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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Implosion


“Go Talk to Tiffany’s”

Any candidate who says those words on national television is, by definition, in the deep do-do. Newt Gingrich used the “go talk to Tiffany’s” line in his Face the Nation interview last Sunday with the dean of D.C. television Bob Schieffer.

Schieffer, an old school reporter if there is such a thing, was like a dog with a bone wanting to know about what he called this “bizarre” story of the former speaker of the house and his wife owing between $250,000 and $500,000 to the tony jewelry retailer Tiffany’s. (The company has a great website, by the way.)

“What did you buy?” Schieffer asked the obviously flustered Gingrich. Gingrich never answered the question saying it was a matter “of his private life” and suggested multi-thousand dollar charge accounts at Tiffany’s are something every Joe Six Pack has.

The Schieffer-Gingrich interview was one of the most uncomfortable TV encounters I’ve seen in a while, and with the newly minted Republican presidential candidate refusing to respond to questions about his line of credit with Tiffany’s, its hard not to see this little glimpse into the candidate’s private life assuming a defining role in his effort to re-introduce himself to GOP primary voters. Coming on the heels of Newt’s comments about GOP plans to “reform” Medicare, Tiffany’s could be the bling that takes down the campaign.

His admirers, and there are many, say that the former speaker is a “brilliant” guy, a policy wonk, a big thinker. Maybe. If he were as smart as they say, he would have had a better answer for Bob Schieffer and he would never have dismissed the question with “go talk to Tiffany’s.”

A friend once told me that the part of politics he most enjoyed was “watching a candidate implode.” A bit cynical perhaps, but such implosion moments are very revealing. Remember the John Edwards $400 haircut? Or the fact that John McCain couldn’t recall how many houses he owned. Or George H.W. Bush in 1992 being amazed in a mock up of a grocery checkout line, obviously for the first time, to see the scanner technology that most of us take for granted several times a week.

In and of themselves such seemingly unimportant trivia, the candidates think, should pile up on the shoulder of the road to the White House. Trouble is they never do. Even accounting for the media pile on effect with a story like Gingrich’s expensive tastes at Tiffany’s, such stories are singularly important for the unscripted glimpse they provide behind the Oz-like curtain of the modern presidential campaign. Such stories also show the power of one incident to drive a story line – a negative story line – for days.

Since the Schieffer interview and the ever growing attention on Tiffany’s charge accounts as a campaign issue, a new poll shows Gingrich sinking with GOP voters. You might say he’s dropping like the Hope Diamond in a rain bucket. Another story links a former Gingrich aide to Tiffany’s lobbying operations at a time when Mrs. G. was a House staffer.

TIME magazine has a slide show of Calista Gingrich’s jewelry and one enterprising reporter went back and checked Gingrich’s published works for references to Tiffany’s. Hint: there are quite a number. And, for the truly uninformed about just how big jewelry store charge accounts work, the Washington Post rides to the rescue with a “fact check” piece that concludes Gingrich’s comment that this is all just routine don’t quite pass the smell test. Pile on, indeed.

There was a reason that Abraham Lincoln didn’t shy away from publicizing the fact that he was “born in a log cabin.” From Andrew Jackson to James A. Garfield, the log cabin was a potent symbol that candidates for the White House were in touch with the voters. Politicians always strive to be seen as “one of us,” but to be successful they must also be authentic or, at least, appear to be authentic.

Franklin Roosevelt came from great family wealth, as did John Kennedy. Neither one of them tried to hide that fact, but by the same token they didn’t try to be something they weren’t. The times were much different when those two sons of fortune occupied the White House, but I suspect even FDR and JFK would have had some explaining to do had it been revealed they had credit lines at Tiffany’s.

Curious thing about the American presidency, we expect these men – I chose that word advisedly – to be superhuman problem solvers, able to leap tall buildings, but we also expect them to be able to keep track of their houses, keep their haircuts affordable and window shop at Tiffany’s.

When we find out that they really aren’t at all like us, well, we do the natural thing – we conclude that guy isn’t authentic and that conclusion is deadly in politics.

Saying “go talk to Tiffany’s” is a bit like telling a reporter (or a voter) to “go pound sand” or go, well, you you know where.

I’ll bet you a peek in a Tiffany display case that before Newt Gingrich is done with this campaign – and that looks like it will happen sooner rather than later – we’ll know the answer to Bob Schieffer’s simple and completely predictable question, “What did you buy?” Stay tuned.

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