Sit Down

Hi, everyone. I wanted to share a story I wrote for this week’s Two-Minutes-Go. I didn’t intend to be political, but sometimes the characters have other ideas. I hope you’ll read the brilliant work being posted on JD Mader’s blog, and maybe one week, you’ll join us.

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Betty liked to make one full circle of the main floor and the gallery before she left for the night, plucking up any papers or loose items strewn about. There was no need; the cleaning crew was spit-spot like Mary Poppins, in before the break of dawn preparing for the day ahead, but it was a small courtesy she prided herself on and had for the last twenty-five years she’d been a fixture in this place. On her last sweep through the first floor she found three empty coffee cups, several newspapers, and pair of eyeglasses someone would be dearly missing in the morning. She slipped them into the pocket of her apron and paused before leaving, admiring the gleam of the brass and the polished wood lectern and the deep blue carpeting. It was so much more impressive in person than on the television. That’s what she usually told people who asked. But because of her work hours, she rarely got to see any of the senators in action. She’d heard about what happened yesterday—who hadn’t—and she’d shaken her head, imagining those important men and women, in their expensive suits, sitting on the floor! She knew the carpeting was clean; the steamers had been in just last weekend, but still. The second-shift men in the cafeteria didn’t see what good would come of it, and they argued among themselves, but they’d stood at the ready, always a new pot of coffee brewing. One of them bragged he himself had served a cup of coffee to a man who had marched in Selma, Alabama, way long ago. That man. That man was sitting on the floor not ten feet from where she was standing. She slipped a glance right, then left, then walked over to that spot. One hand on a chair’s armrest, she lowered herself to the pile. It was sturdy, but soft, and she dug her fingers into it and listened carefully. She could almost feel them then, could almost hear their words still echoing around the room. She inhaled and exhaled in time with their chanting back and forth, their calls for justice to be done. She sat for a long while, imagining faces, speeches, and what, if anything, would come of it. And then she jumped at the sound of a thin, uncertain voice calling her name.

“Miss Betty?” it said again.

She turned. She knew that young man. He worked for one of the senators, she couldn’t remember which, and he reminded her of her son when he was that age, and she could not help but stare, even as embarrassment heated her face for being caught.

“You all right?” he said.

He stepped forward to help her from the carpet, but she waved him off. “I’m fine,” she said.

It came out sort of snippy, and he smiled and said softly, “Well, all right then.”

“Is there something I can help you with?”

“Yes. The senator. He left his reading glasses here, he thinks…”

She fished them from her pocket. Turned them around in her fingers before extending her arm toward him. “These them?”

“Yes, ma’am, thank you.”

He held the frames a moment, but made no move to leave. Like he wanted to talk about something.

“You were here,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am.” He pointed up toward the gallery. “It was pretty wild.”

She patted the carpet beside her. “Tell me.”

He looked confused, and hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Miss Betty, ma’am, you can watch it on the computer in the break room. I can show you how it works, if you like.”

“No,” she said. “If you don’t mind humoring an old woman, I’d prefer if you sit right here where they sat and tell me how it started.”

The young man nodded. He smiled shyly, as if he’d been waiting to be asked, and despite the possibility of dirtying his nice suit, he folded his long legs beneath him, closed his eyes, and then began to speak.

A Brief Bit of Career Advice For Anthony Weiner

Boy, working in Congress these days is hard! The hours can be long, it’s got a high turnover rate and you have to read lots of stuff (well, at least hire people to read stuff for you), but it’s got a totally rad gym where you can take partially-naked pictures of yourself to send to strangers. Now another of its brethren finds itself caught red-handed then pink-slipped. And unfortunately, the only jobs Weiner has ever had were in politics. Unless he wants to take up Larry Flynt on his offer or nab that gig with Entourage, he may need some career coaching. Until he can worm his way back into his constituent’s and Nancy Pelosi’s hearts, perhaps he might want to take one of these interim positions uniquely suited to his particular skills:

1. Underwear model. At least we know he wears some.
2. Photographer’s assistant. He’s already an amateur set dresser.
3. Social media consultant. Many a Police Department has called upon the consulting services of an ex-con to help catch bad guys. Weiner could tour colleges, professional sports teams, and other government entities, scaring them straight with his tales of social media gone awry.
4. United Nations Ambassador to France. Because over there they seem to care less about the manner in which you conduct your private parts.
5. Cast member of Hair. Already accustomed to public nudity.
6. Fitness coach. Hey, Richard Simmons isn’t getting any younger.

Have any other suggestions for our newest member of the “I’ve Been Debriefed By Congress” Club?

One Man’s Freedom Fighter Is Another Man’s Antisecrecy Group

Listen to the news sometime. I mean, really listen, beyond the sound bytes, hairstyles, and the cringe-worthy way some of them pronounce “often” and “inundated.” Or that one American network that thinks we’re so stupid, a world map graphic is now used to show where each news story is occurring, even those in large US cities. Try to catch the way anchors, correspondents, and political officials pronounce the names of countries. Take note of the adjectives used to describe potentially inflammatory individuals, situations, or groups. It’s really fascinating. Can you imagine the groupthink that went into those decisions? I see a bunch of suits in a room, bandying about various phrases, cringing in anticipation of the angry letters they might get if certain terms are used. It’s lead to some interesting tweaks of the English lexicon.

For instance, my Journalism 101 professor, who looked exactly like J. Jonah Jameson, said the word “try” is a big tip-off to media bias. As in, “The president tried to rally foreign leaders to get behind his peace agreement.” Meaning, “Our editorial slant is that we disapprove of the president and hope his flawed, imprudent agreement fails.”

But that’s old news. With a 24-hour news cycle, who has time for subtlety?

