Fall From Grace: Say Goodbye to Decorum in D.C.

There is a disturbing trend sweeping over America. We’ve required our mainstream media to cater to our communal attention deficit, which has devalued the quality of our news. If you can’t fit your story into a 30-second clip complete with an explosion, murder, or sex scandal, we don’t want to know about it. That’s why a man named Joe Wilson so prominently dominated the headlines for weeks by uttering two simple words: “You lie.”


Few knew Wilson prior to September 9. He was a largely unheralded politician from South Carolina, whose greatest accomplishment to date had been assuming the role of Assistant Republican Whip. But Wilson made a dubious name for himself when he interrupted President Obama’s health care address to Congress, violating parliamentary procedure and general House decorum. Yet the aftermath of the incident has not been all that bad for Wilson, and it has been nothing short of fantastic for the Republican Party. Here’s where we tie this story into PR.

Sound Byte Over Substance

Unless you saw the actual speech, you would have no way of knowing that Obama addressed the Joint Session of Congress for about 45-minutes. That’s because every internet clip and news story covering the event has used the same two-minute video package that shows Wilson interrupting the president. What you don’t see is any coverage, commentary, or analysis on the actual content of Obama’s speech.

As a public relations student, I’ve always been encouraged to find an original approach to getting people’s attention. A standard press release accompanied with a photo package is simply too vanilla these days – it lacks the “wow” factor. For some perspective, let’s assume at this point that the Democratic PR strategy since Obama took office has been vanilla, and the Republican approach has been a rich, chocolate fudge.

Doing Whatever it Takes

Republican officials and party advocates have conducted themselves in ways that defy common decency in government. And it seems to be working. That’s because the party has people willing to take the fall in order to make the news. We’re taught in PR that every strategic approach must be focused around your key message. The Republicans have perfected theirs (universal health care bad; private health care good), while the Democrats are still trying to figure out where they stand on a public option. This Republican consensus has enabled its members to respond to any reporter with a set party line. Despite having fewer members in Congress, their message resonates much louder in the media.

That’s why outrageous demonstrations by party activists are welcomed by the Republicans. On August 17, a man known simply as “Chris” decided that Obama’s health care speech to veterans was an appropriate forum to protest Obama’s gun policy by carrying an assault rifle and handgun.

"Chris" carrying an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle at Obama speech

"Chris" carrying an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle at Obama speech

Although Chris is a libertarian, the Republicans used the incident as a launching pad to say “not only does Obama want to take your health care…he wants your guns too.” What response did we get from the Democrats? (Insert chirping cricket soundtrack)

Turning the Other Cheek Just Hurts Both Cheeks

When conservative Fox News broadcaster Glenn Beck rallied the ultra right, uniting them under the guise of an unwieldy, motley “tea party” that traveled the country in protest of pretty much everything, did you see any response from the Democrats? (Nancy Pelosi trying to make a frowning face when asked to comment about it doesn’t count).

Plain and simple, old politics doesn’t work. Gone are the days of spiffy white wigs and traditional etiquette. Obama has begged the media not to use its airwaves as a forum for rudeness.

“I think it’s important for the media — you know, not to do any media-bashing here — to recognize that right now, in this 24-hour news cycle, the easiest way to get on CNN or FOX or any of the other stations, MSNBC, is to say something rude and outrageous… You know, part of what I’d like to see is, is all of us reward decency and civility in our political discourse.”

Read the full article here

Stand Up on Your Hind Legs and Bray

Again, that would be splendid, but it just won’t happen. The Democratic Party needs to figure out where it stands on health care now, and start getting the media’s attention. And when these stories arise concerning gun-toting extremists and rude politicians, have an actual response. The most dangerous two word sentence in PR is not “you lie”… it’s “no comment.”

By the way, Joe Wilson was wrong. Factcheck.org determined Obama was telling the truth when he said his healthcare plan will not cover illegal immigrants. But that hasn’t kept campaign contributors from donating more than $2 million to Wilson since the incident.

