Sen. John McCain, who will be forever known as the man who decided to let loose the Sarah Palin virus on America, had a tough time at a town hall meeting the other day.
The senior Arizona senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee faced a crowd angry about federal immigration policy, which McCain is helping shape. No surprise there.
Such forums are complicated for politicians, who must go one-on-one with an audience, members of which could be openly hostile and can seldom be pre-screened. It’s a political reality show and you’re the star.
To his credit, McCain repeated the mantra all politicians spout, but few really believe: “I love interaction with ‘the people.’ ” Yeah, sure you do. Especially when they are antagonistic, angry, accusatory and loose with their facts.
McCain struggled in this forum as anyone would, as my EMA colleague Latrese Myers noted. While a three-minute snippet of a multi-hour meeting cannot capture the context, the questioner McCain later called “a jerk” was persistent, but he didn’t seem rude or obnoxious.
McCain tried several crisis management techniques to get his critics to cease. He countered the facts. He tried to change the subject. He called on other people. He asked the constituent to please stop, he’d used his allotted time.
There were three angry men in the video clips I saw. All were clearly agitated about illegal immigrants, but none seemed to rise to the level of heckler. McCain and his tormenters clearly had a little too much testosterone coursing through their systems, but McCain could have ridden out the defiance by just listening. Take a deep breath; nod a lot; say thank you, and move on.
Instead he got defensive, then cantankerous, then mocking and, if you believe it’s abusive calling a presumed voter and American citizen who helps pay your salary “a jerk,” then he became abusive.
Politicians are paid to represent all the people. The nice office in the capital, the private jets, the deference on that Caribbean island military base, the helicopter over stalled traffic, all come with a bill. The bill, which McCain had to pay at this meeting, charges that you have to listen to your constituents, even if they don’t fawn over you like a junior staffer. It’s a tough job, but it comes with free, lifetime health care.
Personally, who can blame McCain for losing his patience? But he’s a long-time U.S. senator and he would have avoided negative notices like this if he’d just listened. Respectfully.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.