Monday, October 20, 2008

Joe the Plumber learns Rule #1: Fame is a bitch

Tell me if this sounds a little off to you, too.

"Joe the Plumber" is lashing out at the media for analyzing his personal life since he suddenly became a focal point of the presidential race last week.

Joe Wurzelbacher, a plumber from Holland, Ohio, told Mike Huckabee on his Fox News talk show Saturday that he is upset by the attention and has been unable to work with reporters crowded on his front lawn.

I can imagine that going from relative anonymity to national brand name in two weeks would be a jolt to the system for most people--it certainly sounds unpleasant to me--but when you get to complain about it on national TV, your distress begins to ring a little hollow.

As I understand the time-line (note that Joe now has his own Wikipedia entry), a FOX camera crew caught Wurzelbacher getting a few moments of impromptu face time with Obama when the candidate was touring his neighborhood in Ohio. Then, four days later--and, as far as I know, without clearing it with Wurzelbacher in advance--McCain brought him up (as "Joe the Plumber") during the third presidential debate. Obama responded to McCain about "Joe," and then to "Joe" directly--and suddenly Wurzelbacher's fifteen minutes had begun.

My sense is that Joe had a little harmless political fun at an Obama event, putting some hard questions to a candidate he probably wasn't going to vote for amyway (even if the basis of those questions was a little dodgy). And--as a guy who fancies himself pretty smart and likes to hear himself talk (and I still can't find anything to fault him for so far)--he got a kick out of the sudden media attention.

It only turned sour for him when his new-found celebrity brought his claims about his business and his taxes under public scrutiny--which is ironic, because it was those claims that put him on the media map to begin with. What did Joe imagine--that he was going to get all that valuable air-time simply to trade heart-healthy recipes with Rachael Ray?

The way McCain tells it, the first time he talked to Wurzelbacher was three days after the debate--again suggesting that Wurzelbacher didn't know he would be brought up at the debate (although it doesn't rule out someone from the campaign making the contact).

So, let's review: On Oct 11th, Wurzelbacher asked Obama a question about tax policy when the latter was campaigning on his street. And good for him. (Turns out he was wrong about his objections to Obama's tax plans, but that hardly matters at this point.) And either he didn't notice, or didn't care that a FOX camera crew caught it. And what if he did? Only a believer in the wildest of coincidences would imagine it could make him a household name in a little over 96 hours, and that TV cameras like the one that caught him talking to Obama would become a fixture in his front lawn.

On October 15th, John McCain mentioned Joe--without prior approval, it appears, and not by full, correct name, but as "Joe the Plumber," which was enough--over 20 times during the debate. Obama, in response, mentioned him several more times. Joe is now clearly no longer the master of his media fate, just as neither you or I would be if we got mentioned so prominently, in the kind of story that the press (and bloggers--don't forget them) just love to run with. So a news cycle or two about him became inevitable at that point. But even at this late date, it's possible he could have tamped down the publicity if he'd simply shut up and kept his head down.

He didn't. Beginning a few hours after the debate and continuing for several days, Joe got the kind of media exposure that publicists dream of: He was interviewed by Katie Couric (CBS), Neil Cavuto (FOX), and Diane Sawyer (ABC), among others. The morning after his debate, he held a press conference at his home in which he refused to say which candidate he was voting for. He didn't ask to be left alone, explaining that he had only wanted to ask a candidate a question, not become anyone's poster-boy. He went all Garbo and refused to say who he'd vote for, a move almost guaranteed to whet the media's appetite. From this point on, it's hard to blame the fallout of that on anyone but Joe.

So on Saturday he sat on Mike Huckabee's FOX News Channel talk show--still not keeping your head down, Joe!--complaining that his private affairs are being picked over by the media. He's figured out that it's bad for him, but he just can't walk away.

And now Joe the Plumber knows Rule #2: Fame is a drug.

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