Gotcha Politics

We have entered the age of Gotcha Politics.  It is a place in history from which there is no escape, and we have been solidly wedged there for so long that it has become a normal condition.  The press has become a predator, lurking for the misstatement of the day to make news.  By focusing on the gaffes committed by politicians, the paparazzi media is keeping the viewers from the message they are trying to convey to the voters.  The soundbites that are broadcast each day are frequently no indication of what the candidates stand for.  If they were, would all have to conclude that all that politicians do with their typical day is to talk silly and speak words that they never intended to say.  It wasn’t always that way.

In the Kennedy era, a time we referred to as Camelot, our president made a gaffe during a speech at the Berlin Wall that was politely shrugged off by the world.  John F. Kennedy intended to say, “I am a Berliner,” as the keywords to his visit to a Germany divided between East and West, and between the ideas of communism and capitalism.  Instead, he spoke the words, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” which means, to anyone fluent in the Germanic language, “I am a jelly donut.”

The 1960s was a time of relative innocence when it comes to Gotcha Politics.  Berliners, Germany, and Kennedy’s American audience politely overlooked the words and paid attention to the message.  If Barack Obama or Mitt Romney had made a similar gaffe, our world of 24/7 soundbites would have repeated it every twenty minutes in a continuous loop until it was memorized by every school kid and adult within listening distance.  Today, that audience includes everyone, everywhere.  In Kennedy’s time, news traveled by word of mouth, brought into your home by radio and in black and white. Today, it is communicated by Iphone and HDTV.  If you didn’t catch it live, it will always wait for you on the internet and on FOX, CNN, and MSNBC.

Once the words have been spoken and the gotcha moment has occurred, they cannot be taken back and they will never be covered up.  All a politician can do is damage control, and we all know how ineffective that has become.  Even if there is an immediate correction, the error is broadcast, and the attempt at conveying the original message becomes buried in misinformation.  Richard Nixon once attempted to correct a misstatement by stating, “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”  Not clear and not effective. It took on a life of its own.  History recalls the quote, but not the error in communication that he was trying to correct.  He would have been better served by saying, “Let me start over.  I didn’t mean that.”

Recently, Paul Ryan was interviewed by an obviously unprepared reporter from a Michigan TV affiliate with a major network.  The interview had gone beyond the allotted time, and the reporter had not obtained his gotcha.  He began zinging desperate questions about gun control and crime, which the vice-presidential candidate graciously tried to answer.  When Ryan didn’t take the bait, the reporter began a totally unrelated line of questions about the budget and the cutting of taxes.  This area, a subject on which Ryan has built his reputation explaining, was the last question in the interview.  Presumably, the subject was addressed earlier in the interview, but we will never know.  The network pulled the interview from its broadcast.  Suddenly and without warning, the interview itself was no longer news.  The clumsy end of the interview became the news of the day.  The next morning, the headlines became, Paul Ryan Abruptly Ends TV Interview.  The interview itself  gave way to the Gotcha.

Now that we are entering the home stretch of the presidential campaign, media attention is at an all-time high.  Every word is scrutinized for gotchas.  The bigger the gotcha, the longer it will run in a 24/7 continuous loop.  Reporters have become gotcha-catchers, the Paparazzi of words.  In seeking the gotchas, the press has disconnected the audience from the intended message.  Part of the problem is the way we communicate.  An hour-long speech can produce a gotcha or two, and a fifteen-second soundbite that contains one newsworthy point extracted from the entire oratory experience.  The rest is discarded and forgotten, not worthy of publication.

There will certainly be many potential gotchas to come from the presidential and vice-presidential debates, and hopefully, the voters will have their favorites to repeat for posterity.  They may eventually replace “You didn’t build that,” and “47%”.  If you forget the gaffes, don’t worry.  The political campaigns will dredge them up at every opportunity.  They use them like a gunslinger uses bullets.

If you can stand sitting for the full length of a political speech, a feat of endurance that you will get no credit for, (and may produce a blinding headache), I have a challenge for you.  After you have made it through to the end, take out your Iphone or a memo pad, talk to Siri or write it down.  What was the speaker trying to say?  Did I agree or disagree with the message?  What color was his tie or her shoes?

If you remember his tie or her shoes but not the message, you will quickly come to the conclusion that speech-making is a horrible way to communicate.  More words are forgotten than retained, and after the thank-you’s to dignitaries and the obligatory joke or quip, most of what goes into a speech is old news, packaged and repeated at every opportunity.

If you only remember the gotchas, then you should realize that you have been trained to listen to messages in sound bites. The message you have retained in your memory is devoid of any information that the speaker intended for you to take from the speech.

The debates are the best opportunity to acquire new gotchas in large quantity.  Debates are the political equivalent of trick or treating.  The moderator is equipped with questions designed to trip up the most practiced debater, and there will be no teleprompter to remind them of the politically correct words to use in answering the questions.

If you come out of the debates with a balanced appraisal of each of the candidates’ talking points, whether you agree or disagree, you are unique.  There aren’t many out there in the real world just like you.  You may want to consider running for president someday, but if you do, you should only talk in soundbites.