Reaction to the comment made last week by Ann Romney about what she meant by using the words “you people,” are much like the reaction four years ago to the one made by Michelle Obama about feeling “proud for the first time…being proud” of her country revealed less about those two political wives than it did the national media and the partisan public.
And before Ann Romney in 2012 and Michelle Obama in 2008, it was also true of Democratic First Lady Candidates of 2004 and 1992 Teresa Heinz Kerry and Hillary Clinton. And of Republican First Lady Candidates of 1988 and 1980 Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan. Even before that it was Republican First Lady Candidate Florence Harding n 1920.
In the grand, old tradition of the Grand Old Partiers – and Yellow Dog Democrats, Radical Socialists, Right-Wing Reactionaries, Tea-Partiers, Coffee-Partiers, Virgos, and Presbyterians, everyone felt they had the right to climb into the brains of the wives of the 2008 Democratic Presidential candidate and 2012 Republican one to then expertly judge what these women were really transmitting, conveying, suggesting and signaling without their having to actually articulate it.
Last week’s incident was sparked by Ann Romney’s response to a question posed to her during an ABC Good Morning American reporter Robin Roberts, who challenged her defense of Mitt Romney‘s decision not to release his tax returns previous to 2010 and the fuller versions of the two years since.
After Mrs. Romney made the claim that she and her husband donate ten percent of their income to their Mormon Church and that he did not take a state salary during his four years as Governor as Massachusetts, Roberts was entirely reasonable in asking, Why not show that, then?” on the belief that it would let the media “move on” from the growing controversy. Romney responded:
“Because there are so many things that will be open again for more attack… and that’s really, that’s just the answer. And we’ve given all you people need to know and understand about our financial situation and about how we live our life. And so, the election, again, will not be decided on that. It will be decided on who is gonna turn the economy around and how are jobs gonna come back to America.”
Love or hate the idea of Mitt Romney as President, Ann Romney’s observation that doing so would then mean “there are so many things that will be open again for more attack,” is factually accurate.
Acknowledging an obvious reality of how the political media seizes on any personal issue that might generate another great headline news story “with legs,” to last longer was not itself deemed worthy of a headline. Far hotter was the specific parsing of the words “people.” “all” and “you” but not necessarily in that order. Thus, Romney’ “gaffe,” as it was quickly labeled, became “All You People Need to Know!“
Everything else snapped into place or, as Mashable.com‘s Alex Fitzpatrick’s headline put it, Ann Romney’s ‘You People’ Gaffe Goes Viral. http://www.mashable.com/2012/07/19/ann-romney-you-people/
Just in case there was any danger of the hot story dropping too fast, the headline hit the land of minimal mumble itself – Twitter. And that soon allowed MSNBC to report, Ann Romney’s “You People” comment angers Twitter Users, http://www.now.msn.com/ann-romneys-you-people-comment-angers-twitter-users. Facetiously or not, Rebecca Schoenkopf disclosed precisely what had now, finally, been set in motion with her Wonkette.com headlined story, Ann Romney’s Metamorphosis into Leona Helmsley Almost Complete http://www.wonkette.com/478764/ann-romneys-metamorphosis-into-leona-helmsley-almost-complete.
Less esoterically, it’s earned Mrs. Romney that classic but feared of all First Lady comparisons: Ann Romney’s Marie Antoinette Moment, blared the Newsday editorial headline by Rita Ciolli. http://www.newsday.com/opinion/viewsday-1.3683911/ann-romney-s-marie-antoinette-moment-on-tax-returns-1.3848329.
Here’s the footage of Mrs. Romney wording the headline in its fuller context of a conversational interview:
There’s no greater proof of how helpful the media coverage of this particular First Lady Candidate will prove to be in crafting her Caricature than the fact that the Democratic National Committee had already produced a satirical video making use of Mrs. Romney’s horse. Riding horses in the formal sport of dressage, a privilege only afforded the wealthy, is an excellent symbol of the candidate’s extraordinary wealth, which is being used to make the case he’s unable to understand the challenges of everyday life faced by a nation still struggling with a weak economy and unemployment.
