LONG BEACH -- Handed a splendid opportunity to portray her campaign as an historic event for women in politics, Meg Whitman made a different kind of history on Tuesday.
Campaigning to become California's first female governor, Republican Whitman accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of getting roundly booed by a non-partisan audience of 14,000 women gathered to, um, celebrate the accomplishments of women.
In a remarkable few moments of unscripted political theater, eMeg turned cheers to jeers at the California Women's Conference in Long Beach, as she fumbled and stumbled through an excruciatingly awkward exchange about TV attack ads with Democratic rival Jerry Brown and NBC's Matt Lauer, who moderated the unusual session, which also included outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
As on two previous occasions when she was forced to react in real time outside the accustomed comfort of her campaign cocoon -- her famously awful 2009 press conference when she tried to defend her decades-long failure to vote and the presser she convened a few weeks ago to answer questions about employing an undocumented housekeeper for nine years -- eMeg on Tuesday displayed a rare combination of political tone deafness and an utter inability to think on her feet.
By the time the fireworks ended, Whitman had not only failed to take advantage of a chance to boost her sagging standing among women voters, a week before the Nov. 2 election, but also succeeded in making her male opponent look good.
In the process, she managed to embarrass herself with a thoroughly dopey performance before the state's political press corps and most of the TV cameras south of the Tehachapis, making major campaign news out of what should have been a feel-good appearance at a touchy-feely event.
The drama began near the end of the live session with the governor and the two candidates who want to succeed him, as Lauer -- who demonstrated he knows absolutely NOTHING about politics -- shamelessly sought to play to the kumbaya crowd with a horseshit, goody-goody question.
First decrying the negative ads that both sides have run -- which, Lauer emoted, have created a "bloodbath" (puh-leeze) -- he asked:
"Would either of you, or both of you, be willing to make a pledge that you would end the negativity? [Big cheer] Would you pull your negative ads and replace them with positive ads and talk to the surrogate groups as well [which would be ILLEGAL, you jackass, which is why they're called independent expenditures] and express that to them, that you want only positive message out there to give the people of California a break and let them decide what really matters. Would either of you accept that?"
It was a totally inappropriate question and actually unfair to Whitman, who is behind in all the public polls and has no choice in a tough campaign in which she's invested $140 million of her own money, but to try to pull voters away from Brown. In any event, that's her decision. And Lauer had no business sticking his scrawny ass into the campaign and trying to broker some deal because he thinks that's how the game should be played. If he knew anything about politics in general and California politics in particular he could not have asked such a dimwit question.
But of course, the women in the audience, who spent the day applauding the inspirational good works of poets, playwrights, Supreme Court justices -- not to mention Oprah Winfrey and conference convener and California First Lady Maria Shriver -- thundered their approval.
Brown answered first, venturing forth with a Buddhist-tinged meditation on the subjective nature of reality -- "First of all you have to remember, negativity is in the eye of the beholder . . ." -- drawing scattered boos and hoots. But Brown's political antennae suddenly tuned in -- "Oh yeah," he must have thought, "I'm AHEAD, I can afford to go all positive if she does" -- and with head-snapping alacrity, he switched direction: ". . . but if Meg wants to do that, I'll be glad to do that."
Then eMeg started digging herself in, trying to draw a bright line distinction between her negative ads -- true, honorable and all about the issues - and Brown's negative ads -- false, unfair personal assaults on her sterling character. (This is total BS, BTW.)
"The character attacks, the attacks of personal destruction, the attacks on one's character I think are very different than a debate on the issues. It's OK that Jerry Brown and I disagree, for example, about the capital gains tax -- something I think should be eliminated and he doesn't. It's OK to have a discussion around the issues," Whitman argued. "What I have found very challenging, and I'll be honest about it is the personal attacks. The things that I have been called in this campaign -- it's not fair to the voters of California, it isn't the right thing to do..."
Lauer broke in and got up on his high New York know-nothing horse: "There's been enough slurs and housekeepers. We know you are both flawed people. Everybody in this room is flawed...But what is going to accomplish what Gov. Schwarzenegger is talking about - taking California to the next step, financially in particular, is going to be your strengths not your weaknesses. And I'm asking again, will you both pledge? I'll give you 24 hours because I know the wheels of a campaign don't stop overnight," he said, as if he actually knew anything about how campaigns operate.
Brown, quick as ever, joined Lauer's game: "Let's be clear about it: if she takes her negative ads, reasonably defined, I'll take mine off. No question. We do it together. No problem. . . . I pledge that right now." Krusty was in for a dime, in for a dollar, eliciting big cheers from the ladies at lunch.
But Meg kept digging, trying to parse and finesse the question before an audience that was in full bay for promises of sweetness and light.
"So here's what I will do," she said. "I'll take down any ad that could even be remotely construed as a personal attack. But I don't think we can take down the ads that talk about where Gov. Brown stands on the issues. I just think it's not the right thing to do."
Booooo, hisssss, squaaawk . . .
Lauer said people seem to be asking for more. And Brown smelled blood in the water.
"I've got one nice ad where I look into the camera and I just say what I'm for," he said, ever so reasonably to Whitman. "You have a very nice ad where you look into the camera - it's a pretty good ad by the way. We'll leave up one and let all the other ones go off. I'll agree to that right now."
Lauer tried to seal the deal but Whitman froze. "Let me try a different approach..." he said, when Brown jumped in, offering Whitman a lifeline: "You know, I don't think it's quite fair, to [have to] make a decision in the face of all this," he said, sounding ever so gentle.
Lauer said he'd studied the polls [right] before he came to California and "some could say what you've tried to this point isn't completely working, why not try a different course," he lectured Whitman. "And Gov. Brown, some could say if you do believe the polls and you're leading, I would imagine you wouldn't only want to think it's because you diminished your opponent, correct, so get rid of all those things" -- which was doubly stupid because 1) Brown is happy to diminish his opponent and 2) he'd already agreed to Lauer's dumbass proposal.
But Whitman kept digging:
"I think it's important because I'm new to politics. People need to know where I stand and also they need to know Jerry Brown has been in politics for 40 years and there's a long track record there and I want to make sure people really understand what's going on.
"And I'm not doing it in a mean-spirited way. I just think it's important for people to really understand what the track record was in Oakland, what the track record was as governor," she said, while audience members started searching for overripe vegetables to throw.
His lifeline rejected, Brown decided to go in for the kill: "I've got a great ad. It starts off with Meg Whitman saying I moved to California 30 years ago because it was such a great place with all this opportunity. And then the ad says, and who was governor?"
Huge uproarious laughter and whooping in the press tent.
Did Meg stop digging? No way. "What you need to know is that in many ways, Jerry Brown left the state in worse shape than he did (sic) when he inherited it," she said.
Lauer was worried he was going too long until Schwarzenegger told him the conference was his and Maria's and he shouldn't schvitz (sweat) the extra minutes. And then he said nice things about Meg, nice things about Jerry and also rapped Meg with the back of his hand, implicitly defending his record against her constant refrain that she as governor would make California "golden again."
"I happen to disagree with Meg a little bit," the governor said. "California is going to be a golden state once again? California is a golden state!"
Bottom line: eMeg should have listened to Calbuzz and played the gender card. Everything leading up to that moment was all about how it's time for a woman. Instead, she spun gold into straw.
Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine write about California politics at Calbuzz.
Follow Phil Trounstine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ptrounstine