Directory:Allbritton Communications/Politico/When Foot Goes in Mouth, It Goes on the Web

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When Foot Goes in Mouth, It Goes on the Web

By: Jonathan Martin January 24, 2007 08:57 PM EST

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When Strom Thurmond, the late South Carolina Republican, began an obvious physical and mental decline before he retired from the Senate at age 100, his staff shielded him from public exposure as much as possible.

In the nearly five years since Thurmond retired, though, the way politicians are covered has fundamentally changed. As two events last summer involving the oldest two current senators illustrate, it will be more difficult to shield aging senators in the new media era.

Last June, at a Commerce committee hearing, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, simply wanted to speak against an amendment to a communications measure. As chairman of the committee, Stevens, 83, wanted to convince his colleagues that the "network neutrality" amendment to his measure was wrongheaded.

A YouTube mash-up of Sen Ted Stevens “series of tubes” speech:

Instead, he became the laughingstock of the Internet and saw his words lampooned mercilessly on Jon Stewart's Daily Show, in The New York Times and everywhere in between.

The Internet, he explained, "is not something you just dump something on. It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes."

Add the fact that he referred to an e-mail as "an Internet," and it's easy to see why the man whose committee regulates online communications found himself in a furious blogswarm that almost instantly found its way into the old media.

To be fair, Stevens's comments were less a product of any mental frailty than they reflected his confusion about how a complicated new technology works. (By all accounts, the old Army Air Corps pilot is as feisty and sharp as ever). They did, though, show how just a few extemporaneous remarks at one hearing can ignite a furor that calls into question the basic competency of a veteran lawmaker.

Less noticed but even more illuminating as to the threat posed to aging senators in the YouTube era was a speech by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., at his home state's Marshall University in August. Crowing about his ability to deliver federal funds to his home state, Byrd, 89, seemed to veer off script.

Sen. Robert Byrd “big daddy” speech:

"Our efforts to construct this facility and create a stronger foundation for a biotech industry here in West Virginia began -- where? With a visit to my office, yeah, yeah, yeah man, yeah man, a visit to my office, yeah …"

Continuing, Byrd explained that he "rolled up my sleeves to do the work in Congress to secure the federal funding. Yeah man, you're looking at Big Daddy! Big Daddy, rolled up my sleeves, man, yes I did, to do the work in Congress, yeah man. I been there longer than anybody else. Yeah, man. Hallelujah! I see those tourists come up there … I say, 'I'm Robert Byrd, I'm the oldest thing around here! The oldest thing around here other than the buildings."

Byrd won multiple ovations and good-natured laughs for his oration, but it was also cringe-inducing enough to find its way into one of his Republican opponent's commercials. And as with Stevens's "tubes" remarks, the "Big Daddy" speech remains alive online, easily found in a 10-second search.

"There is much greater visibility and scrutiny with 24-hour coverage," notes Richard Baker, the Senate historian. "It's not up to the senators to keep confidences about other senators."

Even if they do, it will be for naught. Welcome to the political realities of the Internet and YouTube, where age-related exhaustion, confusion -- or just plain misunderstanding -- are available to millions at a keystroke.

Call it a "senior moment" meets a "macaca moment."

TM & © THE POLITICO & POLITICO.COM, a division of Allbritton Communications Company

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