We all know that a gaffe in politics is when a politician gets caught telling the truth. But the gaffes that stick are when candidates for high office do or say something that fulfills a notion that the media covering them desperately want to expose as a character flaw.
The best example in my time covering politics was the infamous Howard Dean scream the night he won the Iowa primary. I had covered the Vermont Governor’s rise from obscurity to frontrunner and, like many, had sensed the quirks in his personality. So when Dean appeared to become unhinged on stage, the media (my paper included) played it up – big time.
This has happened in politics countless times (Muskie’s tears, Michael Dukakis’ frigid answer to Bernie Shaw's rape question). So now it appears to be Scott Brown’s turn.
Fair or not, many in the media – and public – have seen Brown as a genuine good guy who is simply in way over his head. They believe the populace was charmed more by his barn coat, rugged looks and pickup than by his positions, stances and intellect.
Brown gifted to that crowd the “Thank God” moment yesterday, responding to Democratic front-runner Elizabeth Warren’s joke that she didn’t have to pose naked for Cosmo to help pay for her college education. The critics have pounced and blamed this as proof of Brown’s “frat house humor.” The media played happily along – in part because it’s just plain fun and politics is personality – but also because it drives home a part of Brown’s personality they have wanted to showcase.
Surely the Brown Brigades will cry media bias and try to utilize the clever but not-so-convincing spin that this somehow showcases elitism by Warren, the Harvard Law professor. That, for now, appears to be an overreach. Of course, it could lay the groundwork for a time when Warren does slip – and the media can turn the tables on her the same way.
For now, keep in mind another so-far ignored political tidbit in all this: Brown’s gaffe – intended or not – may just appeal to one key demographic in this election. Call them the former frat boys, NASCAR Dad’s, the Man Cave set or whatever you’d like but men of a certain persuasion, certain age and certain ideological bent were key to Brown’s tide of independent vote-getting in toppling Attorney General Martha Coakley. It was no accident Brown spent more time on sports talk radio than NPR – and it wasn’t just because they lobbed softball questions.
Is that proof the critics of Brown’s comment are right? Possibly. But is Brown crazy like a fox? The jury’s still out.
For now, I’m calling this gaffe what it seems to be – something that cuts both ways for Warren, Brown and the media.