CPAC 2015: George Washington ate here

Much of the attention CPAC earned came from the annual straw poll results or sound bites from the candidate speeches. I’ll remember none of that.

I made it to CPAC for exactly one day this year, which was luckily all I needed to meet with my “CPAC friends” – fellow consultants, bloggers, or activists who I tend to bump into once a year, only at CPAC. That day was Friday. Late in the afternoon, I realized I 1) hadn’t eaten a full meal yet and 2) needed to go someplace quiet to get some work done. Off to the National Harbor McDonald’s I went, for a Friday Filet-o-Fish and some time away from CPAC, I thought.

I was only partly right: Soon after sitting down in a booth in the nearly deserted McDonald’s, I spied George Washington walk in. As regular CPAC goers can attest, there’s always a guy there dressed like Washington, so there was no mystery about where he came from.

Some of the other conference goers came in after him and struck up a conversation as they all waited for their respective orders. (I eavesdropped, of course. How often do you get to listen in on a conversation with George Washington? It wasn’t rude, it was history, so back off.)

They had apparently seen him join a group of people who walked out during Jeb Bush’s speech earlier that day. Yes, the Washington impersonator replied, he had participated but hadn’t organized it. Curious, the other attendees asked who he would vote for among the Republican contenders.

“Well,” he replied thoughtfully, “Scott Walker is probably the one I identify with the most. I didn’t finish college, either, you know – though I did receive a certificate as a surveyor from William and Mary.”

Surveyor? Suddenly, I realized: He’s interacting with everyone as if he actually is George Washington. Either this dude is committed to staying in character, or everyone in the McDonald’s is going to end up with the title, “Victim of a Bizarre Murder Spree.”  I’m not sitting in a spot where I could dodge musket fire at that point so I listen up and hope for the best.

President Washington introduces himself to a family sitting two booths over. The daughter, Alexandria (“How lovely,” Washington exclaimed at hearing her name. “They named a city after you, you know!”) had encouraged him to join her, her father, and her siblings. During their conversation the Father of Our Country mentioned that he does do school visits. It’s a bit tough to get him though. He explains: “My website is down but it will be up soon. In the meantime, Dr. Franklin gave me this wind whispering device – you speak into it and it carries your voice into the wind.” President Washington hold up his “wind whispering device,” which is a mobile phone. Ben Franklin understood cell phones but apparently couldn’t figure out GoDaddy.

Washington gets up to leave and runs into some more kids, siblings from another family that happened into this now-historic McDonald’s. Seeing their red hair, he pointed out that both he and his pal Thomas Jefferson had red hair in their younger years. “That means you have revolutionary hair!” he told them.

And just like that, he donned his tri-corner hat and off he went; the great George Washington was spirited away by either the mists of the late afternoon Potomac or a Honda Accord – I didn’t get a great look into the parking lot.

You know what the best part about it was? The kids ate it up! Those red-haired kids bragged to their Dad about having revolutionary hair for the rest of the time they were there, just like Alexandria seemed genuinely excited about interacting with a Founding Father. Even while was chowing down french fries or talking with college-aged CPACers who are obviously messing with him, he refused to admit that he wasn’t George Washington or act like anything was amiss.

In the context of CPAC, the guy walking around like George Washington can be a bit of an embarrassment to the younger, comparatively hipper attendees. This year, I was happy he came – even if it was just for a side trip to McDonald’s.

(Since I know you’re wondering: Yes, some of these interactions were with black people; No, the issue of slavery did not come up.)

It’s not just winning, but HOW you win

Some would tell you that the larger, more diverse electorate that shows up in a Presidential year means Republicans are marching toward disappointment in 2016. Not so. In my new piece at Communities Digital News, I discuss how data-driven campaigning delivered most of the really close races of 2014 to the GOP – and how that sets them up for future success.

Sure, 2014 was a wave election – but that shouldn’t detract from smart Republican campaigns that put themselves in position to take advantage. There’s a difference between riding a wave and surfing.

Fearless Forecast: American Sniper will NOT win for Best Picture

If you’re laying down money on the Oscars… well, you might have a problem. But since we’re this far, my gambling advice would be to take the field against American Sniper. (Just remember: gambling advice is easy when it’s someone else’s money.)

We’d like to believe that the Academy Awards are only about excellence, but that’s a ridiculous expectation. There’s a vote on each award, which means a human element that’s susceptible to the winds of Zeitgeist. (Sidebar: Winds of Zeitgeist sounds like it should be a dime-store novel.) That’s why Michael Moore’s non-criticism criticism of American Sniper back in January damaged the movie’s chances. By injecting his opinions, the once-relevant documentarian Moore predictably drew a response. Conservatives praised the movie loudly while bashing Hollywood liberals.

The result was plenty of chatter about leftist Michael Moore and troop-supporting conservatives – but little about the film’s portrayal of war and the effects of military service on families back on the home front. Given the fact that Chris Kyle’s real-life alleged murderer is on trial right now, the film could have been recognized for making an important statement about post traumatic stress disorder. Instead, Newsmax is banging the drum for a Best Picture Oscar.

