Of smoots and gaffes

by Ken Feltman

But smoots aren’t just any kind of graffiti. They’re smoots!

(Massachusetts Metropolitan District Commission, the government body in charge of the Harvard Bridge) 

In October of 1958, Oliver Reed Smoot was an MIT freshman and a pledge of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. He had no idea that the brothers of Lambda Chi were about to give him a form of immortality. Nor did they. But what started as a fraternity prank ended in what physicists call eloquence – the eloquence of a scientific theory that neatly ties up the loose ends. With Oliver Smoot, the end is a unit of measure that is fun to apply, not at all technical and about as accurate as you need: The smoot.

The Harvard Bridge across the Charles River links Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood (home to many fraternity houses) and the Cambridge campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. On that autumn evening in 1958, the Lambda Chi brothers rolled pledge Smoot, head over heels, across the bridge. They determined that the bridge was 364.4 smoots (plus or minus an ear). Successive pledge classes repainted their markings and, when the bridge was reconstructed, the governing body allowed the markings to be restored and installed a plaque commemorating the origin of the smoot. Local police use smoot markers to locate incidents along the bridge.

Smoots optional

MIT students have the option of using the smoot instead of other units of measurement in papers and tests. Google includes the smoot in its conversion tables. Students say it just feels better when they calculate with smoots. It fits. It adds a little fun to things. The smoot, it seems, is here to stay. It has a sort of eloquence.

Two-way eloquence

Eloquence works both ways. Take the gaffe-filled campaign of Mitt Romney. His inexplicable blunders seemed designed to give the skeptical, often hostile media a reason-a-day to point out his unsuitability for the presidency. His staff showed signs of cracking under the pressure. Each day, some pundit would write that the wheels were coming off the Romney campaign. They were. Then Romney went against the wishes of his inner-staff and picked a young congressman from Wisconsin for his running mate. Many things about Ryan did not measure up to what the pundits thought Romney needed in a VP. Ryan was too conservative, staunchly pro-life, author of a contentious budget bill. Immediately, things started to change.

Fundraising popped, crowds jammed events, Romney crept up in some polls. The pundits sensed something happening but did not know what to make of it. They missed the hint: Romney is a happier candidate when he campaigns with his wife. She brings a smile to his face, emotion to his voice. He seems to draw energy from her. Alone, he can be flat.

“He’s colorless, really no color, nothing there,” said a man in an Ohio focus group. Everyone laughed or smiled as they shook their heads affirmatively. “My husband said he’s the cadaver candidate,” remarked a woman in Florida. Everyone howled in agreement. The speculation about Condoleezza Rice, Chris Christie and Ryan was fueled by grassroots anxiety because the other vice presidential possibilities seemed to mirror Romney’s colorlessness, not compensate for it.

A different science

Clearly, Romney feels better and performs better when Ryan is around. Still, conventional wisdom tells the pundits that this is just the typical bounce that candidates get when they announce their vice president. Research going back years confirms the temporary nature of the VP bounce. Why should the Ryan bounce be different? Maybe people who know Romney, who have worked with Romney at Bain, have the answer.

He attracted hard-charging over-achievers. Sometimes, Romney seemed to feed off the currents generated by one of the ambitious and impatient new hires, almost developing a symbiotic relationship that led to higher performance for both. If voters get hints of that possibility, Romney’s choice of Ryan will be the brilliant – almost magic – decision that changes the election. As close as things are, it will not take much.

Sometimes, it just feels right. With the choice of Ryan, things in the campaign have settled down. Ryan brings a little fun to things. He fits the Romney style. A physicist might call that eloquence. Pundits will call it chemistry.

Whatever it is called, the crowds at Romney-Ryan campaign events like it. Do not measure this VP bounce the conventional way. Measure this one in smoots.

(A version of this will be published in Politico on August 25, 2012.)

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Known as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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