Of course, Republicans are getting as good as they gave four years ago. In 2008, the media’s hyper-explosive coverage of a few heartfelt but impromptu words by a hopeful Michelle Obama bestowed upon right-wingers material which they easily distorted into evidence that her remarks accidentally revealed the unpatriotic ingratitude secretly shared by her husband, even offering it as proof positive that Obama was intent on radically destroying all that was already good about America.
Speaking in February 2008 at a Madison, Wisconsin rally, Mrs. Obama was clearly moved by the results of early primary wins by her husband which defied the fear that voters would never elect anyone but an all-white candidate. No polls at the time indicating this was at all a certainty, she clearly expressed gratitude and surprise at the unexpected and seemingly-sudden ascent of Obama’s candidacy by saying she was proud of her country, “for the first time,” because it was proving not to be the racist nation many naysayers presumed it was. Instead, the intent of her remarks were turned into what Republican strategists and commentators characterized as entitlement, arrogance and even bitterness. Here is footage of her remarks in context:
Caricatures of the First Lady Candidate generally fall into one of two archetypes that can be characterized as the Rich Bitch or the Subversive Threat.
In both cases, exaggerating the meaning of their misstatements or symbolism of a malaprop, the political opposition shapes her into a mirror of the “real man” at home.
Presidential campaign media strategists are complicit in this, long having thrust First Lady Candidates before the press and public to “humanize” the “real person” behind the political persona of the Presidential Candidate.
While the general media is always seeking the advantage of the “gotcha” moment for a headline, the overtly partisan media commentators, strategists and spinners prey on these marital partners, not yet entirely self-conscious of the fact that their every spontaneous word or natural gesture is being dissected for its potential use in destroying their husband’s great ambition.
In reaction to Republican depictions of Michelle Obama as the Subversive Threat, some Democratic media spinners wedged the 2008 Republican First Lady Candidate Cindy McCain into the Rich Bitch category. It was not as strong a smear as the one against Mrs. Obama simply because Mrs. McCain hadn’t made any one quotable remark that could be easily distorted; rather it was based on her inherited wealth, expensive fashions and claims that she opportunistically dated John McCain while he was still married to his first wife. While conventional wisdom might suggest that partisanship defines which caricature a First Lady Candidate will be defined by, history entirely disproves this.
Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of 2004 Democratic Presidential candidate, U.S. Senator John Kerry, was cast by Republicans as the out-of-touch Rich Bitch, a caricature immediately set by the fact that she was a wildly wealthy ketchup heiress, being the widow of her first husband of the Heinz food company. It was launched with great media fanfare, however, with her unscripted remarks to Pennsylvania delegates in July 2004 that, “We need to turn back some of the creeping, un-Pennsylvanian and sometimes un-American traits that are coming into some of our politics.” When confronted about her remarks by Colin McNickle, editorial page editor of the Heinz-unfriendly Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, owned by right-wing publisher Richard Mellon Scaife, the woman derisively nicknamed “Terry Kerry,” told him to “Shove it.”
Her remark led to thousands of Republicans escalating the matter in comment boards on media stories, claiming it proved she was arrogantly indifferent to “behavior” Americans expect in a potential First Lady or that were common among “Eurotrash” (Mrs. Kerry is from a wealthy Portuegese family and born in Mozambique into). The Washington Monthly declared, “Teresa Heinz Kerry urged her home-state delegates to the Democratic National Convention to restore a more civil tone to American politics, then minutes later told a newspaperman to “shove it” ( http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/shove_it/). The media reaction underlined the idea already planted that her husband was an elitist hypocrite; while no polls data can prove it one way or the other, his wife’s remark might have helped solidify the successful attacks on Kerry by Republicans as a “limousine liberal.” Here’s a clip of her confrontation with McNickle:
The ideal venue is a print or broadcast interview in which the First Lady Candidate is responding to a loaded question or making spontaneous remarks to a rally of supporters; even better if she is very exasperated or very bubbly with joy. All that’s needed to begin shaping the caricature of these women who are largely unknown to the public until they begin campaigning during the winter and spring state primaries, is a tape, transcript, or in any other documented record of a few of their mundane words, ripe not only as the perfect “sound bite,” but ammunition tailor-made for explosion as a sensational headline for a story which most voters won’t read, yet react to.
