A Fawlty slip of the tongue
Republican strategists need to stop reading their stage directions

Mitt Romney

  • Title:

    The Tyranny of Clichés
  • Hardcover Price:

    27.95
  • Hardcover ISBN:

    9781595230867
  • Buy the Book

Article Highlights

  • Ferhnstrom's #EtchASketch comment continues to reveal #Romney's Achilles's heel

    Tweet This

  • Ferhnstrom's supposed to be the guy with the hose putting out fires, not the guy throwing gas on them @JonahNRO

    Tweet This

  • Republican strategists need to stop reading their stage directions @JonahNRO #Romney

    Tweet This

There’s a great old Fawlty Towers scene (if you’re unfamiliar with the 1970s British sitcom, hie thyself to YouTube!) in which Basil Fawlty (John Cleese), an innkeeper, welcomes some German patrons. He gives explicit orders to everyone: “Don’t mention the war!” He then proceeds to mention the uncomfortable subject of World War II over and over again.

In one scene, after blurting out references to the war a dozen times while seating the Germans at the restaurant, he says to his wife, “Listen, don’t mention the war! I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it all right.” He then returns to the Germans’ table to review their lunch order: “So! It’s all forgotten now, and let’s hear no more about it. So, that’s two egg mayonnaise, a prawn Goebbels, a Hermann Goering, and four Colditz salads.”

When one of the patrons begs him to stop talking about the war, Cleese responds, “Me? You started it!”

The German retorts, “We did not start it!” Cleese answers, “Yes you did! You invaded Poland.”

The scene came to mind Wednesday when I saw an instantly infamous clip of Eric Fehrnstrom, Mitt Romney’s communications director, comparing his candidate to a children’s toy.

Asked by a CNN anchor if the primaries had forced Romney to tack “so far to the right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election,” Ferhnstrom responded, “Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”

Of course, the gaffe was overhyped by the media and by Romney’s GOP rivals. And, yes, there’s a perfectly plausible defense of Fehrnstrom’s statement. Every presidential contest restarts once the nominee has been picked and the general election commences.

But Ferhnstrom should know that he shouldn’t say anything — and I mean anything — that reinforces the idea that Romney is a flip-flopper, a people-pleaser, a weather vane or, now, an Etch A Sketch. It’s less than a novel insight to note that Romney’s greatest vulnerability is that he seems insincere and that it appears his commitment to conservatism is entirely tactical. Ferhnstrom should know this. He’s the communications director, for Pete’s sake. He’s supposed to be the guy with the hose putting out fires, not the guy throwing gas on them.

The Etch A Sketch gaffe would be akin to Newt Gingrich’s communications director saying, “Who knows what Newt will actually do as president. If you haven’t noticed, he’s sort of crazy.” It would be like Rick Santorum’s spokesman saying, “Well, Rick’s just talking this limited-government stuff until he gets elected. Once he’s sworn in, he’s going to take care of the gays, Day One.” It’s like White House Press Secretary Jay Carney saying, “Well, of course in his second term President Obama won’t feel the need to hide his real socialist agenda — or his relationship with Bill Ayers.”

"Of course Romney — or any nominee — will pivot to the center in a general election. Obama’s been running for president as a fake centrist for almost two years now." -- Jonah Goldberg

Every candidate has a weak spot, an inconvenient storyline he doesn’t want magnified. Fehrnstrom’s remark was simply malpractice, and while it would probably be unfair to judge the man by one misstatement, Romney would have been wise to fire him, or at least take him to the woodshed.

Barring that, he could have tried to make a joke about it.

As NBC’s Chuck Todd suggested, he should have brought out a Magic 8-Ball and made light of the situation. Maybe he could have asked the toy, “Should I fire Eric?” Or he could bring out a Pet Rock and talk about how President Obama is about as useful in getting the economy going.

Every few years I write a column on one of my biggest peeves about GOP strategists and politicians: They read their stage direction, usually in an effort to suck up to political reporters. Some elder-statesman hack wonders aloud, usually anonymously, about whether the campaign will “go negative.” Here’s a tip: If you’re going to go negative, go negative. Don’t announce it.

Give the Democrats their due: They fake their outrage with more sincerity. Chuck Schumer never prefaces a comment with, “I’m now about to make an entirely indefensible claim in order to trick the media into looking over there.”

Of course Romney — or any nominee — will pivot to the center in a general election. Obama’s been running for president as a fake centrist for almost two years now. He just doesn’t admit it.

Jonah Goldberg is a visiting fellow at the AEI, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and the author of the forthcoming book "The Tyranny of Clichés."

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Jonah
Goldberg

  •  


    A bestselling author and columnist, Jonah Goldberg's nationally syndicated column appears regularly in scores of newspapers across the United States. He is also a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a member of the board of contributors to USA Today, a contributor to Fox News, a contributing editor to National Review, and the founding editor of National Review Online. He was named by the Atlantic magazine as one of the top 50 political commentators in America. In 2011 he was named the Robert J. Novak Journalist of the Year at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). He has written on politics, media, and culture for a wide variety of publications and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs. Prior to joining National Review, he was a founding producer for Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg on PBS and wrote and produced several other PBS documentaries. He is the recipient of the prestigious Lowell Thomas Award. He is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, The Tyranny of Clichés (Sentinel HC, 2012) and Liberal Fascism (Doubleday, 2008).  At AEI, Mr. Goldberg writes about political and cultural issues for American.com and the Enterprise Blog.

    Follow Jonah Goldberg on Twitter.


  • Phone: 202-862-7165
    Email: jonah.goldberg@aei.org

What's new on AEI

image Recovering from tax time blues
image 10 welfare reform lessons
image Let HHS nominee Sylvia Burwell explain Obamacare lie
image Why bold ideas backfire in politics
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 14
    MON
  • 15
    TUE
  • 16
    WED
  • 17
    THU
  • 18
    FRI
Wednesday, April 16, 2014 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Calling treason by its name: A conversation with Liam Fox

Join us at AEI as the Right Honorable Liam Fox sits down with Marc Thiessen to discuss and debate whether America’s intelligence agencies have infringed on the personal privacy of US citizens.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, April 17, 2014 | 4:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
The curmudgeon's guide to getting ahead

How can young people succeed in workplaces dominated by curmudgeons who are judging their every move? At this AEI book event, bestselling author and social scientist Charles Murray will offer indispensable advice for navigating the workplace, getting ahead, and living a fulfilling life.

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.