When Politicians Think The Microphone Is Off, They Start Getting Real

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Most politicians are tightly scripted. A news reporter asks a question, and the politician has a preformulated response. If the question is: “Will you run for President in 2020?” the candidate responds in the present tense: “I am not running for President. I love the job I am doing.” If asked about a past impropriety, the politician responds: “We have answered all the question on that. We are moving forward. I am continuing to work for a growing economy, a better healthcare system, and an education system where all students can reach their true potential.” If asked about a potential challenger, the candidate opines: “Well, I look forward to a spirited campaign, where I can continue to discuss my work to help my constituents succeed.”

When politicians believe the microphone is off, they stop being polite and start getting real. Most are far less scripted when the cameras and microphones are off. Once in a blue moon their constituents get to see what is under the veneer, how they really feel. This dynamic occurred recently when a conversation between U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) and Jack Reed (D-RI) was overheard on a hot microphone.

Following a hearing of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies, Chairwoman Collins forgot to turn her microphone off. Accordingly, America got to hear what she really thinks during a conversation with Reed, the committee’s ranking member. During the conversation, Collins said to Reed: “I swear, [the Office of Management and Budget] just went through and whenever there was 'grant,' they just X it out. Collins continued: "With no measurement, no thinking about it, no metrics, no nothing. It's just incredibly irresponsible." Reed responded, referring to President Donald Trump: “I think he’s crazy, I mean, I don’t say that lightly, and as kind of a goofy guy. “

Later in the conversation, referring to a statement by U.S. Representative Blake Farenthold (R-TX) where he said if Collins were not a female he would challenge her to a duel, Collins said to Reed: “Well, he's huge and he — I don't mean to be unkind, but he's so unattractive it's unbelievable.”

American political history is littered with examples where politicians informally stated what they really think, or made private jokes without realizing their proximity to a live microphone.

One frank conversation that could have set off a world crises occurred in 1984. Immediately before delivering a weekly radio address, President Ronald Reagan joked: “My fellow Americans. I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” He later found out his microphone was on and that his statement was broadcast worldwide.

In 1991, U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey (D-NE) told a dirty joke to his fellow Democratic Presidential aspirant Bill Clinton while both men waited to address a roast for U.S. Representative Dick Swett (D-NH). A C-SPAN microphone picked up the joke about fellow Presidential candidate Jerry Brown and two lesbians. Kerrey joked that Brown (who was single at the time) went into a bar and expressed interest in one of two women sitting at the bar. The bartender told Brown both women are lesbians. Brown asked the bartender how he knew. The bartender proceeded to illustrate a graphic sex act he witnessed between the two women. The punch line had Brown saying he would like to perform the same act on the woman and asking: "Does that make me a lesbian?"

Kerrey apologized for the remark by exclaiming that the comment “was encouraged by the spirit of the event. There were a lot of locker-room jokes going around . . . including some about me--'one-legged' jokes" (Kerrey lost a leg in Vietnam).

Later during that campaign cycle, it was Clinton who had to employ damage control. A news reporter asked him what he thought about the report that the Reverend Jesse Jackson had endorsed U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) over Clinton. The report was later proved inaccurate. Jackson had not endorsed any Presidential candidate. Believing the camera was not on, an incensed Clinton responded: “It’s an outrage, a dirty, double-crossing, back-stabbing thing to do. For him to do this, for me to hear this on a television program, is an act of absolute dishonor.”

Clinton’s answer took news headlines away from Clinton’s message, as the news media focused like a laser beam for the next few days on Clinton’s statement. Jackson replied: “I am disturbed by the tone of the blast at my integrity, my character. I feel blind-sided by what I saw and heard him say.”

In 1994, U.S. Representative Martin R. Hoke (R-OH) was about to be interviewed jointly with U.S. Representative Eric Fingerhut (D-OH) after President Bill Clinton’s 1994 State of the Union Address. A female television producer asked Hoke to unbutton his jacket. Hoke responded: “You can ask me to do anything you want.” Hoke then said to Fingerhut: “She's got ze beega breasts.” The incident was taped, though not broadcast live. The tape was soon played on Cleveland television stations, prompting Hoke to publicly apologize and declare: “I need a 2-by-4 to the head.”

In 1997, then Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was caught on a live microphone telling a counterpart at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Expansion Summit: "All this for short-term political reasons, to win elections. In fact [U.S. politicians] are selling their votes, they are selling their votes…. It's incredible. In your country or mine, all the politicians would be in prison.”

At a campaign rally in Naperville, Illinois in 2000, where the Republican nominees for President and Vice President, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, were on the podium waving to the assembled crowd and getting ready to speak, Cheney noticed Adam Clymer of The New York Times with other members of the press. Cheney said to Bush: “There’s Adam Clymer, Major League Asshole from The New York Times.” Bush responded: “Oh yeah, he is big time.” The microphone picked up the conversation, and it became front-page news. The reason Bush and Cheney had such a negative view of Clymer is that he wrote an article concluding that Cheney donated just 1% of the money he had earned in the energy industry to charity.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 hijackings, Acting Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift delivered an address to the Commonwealth, announcing that State Police Superintendent John DiFava would replace Joe Lawless as Airport Security Chief. With the microphone still on, Swift stated: “They Work for me and they know I’m in a firing mood. Just kidding. I hope my mic wasn’t on.”

In 2010, U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina was caught on an open microphone lampooning her opponent, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer. Talking with campaign aides, Fiorina mentioned that a friend of hers had seen Boxer on television “And she said what everyone says. ‘God, what is that hair? So yesterday.’”

Senators Collins and Reed are the most recent in a long litany of politicians who have been caught speaking their true feelings. One would think that politicians would use abundant judiciousness when entering a room where there could be a microphone. In fact, it would be wise to assume that live microphones are everywhere. Serious consequences may result when politicians are caught off guard and speak “candidly” as opposed to “politically.”