There are NO Truly Private Meetings
Politicians must be careful what they say - even in a "private meeting," you never really know who is listening, or recording, and who might have an agenda that would cause an off-the-cuff comment to be leaked, to the detriment of the speaker.
I was reminded of this the other day, when I saw a very impressive candidate for office giving a talk to a Republican's Men's Club. This was a reasonably conservative audience, a presumably "safe" audience. The candidate is a popular black conservative and life-long Republican - and I mention his race only because it's part of my cautionary tale here - but I'm not going to mention his name, as that's not relevant to the story.
In his warm-up, and reflecting on the shots that a black Republican has to take from the liberal media which sees blacks as being required to toe the party line. He admitted that, while he didn't support the President's policies, he'd been initially glad to see Obama elected because of the symbolism of having a black president. Then, joking, he said,"or at least a beige President ... I can say that," he concluded, indicating that, as a black man, he was free from charges of racism for making light of the President's mixed-race heritage.
The joke got polite, if somewhat shocked, laughter, and there it should rest. Unless, of course, there was a liberal in the room intent on leaking this, or - worse - a reporter. Time will tell.
However the media relations and campaign strategist in me shuddered, and I predicted to the group member sitting next to me this off-the-cuff joke could wind up being the next day's headlines - the press being eager to take down a conservative black man, ignoring his very interesting positions on critical issues for the chance to blow something out of proportion.
Couldn't happen? Tell that to President Obama, who made his ill-famed "clinging to their guns and their bibles" comment to a private audience of supporters who'd paid big bucks to hear him. Yet one of those contributors - or a wait-staff member, or someone else - recorded that comment and leaked it, and it still comes back to haunt him.
Couldn't happen? Tell that to Howard Dean, whose "screech heard round the world" cost him his candidacy, even though - in the context of rallying campaign workers and volunteers after an early but not necessarily fatal defeat in Iowa - the screech, and the whole brief pep-rally, was both reasonable and appropriate. But in the hands of conservative opponents and late-night talk show hosts, it quickly made Dr. Dean a laughing-stock, and a "former candidate." His only sin was performing in front of a camera that he knew was there, but ignored in favor of boosting morale.
Candidates must assume the following:
1. Operatives from opposing candidates (even some in their own party, if a primary is on the horizon) will be in the room, recording and looking for a faux-pau they can blow out of proportion.
2. The media will be there - if only in the form of a stringer with no media credentials - and they'll be looking for the ideal clip or sound bite for the Six O'Clock news.
To do otherwise is to court disaster. While now-President Obama could survive his leaked comment, Howard Dean could not. Frankly, the Deans of the world are more common than the survivors.
Things to look out for:
a. Criticism of opponents or supporters of issues that could be construed as racist, sexist or offensive in some way - especially by "professional victims" who are always looking for the next Conservative they can take down
b. Jokes - these can almost always be taken out of context
c. "Insider" comments that make sense to the party faithful, but not to others, especially those who are eager to misconstrue what you've said
d. Any words-in-a-row that can be taken out of context
e. Uncomfortable truths
This latter includes Romney's ill-famed "47%" comment. It is arguably true, but look what the media and the President did to twist that around.
While this is the subject for another blog, don't give in to those "gotcha" folks who keep score by demanding (and getting) apologies. Those politicians who stand up to such pressure groups - the current governors of Wisconsin, New Jersey and especially Maine are great examples of this - usually ride it out. Those who cave in and apologize where no apology is necessary - think Ross Perot after his perfectly candid NAACP speech - often become marginalized, especially if they have a reputation as an outsider.
But better to avoid the problem than to have to deal with the leak, the explanation or the apology.