That said, the technology of any given age plays a central role in all of this. With the current, always-evolving, real-time modern media of blogging, videography and Twitter accessible by a small smartphone, it’s easier to distort what Ann Romney might do or what Michelle Obama might say. Twenty years ago, it was the advent of multiplying cable television stations beginning to broadcast news twenty-four hours a day. And, with recent advances at the time in more quickly editing videotape, it had become far easier in 1992 to snip right out of context the remarks made during the primaries by Hillary Clinton, then the wife of Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton.
Fewer words more broadly shaped a First Lady Candidate’s caricature than did those of Hillary Clinton when she insisted on responding factually about her legal training to repeated questions from reporters encircling her, along with camera and lighting crews, probing how she helped shaped her husband’s policies as governor. With increasing frustration, but none of the angry sarcasm which print news stories claimed, she finally added, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies,” instead of working as an attorney. She failed to add that she’d managed to do so without sacrificing the traditional role of mother or the ceremonial role of Arkansas First Lady. Here is a clip of the full remarks, in context:
When she retorted to a 60 Minutes question about her husband’s acknowledged adultery by saying her loyalty wasn’t a matter of blind love like that expressed in the song Stand by Your Man, she also mentioned the vocalist who made it famous.
Her remarks were speedily retreaded by not only the right-wing media but the music industry as a personal insult of the iconic country singer, Tammy Wynette.
During the general election, months later, this was raised again by Republicans seeking to secure uncommitted voters in the South and Midwest, a demographic polls showed to be leaning, by regional association, towards Bill Clinton.
So began the most orchestrated and unrelenting attack on a candidate’s spouse in presidential history. Caricatured as the ultimate Subversive Threat, Hillary Clinton’s “cookie” quote was used in malicious editorials, vile jokes and bumper stickers, and printed on buttons and tee-shirts.
By the time of the summer Democratic Convention, Hillary Clinton had learned to carefully watch her every word, but with the media examining her life as if she were the candidate, it was soon enough her words from the past which were used against her.
After managing to obtain copies of her law school and other legal writings, conservative organizations were the first to publicly disclose her views not as transcriptions but edited to reflect a right-wing interpretation. Often appearing in articles about her “real” views on the American family was a 1969 photo taken at the time she was valedictorian of her Wellsley College graduating class, showing her as a college-student in sandals and not just pants but striped bell-bottom ones, to serve as visual proof she was a radical hippie. Soon, the “cookie” quote was used to suggest Hillary Clinton demeaned those remaining home as traditional wives and mothers and threatened to somehow legally limit that choice.
At that summer’s 1992 Republican National Convention, Hillary Clinton’s words were prominently used against her. “Elect me, and you get two for the price of one, Mr Clinton says of his lawyer-spouse,” conservative activist Pat Buchanan declared from the podium. “And what does Hillary believe? Well, Hillary believes that 12-year-olds should have a right to sue their parents, and she has compared marriage as an institution to slavery–and life on an Indian reservation. Well, speak for yourself, Hillary. Friends, this is radical feminism. The agenda Clinton & Clinton would impose on America–abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat…”
When Vice President’s conservative wife Marilyn Quayle was introduced by the actor who played “Major Dad,” on a sitcom, he praised her for “still having time to bake cookies.” In her speech, Quayle referenced the right-wing interpretation on Hillary’s legal writings, stating that “women do not wish to be liberated from their essential natures as women…most of us love being mothers and wives,” and that “family life needs protection.” It proved to be the only time in presidential election history when the spouse of one party’s ticket attacked a spouse of the opposition.
A dozen years earlier, however, the Democrats had used similar tactics on Nancy Reagan, launching her caricature from what was then unprecedented media criticism of everything from how she looked to the stepfather who raised her. And three of her spontaneous words were wildly turned against her.
