The Oops Diaries: Crisis Mode Over a Mannequin

“'We work in the dumbest industry in America,' Carrie said. She sent out a Tweet stating the obvious: Perry is so gaffe-prone that nobody can believe he wasn’t talking to a mannequin. It said, 'Lessons from last hour: 1) Perry gaffe meme so entrenched that most journos’ benefit of doubt is out the window & 2) Guys, really?'"

— Excerpted from Oops! A Diary from the 2012 Campaign Trail

From Chapter 12 — "Death March"

Friday, January 13, 2012

BLUFFTON, South Carolina — Rule No. 1 of any press advance team: Make the crowd look big.

 

Advance men (I would say “and women,” but it’s a male-dominated field) show up in advance of a political event. They scope out venues to make sure there’s not some awful smell emanating from the backyard or a Confederate flag flying overhead, and they set up the press accommodations, the podium, microphone, audio splitters and the like.

They stage-manage things when the candidate gets there. They’re basically there to ensure that conditions are ideal for the candidate to project a happy picture for the TV viewing audience. Such as two days ago in downtown Aiken, when Luke Bullock watched his advance handiwork come to fruition. He had envisioned Perry getting photographed holding a gun on our visit to True Value Hardware. The store manager extended a 30-30 rifle toward Perry, as set up beforehand, but at first the governor didn’t seem interested. “Pick it up…pick it up,” Bullock muttered under his breath. Finally Perry grabbed it and the cameras started snapping, prompting Luke to let loose with a little self-congratulatory “Yes!”

The problem at this point in the campaign is that to make Perry’s events look large and overflowing, they must resort to smaller and smaller venues. I think the Squat and Gobble in Bluffton, site of event No. 2 today, wins the award for tiniest venue. I can’t begin to describe how awful it was inside that restaurant.

Advance man Ryan Vise told me I would have to get out of the aisle, if you could call it that. Right inside the door, at the back wall of the rectangular room, all the TV cameras had set up. Inside there were tables everywhere, and I found a spot on the floor right next to where Perry would speak, about the only available space. I put my bag under a table near the entrance and hoped for the best. I kept listening for something different, a gaffe, anything, but afterward I decided not to file because I had heard it all before.

Or so I thought.

About an hour or so after leaving Bluffton en route to Charleston, NBC’s Carrie Dann asked out loud in the van if anybody had seen Perry talking to a mannequin at the Squat and Gobble. Apparently Twitter was lit up with it, after the L.A. Times reported that he had. I remembered that there had been a mannequin, her hand aloft in a perpetual wave, standing in the crowded entrance. But during the event I had sat down on the floor in my own little hell, so if Perry had talked to her, I hadn’t noticed.

Pretty soon all the embeds’ editors started calling and emailing to ask about video, so ABC reporter Arlette Saenz dug it up on the tape. It had happened at the start of the Q&A. Perry pointed to the mannequin and said he thought maybe she had a question since her hand was up. He said it would probably the be the “best question I’ll get”— and everyone laughed. Clearly a joke.

This was perhaps the best example in a long while of the inane outbursts on Twitter or Facebook or somewhere in cyberspace that we all have to deal with. After it happened there was a collective pushback going on inside the van, with the embeds telling their somewhat disbelieving editors that the whole thing was a joke. Everybody was getting all torqued up.

“We work in the dumbest industry in America,” Carrie said. She sent out a Tweet stating the obvious: Perry is so gaffe-prone that nobody can believe he wasn’t talking to a mannequin. It said, “Lessons from last hour: 1) Perry gaffe meme so entrenched that most journos’ benefit of doubt is out the window & 2) Guys, really?” Soon spokesman Mark Miner, riding shotgun, started getting calls from reporters and then from Perry communications director Ray Sullivan. Everybody wanted a comment about Perry striking up a conversation with an inanimate object.

“He was joking!” I heard Miner scream into the phone. He turned back to us with a look of sheer disgust.

“That’s what this campaign has come down to now,” he said. “We’re in crisis mode over a fucking mannequin.”

 

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