Living in the Eye

It is with deepest regret today that I lay to rest a fine old saying: “Character is who you are when no one is watching.”

Not because character has become obsolete. But the idea of nobody watching has.

Any doubts in that direction were themselves laid to rest by former Governor Mitt Romney, whose unintended infomercial (“The United States! Now with 47 percent fewer taxpayers!”) has become fodder for pundits, comics and chat rooms across the country. Mr. Romney, of course, thought he was in a quieter corner of the campaign trail, a closed fund-raiser where anything said in the room would stay in the room.

But it wasn’t Vegas. And it wasn’t private.

Nothing really is, in the age of the Internet.

Lest you think you I like to pick on Mitt, he’s just the latest victim. A similar event four years ago put Barack Obama on the hot seat, thanks to an infamous remark about “bitter” voters who “cling to guns and religion.” He, too, found that closed doors and an open society don’t mix very will.

If only they had learned the Restaurant Rule.

There’s two restaurant rules, actually. The first I originally read in a Dave Barry piece (and later found he had stolen it from Raytheon CEO Bill Swanson): “A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person.” It’s a useful standard, and for more than just waiters; I find, for example, that I can tell a lot about a person by how they treat our developmentally disabled ward Missy.

But it’s the second restaurant rule I’m thinking of. The one taught by my mother long ago, in two parts:

  1. Always assume that what you say at a restaurant can be heard at the next table.
  2. Never assume that no one you know is at that table.

The last time I brought this up with anyone, I was thinking of Facebook, where a whispered talk at a back table can reach the maitre d’ in moments. But between YouTube, Twitter, camera phones and more, any gathering spot can become an Internet sensation in moments. Never mind Big Brother watching you – it’s Little Brother, the friend or neighbor with curiosity and a smartphone, whose eye can reach farther than any Orwellian bureaucrat ever dreamed.

This could create the most honest politicians on the planet. Or the phoniest ones ever.

Honest, because we can see and hear them in their most unguarded moments and learn what truths lie behind the campaign programming. What point is there to hiding in a searchlight?

Phony, if the candidates realize there are no unguarded moments and start wearing the mask at all times, public and private. Shine a light – and there’s no one there.

Personally, I’d urge the honesty, and not just because it gives me better news stories. Sooner or later, masks slip, even if only for a moment. That’s when the damage comes, not necessarily because of what you said or did, but because you tried to bury it. (Right, Mr. Nixon?)

But remember, candidates and candidates-to-be, there is always an audience. If that tempers your remarks, if it holds back your wilder impulses, if it means more biting of the tongue than biting remarks – that’s not a bad thing.

That’s not phoniness. That’s discretion.

So, let me remind you: You have the right to remain silent. (And when it comes to television ads, we’d really prefer it.) Anything you say can and probably will come back to haunt you in the court of public opinion.

Remember the restaurant. Consider the customers.

And always tip the waiter when you’re done.

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