Mitt Romney's campaign was thrown into sudden turmoil this week when a video of remarks he made at a Boca Raton donor bash became publicly available, occupying the media's attention and roiling the race. Of course, if Romney's in need of a sympathetic ear, he doesn't have to look any further than his current opponent, President Barack Obama -- whose 2008 candidacy hit a pothole when remarks he made at a donor party of his own, about small-town Midwesterners who get turned off of politics by "clinging" to their "guns and religion" hit the news.
This is the new normal, as far as presidential campaigns and the proliferation of cell phones-turned-recording devices go. But long before every iPhone owner became a potential journalist, candidates on the trail have been tripped up by hot mics, lingering cameras and unexpected footage finding its way into the public eye. Here are a few of our favorites:
WE BOMBED IN D.C.: Is it really true that anyone in the world took it seriously when Ronald Reagan, right before making a regularly scheduled radio address to the nation, said into what was -- unbeknownst to him -- a live mic, "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that would outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." He was even sort of laughing when he said it? Well, here's what the History Channel says about it:
Although the press throng and his aides in attendance laughed at the obvious joke, the comment unnerved Democratic opposition leaders and those already fearful of the hard-line posturing Reagan had displayed toward the USSR since assuming office in 1981. Others simply dismissed his remark, which came at a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia, as a moment of poor taste.
So take it from the History Channel, the network that brought you "Cajun Pawn Stars."
WATCH WHAT HAPPENS: During the 1992 debates, President George H.W. Bush got into a spot of bother when the wandering camera lens caught him checking his watch -- a moment that was immediately entered into the body of evidence labelled, "President Bush is out of touch." Fair enough! But have you ever watched these presidential debates? All you ever think is, "God, when does this END, already?" And that goes triple anytime Ross Perot is banging on and on about something. If anything, Bush was demonstrating a trait he has in common with ordinary people.
Anyway, as it turns out, the guy is just easily bored!
SPLITTING HAIRS: It's funny to think about how, not long ago, the country was on firm enough footing that John Edwards making a big deal fussing over his hair was something we held to be potentially disqualifying. But those were shallower times, starring much shallower people. There's a lot to be bothered today about in this, like the latent homophobia (Edwards was called "the Breck Girl" and the video of his hair-fussery, as you'll see, was cut against "I Feel Pretty") and the pure phoniness (Maureen Dowd dined out for years on the Edwards hair story, despite the fact that she's four times as ridiculous). Nevertheless, the release of this video was humiliating enough that Edwards had to release "a rebuttal video."
When you really think about it, the thing that sticks out here is that while every politician is precisely as vain as Edwards, the man's real problem was that he was a howling, amoral, philandering monster -- a fact we didn't learn until much later.
WELL, 'MAJOR LEAGUE' IS AT LEAST A COMPLIMENT: The year is 2000, and it's Labor Day in Naperville, Illinois, where George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are, for some reason, campaigning. The crowd is big and the mood is festive and neither man knows that they are standing at a live mic. So when Bush spots New York Times reporter Adam Clymer in the crowd, he figures he'll point him out to Cheney. "There’s Adam Clymer -- major league asshole from The New York Times."
"Yeah, big time," offered Cheney. Jake Tapper, writing for Salon, called the moment "an embarrassing gaffe," but as anyone whom Clymer has promised to pick up at the airport, only to not show up, will tell you, Bush wasn't far off the mark.
WAIT TO EXHALE: Did Al Gore's odd decision to spend the entire first debate with George W. Bush audibly sighing cost him the election? In all honestly, probably not. Because, you know, Florida! And all the stuff that followed after. You know, with the chads. Believe it or not, debate moderator Jim Lehrer would later confess to not having noticed the sighing. "I had a rule about watching the candidate who was talking, never the one who was listening," wrote Lehrer, in his book Tension City, "So despite being the physically closest person in the room ... I ended up missing the most important story of the debate. I didn't want any candidate to use eye contact with me to transmit his own reactions."
Whether or not Gore had any idea that his snark-infused escalations were being heard at home during the debate, his entire performance was captured by week's end by the cast of "Saturday Night Live" and their cold open parody of the debate was perhaps the first time a sketch comedy performance was dissected by a campaign seeking improvement.