Journalist Paul Waldman explains how politicians’ missteps go viral
If you aren’t old enough to remember it, you’ve probably heard the story of the most consequential presidential campaign gaffe of the modern era. In 1972, Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie responded to a series of attacks by the Manchester Union Leader with a news conference outside the paper’s offices. Standing in the New Hampshire snow, the candidate for the Democratic nomination condemned the paper for, among other things, attacking his wife. The Washington Post’s David Broder began his story about the incident this way: “With tears streaming down his face and his voice choked with emotion . . .”
Though Muskie insisted that his facial wetness came from the snow, the idea that a candidate would cry created a scandal. Muskie, thought until that moment to be his party’s inevitable nominee, soon saw his campaign flounder and die.
The less well-known part of this story is that some influential journalists had decided long before that there was something slightly off about Muskie. In his 1977 book “Reporting: An Inside View,” legendary journalist Lou Cannon wrote that, after playing poker with Muskie, he concluded that the senator was too temperamental to be president. “What does a political reporter do with this kind of insight?” Cannon asked. “As in this instance, it is rarely written as a hard news story the first time the thought arises. . . . What we reporters tend to do is to store away in our minds such incidents and then use them to interpret — to set a context — for major incidents when they occur.”
What makes an incident or gaffe “major” is the interpretation that journalists — and these days, the blogosphere and Twitterverse as well — give it. Some mistakes are largely ignored, while others are portrayed as enormously consequential and haunt the candidate for weeks or months. The difference reveals far more about journalistic biases than it does about the candidates themselves.
In every campaign, candidates’ verbal miscues draw plenty of attention, and the GOP primary race this year is no different. At a stop in Iowa on Thursday, Mitt Romney blurted out that “corporations are people” and engaged in a mini-debate on the issue with the crowd. In recent weeks, Newt Gingrich came under heavy criticism for describing Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan as “right-wing social engineering.” Tim Pawlenty referred to the Affordable Care Act as “ObamneyCare,” then backed down when asked to repeat it to Romney’s face in a nationally televised debate. And Michele Bachmann has been caught in a series of factual errors, such as placing the Battles of Lexington and Concord in New Hampshire rather than Massachusetts; claiming her birthplace of Waterloo, Iowa, as the home of John Wayne, when it was actually serial killer John Wayne Gacy who hailed from there; and asserting that the founding fathers “worked tirelessly” to eliminate slavery.
All of these misstatements had something in common: They reinforced what many people — including reporters — already thought about the candidate in question. That’s why the incidents became “news.”