As someone who spent most of my adult life being a staffer for politicians in one capacity or another, I’m sympathetic to the breed, particularly those who labor in anonymity lest they interfere with the glory due to “the boss,” a.k.a. the Sun King, around which everyone must revolve. I know a lot of staffers shudder at many of the words that emerge from the mouth of “the boss”—even speechwriters, who must craft inanities dictated by others.
But when you get to be a flack or a mouthpiece for an elected official or a candidate, it’s a slightly different deal. Sure, you don’t get to decide most of the time what line you are peddling, but when you are out there speaking for “the boss” or trashing his or her rivals or enemies, you do put your own credibility in play. So that’s why I don’t have a lot of sympathy for Romney’s press secretary Andrea Saul, who’s getting grief for having said a lot of nasty things about Marco Rubio when she was the mouthpiece for Charlie Crist during the 2010 Senate primary in Florida. She bashed him as a wheeling-dealing “Miami lobbyiest,” hinted constantly he was corrupt, and went after him for refusing to instantly release his tax returns—ahem!—a failure she called an example of “the Rubio hustle.” Whether or not Saul winds up working cheek-by-jowl with the Miami hustler on behalf of a Romney-Rubio ticket, this stuff is pretty embarrassing.
Or is it? Saul’s not running for office, after all, and suggesting your opponent is a lying, cheating sack of manure is par for the course these days, so shouldn’t we cut her a lot of slack?
Nah, I don’t think so. It’s not that big a deal, but Saul’s discomfort, such as it is, might make other flacks (and for that matter, consultants and “strategists”) a little less blithe about mudslinging if they know they’ll be held personally accountable. One of the things that bothered me regularly when I was in Washington was how many people treated political conflict as just a cynical game that us “pros” couldn’t really take seriously, bonded as we were as fellow practitioners of the dark arts of bamboozlement. On one occasion I appeared on CSPAN opposite Grover Norquist, immediately after penning an article that left the impression that he might well be the Anti-Christ, on earth at last right there in the Beltway. I meant every word, but what made me even more uncomfortable than the smell of brimstone in the studio was Grover’s light collegial chatter during the breaks in the show, and his obvious pleasure that I had written something that treated him as infernally important. But then I remembered that Norquist eternally talked of America’s contending parties and ideological tendencies as “teams,” and realized maybe it was just a cynical game for him, no more freighted with personal investment than sports allegiances.
Since politics has the unfortunate tendency to affect real life for people who aren’t in on “the game,” it seems reasonable to hold the “players” at least minimally responsible for saying what they mean and meaning what they say—even in the heat of “the game.” And if Andrea Saul wants us to forget every word that came out of her mouth when she was playing for a different “team,” maybe we shouldn’t pay attention to those words in the first place.
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