Although she would be caricatured as “Queen Nancy” once she became First Lady, during the 1980 primaries and general election of her husband Ronald Reagan as the Republican Presidential candidate, Mrs. Reagan was depicted as a Radical of the right-wing, hell-bent on ending abortion (when, in truth, she was pro-choice) and influencing her husband to retro-actively rescind progressive measures made by his rival, incumbent President Jimmy Carter.
Despite her repeated denials of having had any substantive interest in politics before she met Reagan, the press persisted in repeatedly printing the allegation that her influence, under the guidance of her Republican stepfather, had been the crucial factor which led Reagan to convert from being a rabid Democrat to a Republican.
During the 1980 primaries, it was only on rare occasions that the Reagans were scheduled to campaign apart from each other. On one of those occasions, just prior to the Illinois primary, Nancy Reagan had already arrived at a Chicago fundraiser where her husband was scheduled to speak. A raging snowstorm, however, prevented his small plane from leaving his location to join her there. Instead, organizers set up a live audio feed into the small hotel conference room packed with his supporters so he could address the crowd via telephone.
Nancy was goaded to the podium to warmup the waiting crowd. Once the call from her husband came through, she attempted to describe the scene for him. as she looked out at the crowd and, behind them, the blowing snow through the large windowed wall which she faced. Speaking impromptu, she blurted out that she was looking at a room full of “smiling, white faces.”
Despite her immediate clarification that she was looking at both the white snow and the crowd (which included African-Americans), reporters there went with her more provocative-seeming three words. By the next day, editorials were blasting Nancy Reagan as being blind to anyone but white people, a viewpoint which easily seemed to confirm the Democratic charge that his potential presidency would be a racist one and her radically conservative views continued to influence him.
Twenty years before the Nancy Reagan pile-on, it had been a Democratic presidential candidate’s wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, who Republicans were on the verge of caricaturing as the Rich Bitch, the evidence being her pursuit of the elitist and cruel sport of fox-hunting, studied at the Sorbonne, and had a taste for expensive, brightly-colored Parisian couture.
In her taped oral history interview released last year, Jackie Kennedy confirmed that her husband’s campaign advisers did fear that the media and then the Republicans might seize on her persona and damage JFK’s viability, confirming the impression that the heir and millionaire, as opposed to Nixon, who rose from the working-class, was out of touch with the average voter.
By coincidence, her pregnancy and obstetrician’s insistence that she not travel or physically stress herself was an excuse to keep her off the campaign trail.
After campaigning during the West Virginia and Wisconsin primaries in the winter of 1960, she remained publicly inaccessible until October, just before the election, when she joined JFK in a ticker-tape parade in New York.
During her only media exposure, before the primaries began, she had talked to a group of reporters who recorded her informal interview. When one asked where she hoped the Democratic National Convention should be held.
She quipped, “Acapulco.”
There were no more interviews. Luckily, the group of reporters had all laughed at her suggestion, surely assuming she was joking about holding the event in the Mexican resort town, but the campaign took no more risks of letting her give interviews. Nevertheless, an entirely media-created controversy was crafted to counterpoint the amount of money spent on clothing by the wives of the two presidential candidates, and the estimates were that Mrs. Kennedy spent tens of thousands more than did Pat Nixon, the Republican First Lady Candidate. When a New York Times reporter managed to get into a room with Jackie, following the October ticker tape parade, Mrs. Kennedy snapped back with a famous quip, reminiscent of Ann Romney’s:
“I couldn’t possibly spend that much on clothes unless I wore sable underwear.”
While funny enough to get Jackie off the hook from creating more controversy, she also avoided answering just how much she did spend on clothes. And while sarcastic, unlike Romney’s response, Jackie did not make pointed reference to the sacred press. It also came so close to Election Day that it was quickly eclipsed as news.
It was a Vice Presidential candidate’s wife who took matters into her own hands the moment she realized she’d made a remark to the media which had the potential for exploding. She had the advantage of experiencing one national presidential campaign already, and already knowing how much sting there often was in her own sharp tongue.
So it was, while on a 1984 campaign plane, that a reporter asked the incumbent “Second Lady,” her opinion of Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman in history to run for Vice President, who also happened to be the Democratic opponent of George H. Bush, then running for re-election in that post. It was only days away from the one televised debate between them and Ferraro’s husband had only just released tax returns showing that he and his wife had joint assets of $4 million, presenting a wealthier image in contrast to the one of Ferraro as middle-class.
