A small insect grabs debate night viewers and its place in history

 A small insect grabs debate night viewers and its place in history

By midmorning Wednesday, a parody Twitter account in its name had amassed more than 100,000 followers — including, but not limited to, the former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, The New York Times’ erstwhile chief book critic, some political operatives and one “crazycookielady” of Turlock, California.

For one night and early morning, as this dark and doom-y election season slouches toward a fraught conclusion in the midst of a pandemic, they were united in their desire to read tweeted bug puns. The debate itself, discussion of which was quickly blotted out by news about the next one, was mostly memorable for its discussion of the coronavirus and Pence’s depiction of alternate and much more appealing history of the Trump administration’s response. That followed, in the run-up, a couple days of drama over the Pence camp’s reluctance to seat their candidate beside an ornamental, from a scientific perspective, plexiglass barrier.

This was not the first time the theater of politics was interrupted by the absurd. Nor was it a first that the bright light of a debate — theoretically if not practically designed to address the existential issues of the day — was overshadowed by something weird or uncanny. Usually, though, it is one of the candidates that sets the tiny fire that crackles on for longer — so much longer — than it should.

The now-famous real housefly of Salt Lake City, with its two-plus minutes of screen time, received two-plus more minutes of attention on the debate stage Wednesday than issues like immigration, which was not put up for debate, or the actuarial realities facing the two men atop the debaters’ tickets, which was the subject of a question that neither candidate answered. One Twitter account created after the moment, meant to be a parody from the fly’s point of view, sent out insights from “Bzz bzzz lol” to a more pointed analysis of Pence’s performance.

Meanwhile, the Biden campaign struck fast with the puns and began hawking a “Truth Over Flies” fly swatter for $10 on its website. But be warned, “Orders ship within 14 days” — or about 13, on the long end, from the time this episode zips out the window of collective cultural memory.

The modern era of debate night memes has typically carried some kind of underlying, metaphorical significance. In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, now the junior senator from Utah, bragged about the “binders full of women” he drew from while staffing up his gubernatorial office in Massachusetts. Romney later described the phrasing as “inelegant,” but defended his efforts to create a more diverse workplace.

The viral Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, one of which quickly amassed 300,000 followers, that sprung up in the aftermath of his remark have mostly been abandoned. Presently, @bindersofwomen is one of the few that tweets on, but only to a trifling 1,200 or so loyalists. (Or, more likely, about that number of zombie followers who haven’t culled their feeds in eight years.)

The binders were real, as it turned out, as the Boston Globe reported in 2017 — a little less than five years after their star turn. There were two of them, three rings on each, weighing in at 15 pounds and 6 ounces.

For his part, former President Barack Obama might consider himself lucky that the social media of 2020 was still mostly stardust back in 2008. In a debate with Hillary Clinton during that year’s salty primary campaign, Clinton was asked by a moderator what she would say to New Hampshire voters about her “likability issue.”

“Well, that hurts my feelings,” Clinton deadpanned. “But I’ll try to go on.”

After she described Obama as “very likable,” the future president interjected, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”

“I appreciate that,” she replied, smiling, somehow, through it all. The episode raised some eyebrows and made headlines, but didn’t trigger the kind of popular backlash it might have even a few years later.

Other debate night oddities, missteps and trivia have survived much longer.

The late former President George H.W. Bush’s decision to steal a glance at his wristwatch as a voter began to ask how “the national debt affected” his life was caught on camera in 1992 and framed as evidence of the incumbent’s disconnect with ordinary Americans.

And then there was Richard Nixon’s sweaty, waxen visage, which — as we’re quadrennially reminded — shaped public opinion around the 1960 campaign, and not in his favor. The juxtaposition with a tanned John F. Kennedy, poised to lead America into a New Frontier, was — in the popular telling — a defining moment in that year’s election.

Lesser political talents than Nixon, who lost out to Kennedy by a sliver before winning twice, in 1968 and 1972, have seen what might have been a minor digression or stumble take on a life of its own. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential bid never quite recovered from an inconvenient moment of forgetfulness on a Republican primary debate stage. In describing how he’d cut down on federal spending, Perry informed voters he would like to ax three big government agencies.

The Departments of Commerce and Education were two of them. The third, though, eluded him. “Oops,” he said, surrendering to memory lapse as his rivals looked on. It was the Department of Energy — the same agency Perry would go on to lead for more than two years as a member of the Trump administration’s first round of cabinet chiefs.

Not all self-generated signature debate moments are rejected or regretted by their authors. In 2012, after Obama fumbled his way through a first round with Romney, then-Vice President Joe Biden came out throwing against his opposite number, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. In a performance The Guardian described as “high-energy … part angry bar-room debater, part condescending elder uncle, part comic mime artist,” Biden dismissed a Ryan remark by declaring, “‘With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey.”

Malarkey, and his desire to see it gone, has been a theme of this Biden campaign.

In December 2019, the campaign launched an eight-day, “No Malarkey” bus tour through Iowa. And yes, there are buttons and magnets emblazoned with the expression on sale to pair with your fly swatter on the Biden 2020 website.

But the most enduring debate night utterance of recent times came from then-candidate Trump during one of his face-offs with Hillary Clinton around this time in 2016. And, appropriately, it was an interruption. As Clinton spoke about taxes and social security, and suggested Trump would try to avoid the former at the expense of the latter, Trump leaned down into his microphone and muttered, “Such a nasty woman.”

Clinton bulled on, but an enduring meme — one rife with T-shirts and other branded items — was born.

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