Bob Etheridge incident: What does he have to apologize for?

Rep. Bob Etheridge (D) has already apologized to two young men with whom he tussled after one asked the congressman if he supports Obama's agenda. Setup or no, the incident holds an old lesson for those in the public eye.

John Rottet/The News & Observer/AP
Rep. Bob Etheridge (D) speaks at a news conference in Raleigh, N.C. on Monday. The congressman apologized Monday after video posted online showed him swatting at a video camera and demanding that two men taping him with it identify themselves.

What does Bob Etheridge have to apologize for? He needs to acknowledge the obvious: You can’t go around grabbing and slapping at people on the streets of Washington, even if you’ve been a member of Congress for 14 years.

Let’s make that, especially if you’ve been a member of Congress for 14 years. Because the second thing Representative Etheridge (D) of North Carolina has to apologize for is forgetting the first rule of political behavior: In public, always behave as if you’re on camera. Because you probably are.

Shall we recap the action to this point? On Monday, websites owned by conservative Web entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart posted several short videos depicting an altercation between Representative Etheridge and two young men. One video begins with Etheridge, who’s trudging down a Washington street and obviously not paying much attention to his surroundings. Then one of the young men asks the lawmaker if he supports Barack Obama’s agenda. Etheridge quickly blows up, grabs the camera, and starts wrestling the young man around, asking who he is and whom he represents. Another angle, taken from a camera held by the second youngster, shows Etheridge shaking the first by the collar of his Capitol Hill-issue blue blazer.

Etheridge has apologized for his actions already. He told reporters on Monday, “The truth is, I had a long day, it was the end of the day, almost sunset,” he said. “But that’s not the issue. The issue is I apologize for my actions ... and I apologize to these young men as well.”

We’ll leave to others the debate as to whether Etheridge was set up by conservative activists. As he acknowledged, his behavior was over the line. It’s interesting, however, that the video makes a point of saying that Etheridge was coming from a fund-raiser hosted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, a constant target of the GOP.

Apparently Etheridge did not pay attention to the whole Helen Thomas thing of last week. The longtime journalist and former UPI stalwart quit journalism after a website put up her questionable comments about Israel – including a statement that Jews should go home to Germany and other countries of their ancestors.

Perhaps he wasn’t paying attention in 2002, either, when then-Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi made remarks that appeared sympathetic to the South’s segregated past at a 100th birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond. Senator Lott resigned his leadership post shortly thereafter.

More recently, newly minted California GOP Senate candidate Carly Fiorina got in trouble when she was filmed criticizing the hairstyle of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), the woman she hopes to defeat in the fall.

This is perhaps why many political figures always seem so guarded. They are watching their words carefully, in full knowledge that with a single misstep they can end their own careers, or at least damage them.

This was true in the days when the news cycle was 24 hours, and it is truer today, when the news cycle seems to be 24 minutes, on a slow day. In this era of video cellphones, everything a politician (or journalist) says can go viral, even if they say it at the end of a long day.

Almost sunset, in fact.


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