Friday, March 28, 2008

The Tom Cruise Effect

The big question when a scandal breaks is this: Will it or will it not stick to whoever is in the middle of it? Sometimes these things come and go and after a day or so of anxious pundit hand wringing they've gone gently into that good night where old scandals go to die. Other times, the scandal sticks around and haunts a candidate or politician until either a bigger scandal comes along or they get out of the game.

Matt Bai wrote a brilliant piece yesterday explaining why some scandals stick like Krazy Glue and why others slip away. It was brilliant for it's insight, depth, writing, and the fact that it's something I've said several times before. Basically, Bai writes that a scandal will stick if it jars against the general narrative of your campaign or fits the narrative that someone else is trying to tell about your campaign. For instance, the controversy over Hillary Clinton NOT landing in Bosnia under sniper fire will probably stick around because it jars against her claims of having tough commander in chief qualifications and it fits with the narrative that she'll say anything (true or not) to get elected.

I've been calling this the Tom Cruise Effect. The gist of the effect is that a news story will be made to fit the narrative that already exists about a person. That's where Tom Cruise comes in. In recent years the general narrative about Tom is that he's off the wall loony. Fair or not, I don't know. That's just the story. However many years ago, he and Katie Holmes had a daughter. There was a stretch after she was born that none of the press got to see or take picures of the baby.

Now, had this been someone with a normal, nice guy reputation (think Tom Hanks) the story would have been about what a great parent he was being by trying to shield his daughter from the glare of the paparazzi. But this wasn't Tom Hanks, this was Tom Cruise. And the Tom Cruise story is that he's a Scientologist nut job. So the story that I ended up reading wasn't about how great a dad he was. I was reading a story about a sinister conspiracy (interestingly, no one could really say of what or why) to keep the baby hidden - if there was a baby at all.

We've seen pictures of the baby now, so the media can breathe a sigh of relief. But the story remains instructive for our look at political scandals. In short, a scandal won't hold on if it comes out of nowhere and doesn't fit into any sort of narrative that has already been established. However, beware the scandal that fits the narrative. It sticks around and it makes the narrative even stronger. That can be a dangerous double whammy for anyone seeking office.

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