How newscasters and politicians pronounce the names of Latin American and Middle Eastern countries is also a clue. The late Peter Jennings, Canadian by birth, suddenly became Latino when he had to say “Nicaragua” or “Ecuador.” It’s silly, really, a politically correct nod to our neighbors to the south, whom I’m sure are lovely people, but probably wouldn’t mind if we pronounced their countries’ names with our American accents. Do you hear that on the BBC? I don’t think so. Listen now, as President Obama pronounces “Pakistan.” PAH-ki-stahn. Are you guessing that news outlets rooting for his failure probably doesn’t pronounce it that way?

Certain terms are also buzzwords pointing to editorial slant. Remember Ronald Reagan? (Google it, kids.) Remember his dealings with the Nicaraguan Contras? This band of fighters resisted the Sandinista government that took control after dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle was overthrown in 1979. Taking a cue from the French Resistance in World War II, the contras were called “freedom fighters” by the CIA and the Reagan administration. The contras themselves preferred to be known as “commandos.” And I’m pretty sure the Sandinistas (and those on the American left who supported them) didn’t call the Contras “freedom fighters.” Probably more along the lines of “rebel scum.”

The US media had a little tussle with itself after 9/11, about the use of “terrorist,” an emotionally charged word that was often applied indiscriminately to refer to people who weren’t “actual” terrorists. This led to terms like “enemy combatant,” which the Obama Administration dissed in 2009.

And now, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange has journalists scratching their heads again. Some outlets debated the use of “whistleblower,” and if Assange is truly thus. The New York Times now calls WikiLeaks an “antisecrecy group.” Sarah Palin, Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden call him a terrorist. So now, one man’s terrorist is another man’s antisecrecy advocate. Just doesn’t roll off the tongue.

What euphemisms have you heard rolling off the tongues of those on the news? How do you think we should pronounce Pakistan? Join the discussion!

Best Political Gaffes of 2010

Vice-President Joe Biden turned his untimely f-bomb into a fundraising opportunity.

I am fortunate to be in a profession in which errors don’t normally result in the loss of human life. Typos and grammatical mistakes may cause a little embarrassment, and could, if printed, cost the client some money and a smidgen of credibility; at worst, a missed marketing opportunity, but no one is dying on the table. No one bleeds out from a misplaced comma. (A colon, maybe.) No one will perish in a plane crash because my subject and verb do not agree.

These are extreme examples, I realize, but mistakes in other professions can also have lasting repercussions. Ask Mark McGwire. Or BP.

If you’re a politician, however, beware the open mike or the flippant tweet, because the media, and your opposition, have long memories. Whether Sarah Palin meant to write “refudiate” in her now-famous Twitter post or simply chose the wrong word, the results are now engraved in pop culture history: “refudiate” made the top three in several “best words of 2010” lists.

Here are more of my favorite political gaffes of 2010:

1. “I am not a witch.” Copping a famous line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Christine O’Donnell, in a scripted, intentional, but misguided political ad, tried to assure potential voters in Delaware she no longer “dabbled in witchcraft” and would not turn them into newts. Instead, Delaware turned her into an unemployed marketing consultant.

2. “Our North Korean allies…” Oops. Sarah Palin, probably tired from counting the advance she made on her second book deal, misspoke and made the Huffington Post orgasmic for a while at her seeming lack of current events and geographical knowledge. I think they were too hard on her, since she obviously meant to say, “our Al-Qaeda allies.”

3. “This is a big f***ing deal.” Joe Biden is always good for a laugh. This expletive, about the passage of the healthcare reform bill, came when he leaned into President Obama’s ear near a microphone he didn’t know was open. This slip of the lip has legs, though. And a limited edition, fund-raising t-shirt, courtesy of the same brilliant organization behind Obama’s presidential campaign.

4. Carl Paladino. Take your pick from any of his greatest (baseball bat) hits. Every time he opened his mouth it was anybody’s guess what would come out.

5. “Some of you look a little more Asian to me.” Sharron Angle, responding to a group of Latino students about one in her series of racially offensive ads, tried to prove her color-blindness, and failed miserably. And lost the race to another of our favorite gaffe-makers, Harry Reid.

6. What’s with Barbara Boxer’s hair? Has the Feminist Movement taught us nothing? Carly Fiorina, while waiting to be interviewed during her race against incumbent senator Barbara Boxer, “forgot” her mike was on and said, “Saw Barbara Boxer briefly on television this morning and said what everyone says, God what is that hair?” Dear, oh, dear. Haven’t we learned our lessons from folks who’ve dumped on Hilary’s pantsuits? And why do women do this to each other? You’d think as a CEO Fiorina would be a tad more savvy.

7. “This is Reagan country, and perhaps it was destiny that the man who went to California’s Eureka College would become so woven within and interlinked to the Golden State.” So sayeth Sarah Palin. Except Eureka’s in Illinois, and Reagan didn’t move to California until five years after he graduated. Oops.

8. “The Hottest Member.” During a fundraiser hosted by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Senator Harry Reid referred to New York’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, as “our hottest member.” She was sitting only a few feet away at the time. One of Reid’s spokes-bots later clarified, “What can I say, she made The Hill’s ‘Most Beautiful’ list. Of course he also went on to praise her skill and tenacity and described her as an effective member of the New York delegation as well.” Of course.

9. Don’t mess with Red Sox Nation. Remember Martha Coakley? She ran against Scott Brown for Ted Kennedy’s seat? She dissed former Sox pitching phenom Curt Schilling by calling him a Yankees fan and the home crowd by sneering at the horrific idea that she should have human contact with the electorate, “..standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?” Nah, we don’t remember her either.

Anyone I’ve forgotten? What were your favorite hot mike and brain freeze moments from the past year?