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11 Comments

Filed under National Politics

11 responses to “Fall From Grace: Say Goodbye to Decorum in D.C.

  1. Gail

    Sad but true. Decorum in politics is a thing of the past. The media has to take some of the blame.

  2. Bobbi

    Too bad the media has a problem deciding what is news worthy. Boy do I miss Walter Cronkite and his type of real reporters.

  3. Mike

    Great article. I agree with the author’s point about the communal attention deficit. However, I understand why the mainstream media is pushing us in that direction. It pays! They’re giving us what we want: celebrity gossip, scandals and dumb-downed politics and global affairs. I think the opportunity now exists for the future media and pr moguls to find a way to convey complex ideas and thoughts through sound-bytes and two-minute packages and, equally importantly, to find a way to make money through social media and blogging.
    If you can’t beat-em- join-em!

  4. Honez

    Political decorum a thing of the past?? Check this out: On May 22, 1856, the “world’s greatest deliberative body” became a combat zone. In one of the most dramatic and deeply ominous moments in the Senate’s entire history, a member of the House of Representatives entered the Senate chamber and savagely beat a senator into unconsciousness. The inspiration for this clash came three days earlier when Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts antislavery Republican, addressed the Senate on the explosive issue of whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state. In his “Crime Against Kansas” speech, Sumner identified two Democratic senators as the principal culprits in this crime—Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. He characterized Douglas to his face as a “noise-some, squat, and nameless animal . . . not a proper model for an American senator.” Andrew Butler, who was not present, received more elaborate treatment. Mocking the South Carolina senator’s stance as a man of chivalry, the Massachusetts senator charged him with taking “a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean,” added Sumner, “the harlot, Slavery.” Representative Preston Brooks was Butler’s South Carolina kinsman. If he had believed Sumner to be a gentleman, he might have challenged him to a duel. Instead, he chose a light cane of the type used to discipline unruly dogs. Shortly after the Senate had adjourned for the day, Brooks entered the old chamber, where he found Sumner busily attaching his postal frank to copies of his “Crime Against Kansas” speech. Moving quickly, Brooks slammed his metal-topped cane onto the unsuspecting Sumner’s head. As Brooks struck again and again, Sumner rose and lurched blindly about the chamber, futilely attempting to protect himself. After a very long minute, it ended.
    Bleeding profusely, Sumner was carried away. Brooks walked calmly out of the chamber without being detained by the stunned onlookers. Overnight, both men became heroes in their respective regions. Surviving a House censure resolution, Brooks resigned, was immediately reelected, and soon thereafter died at age 37. Sumner recovered slowly and returned to the Senate, where he remained for another 18 years. The nation, suffering from the breakdown of reasoned discourse that this event symbolized, tumbled onward toward the catastrophe of civil war.

  5. I hope these recent breakdowns of discourse don’t result in something similar. Appreciate the interesting anecdote.

  6. Joan

    Long live decency and civility. Rude thugs should not be tolerated. Very interesting and well-written article. I look forward to your weekly commentaries from the PR angle.

  7. Mike Hillman

    Apparently these folks have not seen British Parliament? That 3 ring circus makes the “you lie” comment look like a term of endearment.

  8. Jodi Groberg Hodrov

    The Nobel Prize…. sigh… I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, and the jury is still out.
    I did enjoy your insightful line: “it was the American citizens, by virtue of their support of the change of direction offered by Obama, who earned it.” That makes me a bit more positive about it.
    Thanks!

  9. Matt

    I think the comment by Joe Wilson “U Lie” was 4th grader like of him. He definitely should have just sucked it up, and listened to Obama and what he was trying to say and not make a fool of himself. I also think he was very stupid to say that on national TV. Since when do grown men yell during speeches? I mean it’s not like a speech by Obama is a sporting event in any way where you yell whenever something good or bad happens. I don’t see LED signs flashing !!MAKE SOME NOISE!! So, he should not of said that.

  10. Pingback: This Tea Party Isn’t Very Fun « The Beltway PeRspective

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