Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Presidential Ethno-Blooperology: Performance Misfires in the Business of "Message"-Ing

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Presidential Ethno-Blooperology: Performance Misfires in the Business of "Message"-Ing

Article excerpt


In the spectator sport of American presidential politics a generally savored moment is the perception of a candidate's misfire or gaffe. Recorded, disseminated and reframed by evaluative commentary the mere blooper or would-be "out-take" is transformed. Whether or not it was an obvious blooper at the time, the gaffe is potentially turned into an index of something more deeply revelatory of personality, character, or identity. In our regime of "message" politics, it comes either to count as a symptomatic bit of truth about its maker, emergent with negative value despite all precaution of deliberate staging, or to count as the positively valuated, deliberately delivered telling blow that injures an opponent in the theatricalized political agon of "message." [Keywords: Media and politics, performance, news, semiotics of gaffe and blunder, US presidency, political message]

On Tuesday morning, the 23rd of October, 2007, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney seemed to some to have done it. Talking to the Greenwood, South Carolina Chamber of Commerce on free trade agreements, he digressed to focus on the threat of radical Islam and the "War on Terror." He sharply criticized the opposition of the local Democratic aspirant for the presidential nomination, former Senator John Edwards, to Bush administration policies captioned by the phrase the War on Terror. " I think that is a position which is not consistent with the fact," he said, presumably intending either "...with the facts" or just "...with fact." Grammatical error. Slip of the old phrase generator. A minor-a miniscule-dysfluency of parole. But Romney went on, as long as he was criticizing Sen. Edwards, seeming to spread the partisan criticism wider:

Actually, just look at what Osam-uh-Barack Obama, said just yesterday. Barack Obama calling on radicals, jihadists of all different types, to come together in Iraq. 'That is the battlefield. That is the central place,' he said. 'Come join us under one banner.'

Reporters scrambled in vain to find the incendiary quote by then Senator Obama. Whoops! It was actually an Osama quote, a summary of Osama bin Laden's call to arms in his then most recently released audiotape.

By mid-day on Tuesday, a report by New York Times campaign blogger Michael Luo (2007) had stirred up a hornets' nest: hundreds of angry comments that veered among three positions. The first interpretation is that this was an innocent stumble, presumably stimulated by the most happenstance fact that two somewhat unusual, foreign names rhyme, and one can stumble over the single consonant sound, -s- vs. -b-, that distinguishes them, even though one occurs in a given name, the other in a surname. Early morning speech; Mormons can't drink caffeine to wake up their sleepy brains; innocent confusion that could happen to anyone. (One wag responded to Luo's report with "Banana-fanna-bo-'bama" I should point out, as if to emphasize the triviality of the incident.) This agrees with Gov. Romney's spokesperson's account given to reporters, that "Governor Romney simply misspoke...[when] referring to the recently released audiotape of Osama bin Laden...It was just a brief mix-up."

Recurrently posted, however, by anti-Romneyites among these firstresponders to the verbal disaster was a second interpretation: this must show that Gov. Romney cannot keep the concepts of 'Osama bin Laden' and 'Barack Obama' distinct, bespeaking a lack of intelligence so profound as to disqualify him from the presidency of the United States that he seeks. Tongue-in-cheek, dripping with sarcasm or no, many people among the commenters responded straightforwardly to this interpretation with a defense, pointing to the Governor's not single, but double degrees from Harvard-in law and in business administration-and to his previous successes in business and public service as countervailing evidence to inferences of any intelligence deficit.

So if he is not a phonetic doofus and he is not a conceptual moron, there remains a third, very angrily asserted interpretative response. …

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