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Phenom falls flat: Help!

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Rick Horowitz
February 26, 2009
Dear Dr. Politics:

I’m writing to get your advice about a recent event that has gotten lots of attention in political circles and in the media. In our line of work, that would normally be a plus—attention is what you want when you’re a fresh face and a rising star.


That’s what I am, by the way, according to everybody: a “fresh face,” and a “rising star.” Or at least that’s what I was until the other night. That’s when things suddenly went off the track.


I had been given the chance to make a major speech on all the TV networks, and not just any speech—I had been chosen to give my party’s response to a speech to Congress by the president of the United States!


This was a great honor, and a great opportunity, and I approached my task with plenty of confidence because I remembered what my father said: “Bobby, Americans can do anything.”


I even mentioned my father in my speech. I also told several other interesting anecdotes, and said a few nice things about the president, and offered to work with him when he and his party were right, and to offer better ideas when they were wrong. I smiled when I was supposed to smile, and I shook my head ruefully when I was supposed to shake my head ruefully.


I did everything I was supposed to do—but nobody liked it.


Actually, they hated it. They said it was a disaster. They made jokes! They said I should forget about running for president myself in four years.


Needless to say, I’m disappointed, but even more than that, I’m really surprised.


Where did I go wrong? And what do I do now?


--Battered in Baton Rouge
Dear Battered:

What a terrible thing to have to go through! You have my sympathies.


Yours is a particularly striking case, but it’s not a unique one. You’ve had the misfortune to run into two of the greatest pitfalls in our business: The Curse of Heightened Expectations, and The Curse of Multiple Messages. Either can be debilitating. Together, they can really throw you for a loop.


The very things that made your speech such a great opportunity—a big event, a national audience, being mentioned in the same breath as a popular new president—also contained the seeds of your “destruction.” Being merely good was never going to be good enough—and especially when this particular president is as skillful an orator as he is.


Even if you’d given a great speech, you could only have come out second best. And with a speech that was anything less than great—well, you saw what happened.


And why was your speech less than great? (Aside, that is, from sounding like you were on Quaaludes?) Because you were trying to appeal to very different audiences, and as a result, you were trying to sell very different messages.


To the great majority of Americans who knew almost nothing about you, you needed to introduce yourself, and draw an appealing portrait on a virtually blank slate. You needed to present yourself as a reasonable alternative to the current president—intelligent, thoughtful, up to the many policy challenges, willing to work in a bipartisan spirit.


But to the much smaller slice of Americans who actually choose your party’s presidential nominee, you needed to present yourself as brain-dead.


You can see the conflict, can’t you? Better politicians than you have tried, and failed, to balance those competing pressures. It’s a daunting task. There’s certainly no shame in coming up short.


And the way back? For a fallen politician, the way back is the same as it’s always been: Get yourself booked on Letterman.


Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at rickhoro@execpc.com.

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