And Barbara Bush responded, ‘She’s a four-million dollar….well, I can’t say it, but it rhymes with rich.”
When the remark was printed and then widely reported under the assumption that she was really calling Ferraro a “bitch,” Bush say no, she was merely calling her a “witch.”
Before the matter had even a chance to make a second day of news, however, Barbara Bush immediately telephoned Geraldine Ferraro personally to apologize. And then, when asked for some more of her opinions, cracked a self-effacing joke at her own expense. “The poet laureate,” she said, “has retired.”
In light of the nature of many of the historical remarks made by First Lady Candidates and blown up to have far greater meaning than many were obviously intended, it might also be helpful to consider Ann Romney’s “you people” remarks in light of who it was she might have really been taking aim at.
Almost universally, the media has interpreted it as a cut to the “99 percent” of Americans with far less wealth than she, her husband and the “one percent” crowd. Yet Romney was responding to a question from the public. Nor was she making a speech to a crowd of voters. And while Romney’s release of his tax returns would be made for public dissemination, she made her remark in response to a reporter asking why the returns weren’t being released. In fact, in watching the tape it seems clear that her personal frustration was directed at the reporter, and the comment a plural reference to reporters. Despite this, however, Salon.com‘s editor-at-large Joan Walsh insisted that, “in fact, she’s talking to American voters.” In Walsh’s article, Ann Romney’s Snobbish Snub, she found it “so disrespectful,” to be comparable to Ross Perot’s similar reference to a 1992 NAACP convention audience. Yet perhaps Walsh unwittingly revealed the root of the media’s reaction of outrage by adding: “Now, it may be OK, in some circles, to call the media ‘you people’…” (http://www.salon.com/2012/07/19/ann_romneys_snobbish_snub/)
Which is why the best rapid-response political spin ever executed in response to a potentially damaging remark by a presidential candidate’s spouse dates back to the first such known incident – when it took one to know one.
In a day before recordings were even transmitted by radio, it was a remark made by the 1920 Republican Presidential candidate’s wife in a newspaper interview, the quote to soon be circulated through syndication. That year, as both parties grasped for support from the massive demographic suddenly on the verge of getting the right to vote with August’s passage of 18th Amendment, it was Florence Harding who early on recognized the need to appeal to millions of new women voters.
Admitting she had long supported suffrage she blurted out what would still be considered radical nearly a century later: “I don’t wear a wedding ring. I don’t like badges….I can broil a steak but I rather work. I like business.”
And then, realizing how that might come off, she pared apples and wore an apron when greeting farm wives. But the voting public, it seemed to Florence Harding, might be far less important than the people who told them how to vote. The media.
Taking advantage of the fact that her husband’s campaign was being almost entirely conducted from the front porch of their Marion, Ohio home, Mrs. Harding grabbed the New York Times reporter covering the campaign by the arm and pulled him into her house and seated him in the kitchen. Then, she pulled out some batter and her old waffle iron, and whipped up a stack of waffles to prove that, even without a wedding ring, she could still cook a man breakfast.
And Florence Harding’s professional job?
Business and Advertising Manager of a newspaper.
- Ann Romney’s snobbish snub (kaystreet.wordpress.com)
- ABC: No, Ann Romney didn’t say ‘you people’ (hotair.com)
- Ann Romney’s snobbish snub (salon.com)
- Ann Romney on the secret tax returns: ‘We’ve given all you people need to know’ (dailykos.com)
- Media fail: So, Ann Romney never said ‘you people’ after all (twitchy.com)
- Ann Romney on tax returns: ‘We’ve given all you people need to know’ (rawstory.com)
- Ann Romney Says No More Tax Returns ‘We Given You People All You Need To Know’ (themoderatevoice.com)
- Ann Romney lashes out at voters: “You people” have enough of our tax info (americablog.com)
- Ann Romney talks with ABC News (abc4.com)
- Left continues to mock Ann Romney for something she didn’t say (twitchy.com)