By: Eric Jaye, President of Storefront Political Media
The camera captures the once-mighty Mayor Rahm Emanuel – now cut so low.
The power suits from his Washington days are replaced by a rumbled sweater. The swagger is gone. He’s “the New Rahm” apologizing for past mistakes after being forced into a run-off by an insurgent candidate, whom he had just outspent by nearly 15 to 1.
It is a spectacle of his own making both uncomfortable and impossible to ignore – the mighty Mayor Emanuel forced to say he’s sorry as he struggles to reset his re-election campaign locked in a tight horse race with the surging progressive Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
Is Rahm sincere? Probably not.
Will it work? If history is any guide – there is a decent chance it will.
Emanuel Political Strategists Call the “Mea Culpa Play”
Rahm Emanuel isn’t the first big city mayor to falter in his first term – out of arrogance or ignorance or circumstance. And he is not the first mayor in trouble to try to restore political equilibrium with a well-timed “mea culpa.” By now it is a tested strategy that has worked for mayors from New York City’s John Lindsay to San Francisco’s Willie Brown.
The glamorous Lindsay seems to have set the template for the mayoral mea culpa, with this spot in which he sheds the tailored jacket, loosens his tie and essentially apologizes for the failures of his first term. Lindsay went on to win a tough re-election.
Well before the YouTube era, I first heard about this Lindsay spot from my first boss in politics, the pioneering consultant Clint Reilly.
Unable to show it to us on tape, Clint acted it out for his staff one day. He clearly remembered it well – striking the same pose as Lindsay and he repeated the spot virtually word for word even years after he had seen it.
Reilly started a political consulting firm that eventually became one of the most successful in America – part of the generation of pioneers who literally invented the business we work in today. He travelled around the nation studying and perfecting his craft, and at some point David Garth, the consultant who shot the Lindsay spot, had clearly pulled out a ¾ inch tape and showed the spot to Clint.
The Lindsay spot was memorable then – and now. The stuff of myth, really. The story of a hero cut down to size, then shows the scars of a battle so clearly that the public – whom yesterday was so angry – today begins to root for a comeback.
Years later I remembered Clint’s lesson in the waning days of then Mayor Brown’s re-election campaign as Mayor of San Francisco when I was part of the team working to salvage Brown’s campaign.
Brown, for those who have forgotten him, far exceeded even Rahm Emanuel in his self esteem, and he had managed during a tumultuous first term to antagonize most of San Francisco’s diverse voting blocks with what most regarded as outrageous statements and some saw as high-handed behavior. Brown had been forced into a run-off by a write-in candidate and was polling behind the challenger, a first-term county supervisor and former stand-up comic named Tom Ammiano.
Brown was so naturally confident that he thought nothing of posing in an Ermine Robe and crown just days before the first round voting in his campaign. But now he was facing the unspeakable humiliation of being beaten by an insurgent comic.
San Francisco is a small city at the heart of an expensive media market – and the dominant political medium has traditionally been direct mail rather than broadcast television.
So along with my then partner, Michael Terris, one evening I wrote this piece – Lessons Learned. It was in the voice of Brown, and he (as ghost written by us) he promises to “keep his mouth shut and his door open.”
That same night the savvy GC, Jack Davis, made his edits. And then after the piece was designed the next day, I took a comp to the Mayor to get his approval. His hyper loyal personal staff had been rendered literally speechless by the very idea of the mighty mayor apologizing for anything. They, somewhat cynically I thought, wished me “good luck” as I walked into his office to show him the piece.
Brown read the draft mail piece carefully and silently. He occasionally glanced up at me with a expression I can only call disdain. He handed it back to me without a word and motioned me to the door with jerk of his head.
On the way out, the staff asked me – “What did he say?”
I answered truthfully – “He said yes.”
Brown was re-elected – never again apologizing to anyone for his behavior. But like all the smartest politicians, when he faced a choice of saying “I’m sorry” or “good bye” he chose the path of self-preservation.