In James L. Brooks’s Broadcast News, William Hurt plays an anchorman whose good looks and manner propel him to the top of his profession. On his way there, he reports a story about a sexual assault. In the middle of the story, the camera pans from the victim to the reporter and finds that he is tearing up. It’s very effective stuff and it helps Hurt’s character up the ladder. Later in the film, others find the rough cut of the piece. In watching it, they learn that Hurt’s tears were manufactured — an artistic flourish rather than a real reaction. The discovery costs Hurt a woman (the principled newsperson played by Holly Hunter), but not his career. In the end, Hurt’s cynical manipulation of his audience succeeds.
Earlier this week, Charlie Baker channeled this character as part of his campaign-long effort to persuade Massachusetts voters that he is really a nice guy who cares about people. After weeks of just telling us how much it bothers him that people don’t know how much he loves and worries about all of us, he showed us his heart by crying on television. Not just the dignified tears Hurt shed in the movie, but a whole sob show. It was powerful television. And the press reaction (at least initially) seemed to confirm that it had worked. Trends toward Baker in the polls solidified and Charlie’s campaign started to run a feel good, selfie-taking, ad thanking people (a closing argument / acceptance speech commercial).
The story Charlie could not tell without crying (because he is so empathic) is a tricky one to follow. A big (and he has to be really big to be bigger than the 6’6″ Charlie) fisherman comes off a boat. Charlie talks to him. And the man points to his two boys (who must be men) and explains that they both had scholarships to college because of their success in football at New Bedford High and that he would not let them go — he told them “you’re going to be fishermen.” And so, he told Charlie, “I ruined their lives.” Charlie then hugs (that’s right hugs) him. Charlie struggled through the telling — and cried as he talked.
But think about the story for a second. What about it hits Charlie hard? The poor parenting? The man’s pain? The plight of fishermen in this economy? It’s not clear. The father didn’t stop the boys from going to college because of over-regulation or because of some easily-identifiable parenting mandate — instead, he seems to have exercised inappropriate control over their lives in a devastating way. It’s more a Eugene O’Neill play than a statement about the fishing industry and it is sad as theatrical tragedy is sad — not sad in the sense that the protagonist (fisherman) is easily relatable.
From this place, then, the challenge is to understand why the story makes Charlie cry. That challenge grew on the day after the debate when we all learned that Charlie had told the same story during his last campaign for governor. He appeared not at all unsettled by questions about this — when he tells the story, he said, it feels like he is hearing it for the first time all over again. From Charlie’s perspective, the story is so moving that he can’t, even with the passage of time, get past it. Why not? Moreover, the timeline is unsettling if you care about candor. Go to YouTube and watch the clip — Charlie is very clear that he met this hulking fisherman in New Bedford during this election cycle, and we now all know that it just isn’t so.
The next part of the mess for Baker is the inevitable effort to find the fisherman. The story is just quirky enough so it should not be hard. One family with two brothers who played football and New Bedford High and were awarded college scholarships that they did not take. Notwithstanding the efforts of journalists and campaign folks alike, no one has found the hulking man or his boys — and they have not come forward.
Indeed, today’s Globe tells us that Charlie is not sure that they are from New Bedford and also not sure that he has the details of the story right. Indeed, he wants us to think, the fisherman may have manipulated him.
And that’s the thing — Charlie’s own effort to manufacture a scene that demonstrates his empathy was absolutely crass manipulation of all of us. It’s Broadcast News, but worse. Charlie Baker wants to be your governor and he is not going to limit himself to true stories in his effort to win your vote. The polls suggest that he is likely to succeed in his effort and it may be that his manipulative conduct is part of why. There is, however, still time to think and reflect on what it means that Charlie decided to tell a not-verifiable perhaps even untrue story during the most watched debate of this electoral cycle.
An even bigger question for me is why on Earth “when was the last time you cried” is considered a legitimate question to be asked at a gubernatorial debate (or a debate for any elective office, for that matter; or even a non-debate question to someone running for public office…), and how a so-called “journalist” could think that it would be an appropriate thing to ask. It was an incredibly lazy question — I can almost hear the thought process: “Hey, I think I’ll avoid difficult substantive questions and instead ask when they cried! Because otherwise I might need to spend some time actually trying to understand a complicated issue and I probably won’t get a straight answer anyway and then I’ll have to do that thing I think I heard about in journalism school once, something about ‘follow-up questions’ or something like that.” It was lazy in the sense that a “gotcha” question is lazy — the person asking it gets to feel super-clever by asking some superficial question that s/he can rationalize as having deeper meaning. And the way the press then jumped all over the responses to that question just compounds it all and makes the person who asked it seem even more clever — see? everybody is talking about the question that I asked, I’m important! Nobody is discussing the actual policy issues or the candidates’ substantive answers to substantive questions, it’s 24/7 coverage of “the cry” and how it shows what a great guy Baker is. He might be a great guy, his tears may or may not have been contrived, and the story may or may not be more “truthy” than truthful, but how is any of that remotely relevant to whether Baker or Coakley should be elected Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts?
The question is whether or not Charlie was being genuine in his remark that the story made him cry when he recalls it. THAT is a separate issue from the story itself. If it is truly the memory he has and he truly believes it then just because specific details have become substituted or altered in his mind over time does nothing to diminish the answer he gave if indeed it chokes him to recall it. Yoda says, “Crocodile tears a missing New Bedford fisherman makes not.”
I do agree with Mitch though, the question doesn’t belong in a debate to begin with because – there’s nothing to debate!