The YouTube Election

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The YouTube Election Gaffes live forever in a Web storehouse of video clips, which also eliminates the media middleman for many voters

by Steven Greenhut by Steven Greenhut

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After speaking to a group of veterans in South Carolina last April as part of his "Straight Talk Express," Sen. John McCain was asked by an audience member when the United States would send an "airmail message to Tehran." The senator stopped for a moment, then reminded the audience of "an old Beach Boys song, ‘Bomb Iran.’" Bomb, bomb, bomb … bomb, bomb Iran. He sang those words to the tune of "Barbara Ann."

No doubt, McCain, the eventual 2008 Republican presidential nominee, was just trying to be funny (albeit in a stupid way for a man who hopes to one day have his finger on the nuclear trigger) after being asked a provocative question, but long gone are the days when a misstatement or joke will fade into oblivion. The video cameras were rolling, the liberal group MoveOn.org began running ads using the clip, and anyone with a computer can still watch the senator sing that silly song by going to YouTube.com and typing in "McCain" and "Bomb Iran."

This is, indeed, the first YouTube election, in which the voting public need not wait for the newspaper, TV news shows or even the traditional Web sites for information about the candidates. There’s no need to read what a politician said during a campaign stop. There’s no need to rush home from work to watch the network news coverage, or to catch the latest debate or sit through those annoying talking-head cable shows, where guests hector each other.

One need only go to YouTube to watch the highlights or even replay entire broadcasts. The whole campaign is at your fingertips, and the implications are astounding.

Because anything a candidate says at any time will be around forever online, candidates must choose a way to adapt. McCain good-naturedly brushed off his behavior as a joke, which was the right thing to do. The problem for him is that the episode reinforces one of his weaknesses: the perception that he is a warmonger with a short fuse. As the general election heats up, and his foes put together effective ads that compile some of his loose-tongued statements, the senator might not be able to shrug this off so easily. This is the first election where every campaign will have so much readily available video ammunition, that it’s far from clear how it will shape the race.

Even better than the "Bomb Iran" clip on YouTube is one you’ll find on the site under the heading, "John McCain is Dr. Strangelove." You’ll find a simple but cleverly done short video that juxtaposes clips from the 1964 black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb with clips of Sen. McCain at a Florida rally. There’s a clip of a dour McCain saying, "There will be other wars. And right now we’re going to have a lot of PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] to treat, my friends." It’s immediately followed by George C. Scott’s Gen. Buck Turgidson saying, "Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed." Back to McCain: "We’re going to have a lot of combat wounds that have to do with these terrible explosive IEDs." Then back to Scott: "No more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops!"

It’s a hilariously funny ad that in about a minute confirms one’s sense that a President McCain might blow up the world. As the Slim Pickens’ bomber-pilot character rides a bomb down to its Russian target, screaming "Yee haw," the video cuts to McCain saying that the Iraq war was a good idea and that America might have troops there for "maybe 100 years."

In the new world of YouTube elections, any mischief-maker with a cheap software program and some clever ideas can produce something like this. I don’t know how many people have seen this particular ad, but in the Internet world of linking and e-mailing, these ads could make some difference, especially if a popular site such as the Drudge Report picks it up. Certainly, video clips of Bill Clinton acting petulantly toward reporters after the South Carolina primary changed the course of Hillary’s campaign.

In the YouTube world, there’s no way a candidate can get away with saying one thing in Ohio and the opposite thing in Mississippi without facing a barrage of clips highlighting the flip-flopping. I remember the devastating video depicting Mitt Romney as a flip-flopper — an image he could never evade. No longer can a candidate run an ad that caters to a special-interest group without expecting that ad to find its way into the mainstream. During his campaign in the Iowa Republican caucuses, former Baptist minister Mike Huckabee ran a "nonpolitical" ad celebrating the birth of Christ and featuring what appeared to be a cross floating in the background. The ad appealed strongly to Iowa’s Christian conservatives, but hurt Huckabee’s ability to reach beyond the religious right as news shows and commentators examined it.

Every little faux pas can turn into a big problem. Type in "Hillary" and "cackling" in the YouTube.com search box, and you’ll find scores of videos — some raw, some edited — of Hillary Clinton’s bizarre, Tourette’s-like habit of cackling wildly at questions that aren’t designed to evoke laughter. No big deal. We all have our weird tics, but this one plays on Hillary’s weakness: the sense that she isn’t really human. One Fox News segment available on YouTube combines a variety of cackling episodes and then inserts a robotic female voice saying, "Humorous remark detected. Prepare for laughter display at 2, 1, go." At "go," Hillary lets loose with a loud cackle.

From a journalist’s standpoint, the greatest benefit of this new world is that I can see the actual video for proper context if I missed it the first time around. I had read about an exchange in the Hillary-Obama Ohio debate in which she ridiculed the media for going easy on Sen. Obama. NBC’s Brian Williams asks Sen. Clinton a detailed question about the North American Free Trade Agreement and its impact on jobs, and she responds: "Could I just point out in the last several debates I seem to get the first question all the time. I don’t mind. I’ll be happy to field them, but I do find it curious, and if anybody saw ‘Saturday Night Live,’ you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he is comfortable and needs another pillow."

You could hear grumbling in the audience and see Sen. Obama look at her in a bemused way. It was priceless — a scene that could never come across in a newspaper article. You had to see it. Actually, you can see it, by going to YouTube.com and typing in "Hillary" and "Pillow."

Readers used to have to wait for the morning newspaper, then the radio or the TV for their latest news. They got only what the editors chose to provide. The Internet opened up a wild world. There’s not only news available from every conceivable source, but original studies and reports, the kind of things that in the past were available only to journalists. TV news has been around for ages, but it’s never been this accessible, and now every person is a potential cameraman, who can capture a campaign-destroying sentence with a $200 camera. We’ll see what it means in the long run, but in the short term, political candidates need to be careful what they say.

Steven Greenhut (send him mail) is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register. He is the author of the book, Abuse of Power. Visit his blog.

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