The Speaker's Lobby: Pop-Up Video

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

10 July 2010

For now, it's a "Bob Etheridge moment." But Sen. George Allen (R-VA), Jesse Jackson Sr., Bill Clinton and even Jimmy the Greek have worn a similar mantle over the years.

It's where public figures, specifically politicians, are recorded, doing or saying intemperate things.

The video that surfaced last month of Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC) seizing a man who tried to ask him a question on a Washington, DC street serves as a brutal reminder about the electronic frontier: We're all on. All of the time.

We're all "on" because of the proliferation of BlackBerries and flip cameras which are now as ubiquitous as wrist watches. The use of these devices became pervasive as the technology improved and simultaneously became cheaper. The rise of YouTube, Facebook and blogs then created a platform for video to go "viral," bypassing the traditional media sources that commanded our attention not so long ago.

Which is what makes this nexus of politics, media and technology so perplexing.

Political handlers endeavor to control the environment of candidates and public officials. As gatekeepers, they can burnish the image of their boss, curb exposure and contrive a portrait that sells to the public at-large. Family man. Pro-military. Against raising taxes. Tough on crime. Jock. Treasury watchdog. Advocate for the poor and underprivileged.

But the technology pierces that image as lawmakers are "caught", well, being human.Contrary to the image meticulously crafted by the media mavens, they don't always sport coats and ties, go to church every Sunday, help little, old ladies cross the street and leap tall buildings in a single bound.

These unscripted pictures captured by video voyeurs puncture that illusion. Pay attention and you may spot a Congressman who represents blue collar workers sipping Moet from a champagne flute during a snazzy reception at the Kennedy Center. Maybe see a frugal lawmaker tooling around in a Porsche. Or in the case of Etheridge, the former North Carolina Superintendant of Public Instruction grab someone who identifies himself as a "student" by the wrist and neck.

Fight through the spin and propaganda churned out on Capitol Hill, and you'll soon discover they're not cherubs.

They're human beings.

This in no way dismisses Etheridge's egregious conduct. To his credit, Etheridge apologized.

"No matter how difficult things get sometimes, that's no excuse for my response," Etheridge said, who added he would apologize to the two men "If I knew who they were."

No one has yet identified the person whom Etheridge accosted nor the individual who shot most of the video. The initial piece of video appears to be filmed by the man who queries the Congressman whether he supports President Obama's agenda before Etheridge seizes him. Etheridge had a bad moment. And there will be others just like it before too long and Etheridge will be forgotten.

But it doesn't matter. TMZ and the paparazzi have long pursued the exploits of A-list celebrities at Hollywood clubs like Bardot and Mood. But couple the technological evolution with high political stakes and you have a revolution in politics.

Talk to former Sen. George Allen (R-VA).

Nearly every political campaign in America now deploys video squadrons to follow around the opposition. Some are passive. They simply videotape each speech and watch for potential gaffes or material that could be used against their opponent in TV ads. In August, 2006, Allen appeared to be on a glide path to re-election. In fact, many argued that the senator stood a good chance at becoming the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. But voters had to first return Allen to Washington.

However, all went wrong during an August, 2006 campaign event. Allen called out SR Sidarth, a video tracker for his opponent, Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA). An Indian-American who grew up in the Washington suburbs, Sidarth twice recorded the senator describing him as "macaca" on tape. The clip went viral. And Allen lost his race to Webb that fall.

Lawmakers already face extraordinary and much-deserved scrutiny. But now political operatives from both sides deploy video guerillas to Capitol Hill to challenge lawmakers. In some cases, the efforts are designed exclusively to trip them up and look bad.

Filmmaker Michael Moore launched this ploy 20 years ago. He lifted his techniques perfected in pursuing GM CEO Roger Smith in "Roger and Me" and transferred them to Washington for his film "Fahrenheit 9/11." There, Moore intercepted Rep. John Tanner (D-TN) in the shadow of the Capitol to try to convince him and other lawmakers to send their children to fight in Iraq.

Jason Mattera is another video blogger who frequently materializes on Capitol Hill. Over the years, Mattera has stalked Democrats ranging from Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (D-WI). In one video, Mattera confronts embattled Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) in the foyer of the Longworth House Office Building. Mattera captures Rangel's attention by introducing himself and telling the New York Democrat he's from Brooklyn. Rangel smiles and engages. Then Mattera lowers the boom.

"Why the hell do you drive a taxpayer-subsidized Cadillac, use four rent-controlled apartments below market rate and fail to pay taxes on rental properties?" Mattera asks.

A chagrined smile develops over Rangel's face as he places his hands on his hips.

"Why don't you mind your goddam business," the Congressman says as he ducks into an elevator. As the door closes, Mattera tries to get the former Ways and Means Committee Chairman to sign his tax return with the words "Rangel Rule."

The House Ethics Committee continues to probe Rangel's use of the apartments, taxes and his storage of a car in a House garage.

Mattera is an agent provocateur who tries to goad mostly Democratic lawmakers into awkward situations. But what's interesting about Mattera's tactics is that he takes highly-scripted politicians out of their comfort zones. His clips are compelling to watch because he catches politicians with their guard down. You don't see that very often these days. While he asks loaded questions, Mattera often poses precisely the same queries the public would raise while talking politics over beers at the local pub. And his interrogatives are no question any down-the-middle journalist would ever ask.

The politicians react. And we see them being human.

The Democratic National Committee is now launching a program called "The Accountability Project."

"The Accountability Project allows you to submit videos, recordings and other items for publication online," says the DNC. "Please help fight back against Republicans' shadowy tactics."

The idea is that anyone armed with a cell phone or camera can capture the next macaca moment. Somebody will blow their top or say something racially-insensitive. And then the Twitterati will link to that video all over the internet. That moment will shoot holes in the wholesome profiles crafted by the spin-masters.

Most of these politicians will emerge from these incidents as damaged goods. And the severity of the transgression could cost them their election.

They won't seem like these all-American, God-family-country superhumans.

They'll seem human. Just like the rest of us.

-         Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He's won an Edward R. Murrow Award, the Joan Barone Award and a National Headliner Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

-         The Speaker's Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, journalists and aides often confer there during votes.