Correction Appended: Sept. 20, 2012
There are plenty of people out there analyzing what Mitt Romney said in the secretly recorded fundraising-dinner video that Mother Jones magazine posted online Sept. 17. I'll let other pundits continue to debate what his comments about "the 47%"--who, he told a banquet table of donors, pay no income tax, depend on government and are destined to vote for Barack Obama--say about his campaign, his base and his character.
Me, I couldn't stop looking at the waiters.
We often talk about how campaign controversies, gaffes and images are "framed": presented by the media, spun by opponents. But the most fascinating thing about the Romney video is how it's literally framed. We're watching him from what looks like the polished surface of a serving table, the hidden camera surrounded by gleaming barware, a decanter of wine and a candle, tucked away behind the objects of service. We can hear him loud and clear, but we can see only the tiny blur of his head and the backs of his supping $50,000-a-plate guests.
We see and hear everything, in other words, from the furtive vantage point of the help. Whoever had the camera, he or she must have been able to inconspicuously access the bar, and the bar provides a very particular point of view. As Romney bemoans the culture of dependency in the background, servers in the foreground rustle up ice cubes. As guests ask about the stock market's prospects and why Romney doesn't more aggressively assert pride in his success, white-gloved waiters refill drinks. As donors loudly applaud a secondhand Marco Rubio story about aspiring to wealth through hard work, a waitress quietly asks for clean martini glasses.
All modern candidates, Republican and Democratic, spend time in banquet rooms indulging wealthy donors. (At one point, Romney listens politely as a guest rails against the penny.) We just don't usually see them. So knocking Romney for campaigning in a room of rich people is not in itself a legitimate critique.
But the picture was just awful. Campaign embarrassments are often unfair, in that an image or quote will hurt a candidate more if it reinforces an existing narrative. Your geopolitical fumbles matter more if you're the inexperienced governor of Alaska. Your haircut matters more if you look like John Edwards than if you look like Bill Richardson.
And if you are Mitt Romney, with Mitt Romney's biography, résumé and bankroll, there are certain things you don't want to be filmed saying in a dining room full of toffs in a Boca Raton, Fla., mansion that looks like a location from Eyes Wide Shut (and whose owner reportedly threw a tabloid-notorious sex party at an estate in the Hamptons). The visual and class ironies couldn't have been better laid out by the set designer for The Remains of the Day. As guests and candidates discuss the intractability of the dependent classes, cutlery clinks, stemware tinkles, a cork pops. You half expect someone to hoist a champagne flute, adjust his monocle and declare, "A toast, gentlemen! To industry!"