A Forum for Opinions on News, Politics, and Life
September 28th, 2011
By Richard D. Bailey
Ted Kennedy’s famous flub of a simple question asked by Roger Mudd on a national broadcast in November 1979 accomplished two things. First, it paved the path for Jimmy Carter to deliver on his notorious promise earlier in the year to “whip his ass” if Kennedy challenged him in a primary and second, but more relevant to today, it gave the national political media the second half of a great story arc that wrote itself. They just had to stand by, watch, put the words in the proper order and phone it in.
Now let’s fast forward to 2011 and Rick Perry, who here on in brings new meaning to the term Texas Toast. Mitt Romney couldn’t have designed a better challenger than the swaggering, strutting not ready for prime time player and part time governor (Texas has had a “weak” Governor system built into their Constitution since 1876). Like the Draft Ted movement in 1979, the Rick Perry candidacy in 2011 was a creation of our national media bored with the status quo and craving an insurgency. Conventional wisdom had it that Carter in 79 like Romney today was boring. In the minds of the media then and now they were/are pallid subjects providing little inspiration for the budding chroniclers of the latest version of The Making of the President.
I was senior in college in 1979. The economy was in the final years of a “lost decade,” job prospects were grim and newspapers were awash in oceans of print heralding the “decline of America.” Pundits and prognosticators were all predicting that our best years were behind us, the American Century was over and we’d all be in hock to the Arabs soon because the OPEC nations then, like China today, “had all the money.” Our problems in 1979 were big and they were structural and no one was offering a compelling, stirring vision of how we were going to get out of this mess.
Then along comes the greatest media event in the world, a US presidential election. But nothing is more boring to the 4th estate than an electoral “cycle” (they were actually known as “seasons” back then) with a candidate about whom it was believed offered nothing new to write about. That appeared to be the journalistic Group Think in 1979 about Carter and the same today about Romney. President for three years by the time Kennedy announced in November, Carter was ‘fully disclosed.” Romney, who has been campaigning for office since his 1992 challenge to Ted Kennedy, has also been fully vetted by the national press.
So what happened then and why is it relevant today? It’s all about the arc of a story.
In the beginning there was a boring story. Fully vetted man seeks highest office in the land. Not much to write about there. But then the mighty scribes begin to game the story. They don’t sit down around a table or at a bar and say, “we need to find someone to give this man a run and prove him worthy.” But they do indulge in a collective “what if.”
The arc of the story begins when respected columnists then, or TV figures now, begin to publicly speculate that the incumbent/front runner is a weak candidate and vulnerable to a challenge from a member of the party’s base. They then mention a Mr. Non-Candidate — say Ted Kennedy in early 1979 and/or Rick Perry today. This is followed by the beat reporters asking Mr Non-Candidate if he is thinking about running for President. Mr Non-Candidate, flattered by the question, fails to give the Shermanesque denial of “If nominated I will not run, if elected I will not serve.” Seizing upon this lack of certainty reporters begin saturating print and airwaves with coverage stating that Mr Non-Candidate has “not ruled out running” and is “leaving the door open.” Boom! In a flash, a nascent candidacy is born.
Now the press has what it loves, a horse race, a rising story arc. It’s a story that “writes itself” and suddenly life is sweet.
Mr Non-Candidate is reported to be “meeting with his advisers” and “weighing his options.” Media-sponsored polls then report that his name recognition is rising (duh … his name is getting splashed across every newspaper and broadcast in America) and the smooth path of Mr Boring frontrunner is no longer assured.
The story arc reaches its zenith when Ted Kennedy doesn’t discourage the DraftTed movement (full disclosure: In 1979 I was a college coordinator in Rhode Island for the DraftTed movement), and Texas Toast suddenly feels the need to tour the fall foliage in New Hampshire.
Then, just as suddenly, along comes a nationally broadcast interview with Roger Mudd in November 1979. Ted Kennedy pauses, stumbles and flat-out blows the answer to a simple question. “Why do you want to be President?” Failing to inspire interviewer and audience alike, the candidacy and the story arc begin the downward slope and in January, Jimmy Carter “whips his ass” in Iowa.
Texas Toast’s time is up. The flash of his supernova moment faded away as quickly as it passed. Frankly, nothing says not ready for prime time like the deer in the headlights facial expressions and amateur hour staff prep on display in the recent televised debates. Like Ted Kennedy before him, the arc of the Rick Perry story is now barreling down the back end of the slope. Within a few weeks he’ll withdraw from the race and his political obituary will be written. He probably won’t even make Iowa.
So, let’s just forget what he said last night at the Reagan Library. For the members of the press, it’s on to Chris Christie.
Richard D. Bailey lives outside of Boston, MA. He holds an M.A. in Communications from Fairfield University and a B.A. in Political Science from Providence College. In his spare time he writes the blog The Accidental Humanist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(This article was also posted at The Accidental Humanist.)
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