AS EVERYONE in the world likely knows by now, Rick Perry stumbled in Wednesday’s debate, forgetting the third of the three federal departments he wants to eliminate.
The judgment has been fierce. Perry’s mental lapse has been treated as a monumental miscue, an incident of intellectual incompetence epic enough to end any chance the Texas governor has of rebounding.
That’s possible; politics, after all, is a tough business, and in the cable news age, Perry’s debate lowlight will play again and again and again.
And yet, I expect most people will be more forgiving than the pundits think. Why? Because most of us have suffered similar mortifying public episodes when your brain simply freezes up or your memory goes on strike.
One that still haunts me almost a quarter century later came during my days at the Boston Phoenix. The folks at the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional office had asked four or five reporters to be part of a discussion about how the agency could better meet the needs of the media.
I said I would — and then promptly forgot all about it until the morning of the event. When I showed up, a few minutes late, the reportorial panel was seated at a table in the agency’s auditorium. Reliving the incident today, there are thousands of audience members staring down at me, though a couple of hundred is a better guess.
I’d thought we were simply going to answer questions, so I was disconcerted when the moderator asked us each to talk for five minutes or so about the particular needs of our job.
The first reporter stood and delivered a polished, witty presentation — one that included almost everything I could think to say. As the second rose, I desperately scrawled a few notes.
My turn came. I stood. I had thought up a quip about a toxic plume, a phrase the first speaker had mentioned. But as I looked out at the audience, it no longer seemed the slightest bit funny. (There’s a reason you don’t often hear TV’s late-night hosts trying to mine the comedic possibilities of environmental-science terms.)
I started in a different direction, but after a sentence or two, my heart was beating so hard I could hear the thud in my head. I stopped speaking and stood there, my mind a blank.
“I’m sorry, I seem to have lost my train of thought,’’ I heard myself say. Whereupon someone a few rows back put his head in his arms the way flight attendants counsel you to do if your plane is about to crash. Which, in retrospect, pretty much summed things up.
The only thought that came to me was this: I HAVE TO SIT DOWN RIGHT NOW. That, however, didn’t seem altogether pertinent to a talk about how EPA staffers could help a weekly reporter.
I looked at my notes. “Mick Jagger.’’
Mick Jagger? Mick Jagger? Suddenly it came back to me: I had written his name down because I was thinking of using the line “who wants yesterday’s papers?’’ as a jumping off point to note that we weekly reporters aimed to do more than just follow the dailies, and thus were good outlets for big stories about developing environmental issues.
“As Mick Jagger put it, ‘Who wants yesterday’s news?’ ’’ I blurted out. “We weekly reporters don’t.’’
And that was pretty much the sum of my remarks. A stumbling sentence or two later, I sat down. Truth be told, the audience seemed a little perplexed. No matter. I wouldn’t have continued my, um, presentation if Meredith Vieira had offered me a million dollars.
That experience is why I personally felt bad for Rick Perry on Wednesday night. And found myself thinking, yet again, that we in the media make too much of stumbles like his.
Think about it: We’ve now had far more discussion of Perry’s temporary inability to remember the third agency he hopes to slay than we have about what the effects of eliminating the departments of Commerce, Education, and Energy would actually be.
And that, frankly, is getting things backward.
Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.