If liberals really do control Hollywood, would those who are Academy voters want to cast a vote for a movie that would validate the red-meat conservatives who have so vocally opposed Moore for nearly two months? If you’re looking at two or three movies and wondering who gets your nod, does the idea of controversy steer you away from Sniper?

Michael Moore clearly didn’t hurt the film at the box office, but the controversy over his comments made it tougher for American Sniper to pull off a win on Sunday night.

In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t see American Sniper, so these arguments aren’t on the merits of the films. (One of the joys of parenthood is that you can critically review every film you go see with, “While the storyline was somewhat derivative of earlier works, but sweet mother of jellybeans it was nice to get out of the house for two hours.”)  Maybe the other movies are actually better; maybe they aren’t. But clearly, thanks to the backlash against Moore, Sniper has a brand beyond being among the five-to-ten best movies of 2014.

ARod checks a box

Michael Kay had a smart reaction to the hand-written apology Alex Rodriguez dropped today.

It was a little silly that ARod scrawled the mea culpa across a couple sheets of paper pilfered from an office printer. But in releasing a written statement, Kay points out that Rodriguez will not face a firing squad of New York writers and radio commentators looking to tear him down. It won’t win him any fans, but at this point what would? Rodriguez’s reputation and credibility are shot, and the only chance to get back in the good graces of fans and Yankees ownership is to shut up and play well.

The letter itself says all the right things – or at least, all the things he has to say. Yes, he’s sorry. No, he doesn’t expect you to believe him. More important, its release allows ARod the luxury of responding to any further questions about coming back from suspension with a succinct, “I already talked about that.” Even if no one else wants to move past his PED use and suspension, Rodriguez can credibly say he has.

Each year, it seems like Rodriguez offers a new lesson in crisis communications – and usually provides a comprehensive seminar of what not to do. Maybe he got this one right.

How SNL became bulletbroof

Last night, Saturday Night Live’s celebration of its 40th season was… odd. The broadcast was not crisp. Most of the jokes fell flat. The cuts from scene to scene were sloppy. Eddie Murphy could have been replaced by Damon Wayans without materially changing anything.

It doesn’t really matter, does it? Watching cast members from different eras collaborate and the self-referential callbacks to the earlier classics, served as a reminder that SNL has undergone more resurrections than the bad guy in a 1980s slasher flick. Even though there were a lot – a LOT – of seasons when the show was less-than-par, there’s a trail of would-be competitors in the show’s wake. Even as the Tonight Show yielded ground to Arsenio and, eventually, Letterman, SNL was never seriously threatened. (MAD TV’s mid-90s debut was probably the best shot anyone took.)

Depending on how you count, SNL has had three excellent cast eras and maybe one or two more very good cast eras. Maybe even more important, SNL has done well at making its content packagable for the social internet age. Topical sketches are very sharable due to relevance and length, and the rise of shorts videos – a presence since the early years but more integrated in the last decade – have only helped. More than any old media property, SNL has been the most clearly adaptable to the modern media environment. While they’ve been slow at times, they’ve generally kept up.)

Because of that evolution – and the continued waves of success – the show has It’s a brand name now.  A bad year (or even three) won’t force NBC to pull the plug. Like Tonight, Today, Dateline, and the nightly news, SNL is more than a series on the network, it’s a block of time. Even if the format changes, 11:30 on Saturday night will have a comedy show on NBC for the forseeable future.

Pity the successors to Lorne Michaels at the helm of the show, though – with the show such a proven commodity, NBC will likely expect success. Saturday night Live may be bullet proof, but the

Week in Review: The best tribute David Letterman will get

David Letterman is not at his peak right now, and he’s probably right to walk away from late night television this year. In Tuesday night’s installment of the Late Show, many of Dave’s gags fell flat, and the audience responded with polite reverential applause. It was especially sad because Letterman made his bones as a sort-of anti-talk-show-host. For him to be treated with such kid gloves is almost worse than the awkward silence following a less accomplished comedian’s failed joke.

Then Chris Elliott came on to do a turn in the guest chair. If you’re a long-time fan, you could remember the old Late Night show, when Elliott was a writer and Letterman did what was arguably his best work. Their friendly banter was genuine – from Letterman making fun of Elliott’s new project, Schitt’s Creek to Elliott pinging Letterman for being two or three years away from being a “wacky Regis.” It’s always kind of fun to watch people on a stage who really respect and enjoy each other’s talents.

Never above making a public spectacle of himself, Elliott offered a touching tribute to Letterman as only he could:

Letterman’s response (“Thank you Chris. That was awful.”) was somehow heartfelt and ironic all at once. It’s too bad they couldn’t save this performance for the final show.

(Sidebar: It’s not the first time Elliott has used the song, as fans of his short-lived sitcom Get a Life might recall.)