The Hilary Rosen kerfuffle reminds me of a joke. Two, actually.
The first is something that was supposedly said to Ted Kennedy, during his first campaign for U.S. Senate. Teddy showed up at a factory gate early one morning to shake hands with the workers. A particularly gruff and grizzled laborer looked at the 30-year-old son of privilege and said, "I understand you have never worked a day in your life!"
Nervously, Kennedy allowed as how that was more or less the case.
"Well, son," the man said, "you haven't missed anything!"
The second story is an old joke you may have heard.
A traveler finds himself in a hotel where one night after dinner he comes across a strange sight. Hearing laughter, he opens a door to find a group of people sitting around the room doing something he can't figure out. One person calls out a number, and the group laughs. Another person calls out a different number, and the same thing happens.
"71!" Unmitigated hilarity. Weeping, table-pounding howls that continue for a solid minute. Then the group recovers, and resumes as before.
The man approaches one of the crowd and says, "What in the world is going on here? Why do you all call out numbers and then laugh at them?"
"Well," the fellow says. "You see, we've been meeting here for years and years. We all know each others' jokes backwards and forwards, so to save time, we've numbered them all and tell them in a kind of shorthand."
"OK," the traveler says slowly. "I think I get that... but then, why when that person said "71" did you all laugh so much more?"
His new friend smiles at the recollection of that moment, and with a chuckle explains, "well, we've never heard that one before!"
(A variation on this joke has the last number falling completely flat, provoking stony silence. When asked for an explanation, the man is told, "Well, Thorndyke never could do a Swedish dialect.")
What does this have to do with Hilary Rosen? I'm getting to that. First, in the interest of full disclosure I should say that we both came from the same town in New Jersey, our mothers were friends, and I've seen her a few times since we both moved to D.C.
My advice to Hilary Rosen, and the legion of pundits, experts, campaign officials and politicians at risk of saying something on TV that could become fodder for what First Read calls a "manufactured controversy," is to tag every soundbite, jab, jibe, opinion or argument with a corresponding number or innocuous phrase. Otherwise, you run the risk of an "Etch A Sketch" moment that will forever haunt you on Google.
Thus, "412" will be understood to mean, "Mitt Romney wears magic underwear."
"296" is read as "Obama has a lousy jump shot."
"The moon is made of green cheese." That reference to Newt Gingrich you don't even have to think about.
This system not only spares talking heads from having theirs handed to them, but also gives audiences relief from having to run screaming out of the room or throw ping pong balls at the television set whenever Wolf Blitzer ominously announces, "you're in the Situation Room." (I keep telling you Wolf, I'm not. I'm sitting on my couch having a beer.)
You can see the trap door opening sometimes when a pundit is reaching for a point or pushing a metaphor just a little too far. A light goes on in their head and they think, oh, I've got a clever phrase that the producer is going to love (see "Etch A Sketch moment, above) but no one will remember after this show is over (see "Man on Dog," but don't Google "Santorum").
No, it's far safer to stop relying on impromptu bon mots and glib opinions and transform cable news shout fests into Dadaist dialogues. I can see it now:
Anderson Cooper: Is this Obama's perfect storm?
David Gergen: The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.
Soledad O'Brien: Are the mitts coming off for Romney?
Mary Matalin: My name is Yan Yanson, I live in Wisconsin, I work in the lumber mill there.
Steve Doocy: Has the fat lady sung, finished her encore, and left for Disney World?
Herman Cain: 999. Nine nine nine. Nine. Nine. Nine.
You see, it's already started!
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