth,” Rodriguez barks sharply as he moves toward his questioner. Another woman’s voice can be heard saying, “Excuse me, but that’s not appropriate.” That seems to set the congressman off even more. He smacks some rolled-up papers he’s holding on a table and gets all Big Tough Guy, angrily huffing something to the effect of this: “It’s not appropriate to also determine ego. You know … I’m not going to take any ego. Okay? If you want a [dialogue?] in a civil matter, but don’t say that I’m not saying the truth.
The video stops right about there, with Rodriguez looking very much like a man who could benefit from an anger management course. And presto! Another YouTube sensation, in the fine tradition of Sen. George Allen’s “Macaca” moment.
Mind you, Rodriguez’s outburst was nowhere near as ugly or violent as that of his Democratic colleague, Congressman Bob Etheridge of North Carolina, who used a headlock recently on a student who was pestering him. But Rodriguez’s lecture on “civility” certainly isn’t pretty to watch. There’s no good excuse for an elected official to go off like that, no matter what the provocation. And for someone who wants to go back to Washington to lose control right in front of a camera? That’s not just inexcusable; it’s the very quintessence of cluelessness.
Because cameras, as every public official ought to know damn well by now, are everywhere—and so are people who want to capture your mad moment for the universe to enjoy and your opponent to exploit.
When you watch the very brief Rodriguez video—all 44 seconds of it—you’ll notice that it’s completely free of any context. Had this woman been baiting Rodriguez before he blew up? Was she there for that very purpose?
That’s what the congressman claimed after the video suddenly skyrocketed him to national notoriety courtesy of Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity and the Web Guru of the New John Birchers, Andrew Breitbart. Rodriguez was forced to issue a statement that came straight from the “I’m apologizing without apologizing” textbook:
As the Representative for the 23rd Congressional District, I believe it’s critical to be available and accessible to the people of southwest Texas. That’s why I’ve held 181 public events over the past year and a half. With that comes a healthy debate about issues people care passionately about.
Unfortunately political operatives associated with my opponent’s campaign tried to turn it into something else—attempting to hijack a “congress on your corner” event merely to engage in uncivil, cynical videotape baiting tactics. The people of Southwest Texas deserve better than that.
That said, I apologize for losing my temper…
Ahh: There’s nothing as touching as heartfelt remorse.
And please, spare us the faux moral outrage about “uncivil, cynical videotape baiting tactics.” Hijacking events and baiting politicians to lose their cool is hardly new and novel, however irritating. Only the technology is of recent vintage. The terrible “lack of civility” that high-minded pundits like to decry—especially when Tea Partiers are involved—is a tradition as old as democracy itself. (Of course, in the 18th century, they had to make do without YouTube. But then again, they could also just make stuff up a lot more easily in their own partisan publications.)
If Rodriguez’s Republican opponent, Francisco “Quico” Canseco, did dispatch this woman and her camera to try and provoke the congressman, he would only have been doing what practically every political entity in Texas and America are doing these days: using instant media to take—or, rather, sink—gotcha politics to a whole new level.
Democrats, despite their habitual “more ethical than thou” pose, have been ardent practitioners of this dark and ethically dubious art from the get-go. It was, you might recall, a volunteer for Democrat Jim Webb’s campaign—assigned to try and catch U.S. Sen. George Allen saying something embarrassing—who was the object of the original “Macaca” outburst (and the producer of one of the most popular videos of 2006).
Now the national Democratic Party has officially embraced this low-slung tactic. In late June, the Democratic National Committee launched a website called The Accountability Project—an organized effort to encourage Democratic “volunteers” to dog Republican candidates and catch them being stupid. As The Democratic Strategist wrote:
More squeamish Dems may wince at the inevitable comparison to ‘gotcha’ journalism. But we are not talking entrapment set-ups here, of the sort that Republicans roundly applauded when the pimped-out young Republican toppled ACORN with his phony scam and was hailed as a GOP hero. Instead, the Accountability Project will film Republicans in their natural habitat, doing what they do best—paranoid bellowing at tea party demos, groveling at the feet of oil barons, snarling about immigrant workers hired by their contributors etc.
The Accountability Project—taking a page from Dick Armey’s Tea Party handbook—touts itself as “a grassroots, volunteer project” in big, bold letters on its website. At the bottom of the homepage, the truth is told in small script: “Paid for by the Democratic National Committee — 430 South Capitol Street SE, Washington, DC, 20003.”
I suppose I could get all righteous here and bloviate about the degradation of political discourse. Or lecture the Democrats about sinking to the level of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. But, sadly enough, that would be a waste of breath.
Sure, all this pursuing candidates with cameras and turning their screw-ups into viral video is vile and deeply unfair—the ultimate in manipulative soundbite politics. Yes, it helps keep our politics dumb. And worst of all, it discourages candidates from speaking their minds in public with any degree of frankness. But unfortunately, it’s Standard Operating Procedure in the grimly stupid world of 21st-century politics. As Rodriguez could attest, any pol in American must now assume, at every moment, that somebody’s recording this—and that this somebody is out to make you look like a Mel Gibson impersonator.
Ain’t democracy swell?