Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s off script, thirst-quenching moment during his rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night was the gulp heard round the world.
Or at least in Twitter World, the place where the trivial goes not to die, but to flourish.
It is to Rubio’s credit, though, that like deft politicians before him, he has managed with humor and a morning television prop (a water bottle, of course) to spin an awkward visual gone viral into gold, or at least political pyrite.
After his speech, he immediately tweeted a photo of a Poland Spring plastic water bottle, and during an appearance Wednesday on ABC’s Good Morning America he dramatically took a draw from a water bottle when George Stephanopoulos brought up the interlude.
“I needed water, what am I going to do?” Rubio responded, when Stephanopoulos noted, with characteristic understatement, that Twitter “went a bit wild” Tuesday night.
Rubio — the 41-year-old Cuban-American from Florida who is being mentioned as a potential 2016 presidential candidate — then managed to put the incident in the context of his humanness, with a nod toward the will of a higher power: “God,” he said, “has a funny way of reminding us we’re human.”
That got us thinking about other politicians who have turned bad, or at least uncomfortable, political moments to their favor.
First on everyone’s list has to be Bill Clinton, circa 1988. Then just a rising star and governor of Arkansas, Clinton was picked to give the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.
And he bombed in a big, long way. The takeaway? His biggest applause line during his long-winded address, which clocked in at 35 minutes, was when he uttered these immortal words: “In conclusion …”
A week later, Clinton appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, joking about his verbosity (he plopped an hourglass on the desk when Carson pointedly asked how he was doing) and playing the saxophone with the show’s band.
Here’s how Clinton adviser Harry Thomason, a Hollywood pro, described how the whole thing came about. (Note how much time politicians had to regroup in a pre-Internet, pre-social media era.):
“We were very upset that it didn’t go well, and we knew the press was going to make mincemeat out of him, and people would be making fun of him,” Thomason told PBS. “We stew about it all night. This was a Thursday. Sometime in the wee hours, Linda [Thomason’s wife and business partner] wakes me up after a troubled sleep. She says,”Look, he’s got to go on the Carson show to make this right.”
The next morning, Thomason says, he called a publicist who reached out to Carson’s producer, Freddy De Cordova, who said no go — Carson’s never had a politician on his show, and isn’t going to now. Thomason called De Cordova directly and said, “what if [Clinton] comes on and plays a saxophone?”
Clinton appeared on the show the next Thursday, and we’ll let the Associated Press story of the next day explain how it worked out for him.
“Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton has gone from the media doghouse to media darling in one short week,” the story began.
“And all it took was a smile, a few self-deprecating jokes and a song.”
CNN, on its weekly “Winners and Losers,” gave the then-governor a nod for the “fastest turnaround ever.”
And who can forget GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry’s “oops” brain freeze during a debate in late 2011?
It happened in the middle of his answer on how he’d shrink government if elected. Now, Perry clearly did not recover from this and other gaffes during the long Republican primary season, but in this incident he also turned to humor to underscore his humanity.
First, the brain freeze, as the Texas governor tried to list three government agencies “that are gone” if he’s elected president:
“Commerce, Education and the — what’s the third one there? Let’s see,” he said, looking around searchingly while his rivals — notably Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — tried to help. Romney offered up, “EPA?”
“EPA, there you go,” Perry said, seemingly taking Romney’s suggestion.
That prompted this exchange:
“Seriousl? Is EPA the one you were talking about?” debate moderator John Harwood asked. “You can’t name the third one?”
Perry acknowledged that it wasn’t the Environmental Protection Agency, and he continued to draw a blank.
“The third agency of government I would do away with — the Education, the Commerce. And let’s see. I can’t. The third one, I can’t,” Perry said. “Oops.”
During a subsequent debate later in the week, Perry joked about his “oops” moment during a back and forth with moderator Scott Pelley of CBS.
“You advocate the elimination of the Department of Energy. If you eliminate the Department of Energy —” CBS News host and debate moderator Scott Pelley asked.
“Glad you remembered it,” Perry said, smiling.
“I’ve had some time to think about it, sir,” Pelley responded.
“Me too,” Perry said.
This was a situation, however, where Perry’s “oops” suggested more than a gaffe, and revealed to members of his party that he was perhaps not ready or suited for a White House gig. Humor helps, but it can’t mask that.
Obama also had his own recovery to effect after his widely panned first debate performance last year with GOP candidate Mitt Romney.
With many of his supporters in the throes of despair after Obama’s desultory undertaking, the president used a campaign appearance in California the following week to poke fun at himself.
Facing an audience of Hollywood entertainers after a fundraising show, he said this:
“Everybody here is [sic] incredible professionals, they’re such great friends and they just perform flawlessly night after night. I can’t always say the same,” Obama said.
There was a pause, the crowd cheered, and Obama pivoted to a stump speech. Not quite Clinton and Carson, but he used a bit of humor to put his sub-par outing into context for at least some of his supporters.
There are other politicians who were good sports about jokes made about them. From George W. Bush bantering with comedian Jay Leno about the former president’s dancing and attempt to exit through a locked door in China, to Richard Nixon’s presidential “sock it to me” on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In television show.
And there are politicians who have missed opportunities to mitigate bad outings with a follow-up of self-deprecating humor. Former GOP Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin and her disastrous “I read all the news” interview with Katie Couric, then with CBS, comes to mind.
Rubio’s watershed moment, while unintended, no doubt ended up giving him a much larger audience than if he’d tried to soldier on, dry-mouthed.
He and his aides clearly were familiar with history and they acted quickly, with humor, and hit first the medium that was driving the Big Gulp story — Twitter.
And on Wednesday, Rubio tweeted: “Picked up over 13,000 new followers on #twitter since last night! Im going to start drinking #water in the middle of all of my speeches!”