There's a great old “Fawlty Towers” scene (if you're unfamiliar with the 1970s British sitcom, hie thyself to YouTube!) in which Basil Fawlty (John Cleese), an innkeeper, welcomes some German patrons. He gives explicit orders to everyone: “Don't mention the war!” He then proceeds to mention the uncomfortable subject of World War II over and over again.
In one scene, after blurting out references to the war a dozen times while seating the Germans at the restaurant, he says to his wife, “Listen, don't mention the war! I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it all right.” He then returns to the Germans' table to review their lunch order: “So! It's all forgotten now, and let's hear no more about it. So, that's two egg mayonnaise, a prawn Goebbels, a Hermann Goering, and four Colditz salads.”
When one of the patrons begs him to stop talking about the war, Cleese responds, “Me? You started it!”
The German retorts, “We did not start it!” Cleese answers, “Yes you did! You invaded Poland.”
The scene came to mind Wednesday when I saw an instantly infamous clip of Eric Fehrnstrom, Mitt Romney's communications director, comparing his candidate to a children's toy.
Asked by a CNN anchor if the primaries had forced Romney to tack “so far to the right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election,” Fehrnstrom responded, “Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”
Of course, the gaffe was overhyped by the media and by Romney's GOP rivals. And, yes, there's a perfectly plausible defense of Fehrnstrom's statement. Every presidential contest restarts once the nominee has been picked and the general election commences.
But Fehrnstrom should know that he shouldn't say anything — and I mean anything — that reinforces the idea that Romney is a flip-flopper, a people-pleaser, a weather vane or, now, an Etch A Sketch. It's less than a novel insight to note that Romney's greatest vulnerability is that he seems insincere and that it appears his commitment to conservatism is entirely tactical. Fehrnstrom should know this. He's the communications director, for Pete's sake. He's supposed to be the guy with the hose putting out fires, not throwing gas on them.
Fehrnstrom's Etch A Sketch gaffe would be akin to Newt Gingrich's communications director saying, “Who knows what Newt will actually do as President. If you haven't noticed, he's sort of crazy.” It would be like Rick Santorum's spokesman saying, “Well, Rick's just talking this limited-government stuff until he gets elected. Once he's sworn in, he's going to take care of the gays, Day One.” It's like White House Press Secretary Jay Carney saying, “Well, of course in his second term President Obama won't feel the need to hide his real socialist agenda — or his relationship with Bill Ayers.”
Every candidate has a weak spot, an inconvenient storyline he doesn't want magnified. Fehrnstrom's remark was simply malpractice, and while it would probably be unfair to judge the man by one misstatement, Romney would have been wise to fire him, or at least take him to the woodshed.
Barring that, he could have tried to make a joke about it.
As NBC's Chuck Todd suggested, he should have brought out a Magic 8-Ball and made light of the situation. Maybe he could have asked the toy, “Should I fire Eric?” Or he could bring out a Pet Rock and talk about how President Obama is about as useful in getting the economy going.
Every few years I write a column on one of my biggest peeves about GOP strategists and politicians: They read their stage direction, usually in an effort to suck up to political reporters. Some elder statesman-hack wonders aloud, usually anonymously, about whether the campaign will “go negative.” Here's a tip: If you're going to go negative, go negative. Don't announce it.
Give the Democrats their due: They fake their outrage with more sincerity. Chuck Schumer never prefaces a comment: “I'm now about to make an entirely indefensible claim in order to trick the media into looking over there.”
Of course Romney — or any nominee — will pivot to the center in a general election. Obama's been running for President as a fake centrist for almost two years now. He just doesn't admit it.
Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the forthcoming book “The Tyranny of Clichés.” You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com.