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A Behind the Lens View of Why Marco Rubio Crashed and Burned
Florida Senator Marco Rubio is not looking like the next leader of the Republican Party. What happened to him last night?
I’ve seen the Rubio deer in the headlights look many times in my career as a TV producer and on camera talent. It can creep up on someone who isn’t used to speaking live to a camera lens when they step into the circle of light, all alone. Wide-eyed terror accompanied by dry mouth and sweat are signs of doom, especially for a live shoot. You know the person is not going to own this, even if they manage to get through it without incident. There’s no b-roll to save them, no pretend papers to glance down at or shuffle.
Speaking directly to a camera live is very different than doing an interview or even giving a televised speech to a large room. It’s different than taping a speech given directly to the camera, where you can do it until you get it right. We can usually make a person feel comfortable when we’re interviewing them, because they are looking at the producer or interviewer while a camera is shooting them from over the interviewer’s shoulder. They get to make eye contact with a person instead of the camera. While giving a speech, the person is often behind a podium and not speaking directly to one camera the entire time.
Some people do well in front of crowds, as guests on TV programs and during interviews, but freeze up alone in the room with a camera and technicians. It can be daunting to have the entire show be about you, even to experienced professionals. It’s always scary, especially if you’re live. There’s a reason they call people who can do this well “talent”.
In the middle of his State of the Union response, the Republican Party’s “rising star” stopped for a moment, bent down out of the frame of the camera, trailing his lines off as discarded, irrelevant talking points, in order to reach for a bottle of water. He popped back into the frame from below, staring up at the camera like a lost boy, searching for his place on the teleprompter. It was not a good image for a 2016 presidential contender.
The problem isn’t that he needed a drink of water, though his dry mouth was apparent and distracting throughout his speech; it made him sound nervous and less than commanding. Many politicians take a drink of water while speaking. But they don’t look so terrified while they’re doing it. Also, the hero never addresses the camera from below; the hero takes up the center of the frame and dominates it. This is media 101.
Rubio is busy making excuses for ‘Watergate’: He had a long day, his mouth was dry, there was no podium… This is key into what happened. The podium is something to cling to, it gives the speaker a sense of grounding and something to hide behind. Something to lean on, something to do with their hands, something to look down at. But last night, Rubio was stuck staring into the lens of a camera without a crutch and he wasn’t prepared for it.
We try to teach people to treat the lens like it’s an old friend, imagine someone they know and trust sitting there, talk to it like it’s a person. But some people just can’t do it, regardless of how many time they practice. Adding a teleprompter can make things better or worse, depending upon the person. It deadens the eyes but distracts them from the gaping black hole.
The real horror is that they don’t know they can’t do it until the camera turns on for real and they’re live. You’d be amazed what a difference it makes when the camera is on — someone who was alright during the warm up suddenly tenses, and things go from bad to worse.
Mika Brzezinski called Rubio’s fail a “performance issue” on Morning Joe, stemming from a lack of passion or preparation, “These things happen when you don’t really know what you’re saying or believe what you’re saying or feel what you’re saying, this is what happens.” That’s also true, but Marco Rubio had obviously practiced this speech until he could say it in his sleep. Rubio punctuated certain lines with smiles on cue to such an extent that I could almost see the teleprompter notes: Smiley here. Frowny here.
Some people just can’t address a camera directly without a prop, desk, podium — some crutch. The looming black hole sucks them in until they’re a dry-mouthed basket case. It doesn’t mean they aren’t smart or don’t have a lot to offer. It just means they are bad at this one skill.
But in Rubio’s case, he also lacks experience, he lacks an aura of leadership, he lacks presence and he lacks substance. You have to have at least one of those things to be a rising political star, and preferably many of them. He has also alienated both Hispanics and women — the two groups the Republican Party so desperately needs to court. Rubio has the right color skin for the Republican Party’s new branding, and that’s about it.
Rubio is trying to brush “Watergate” off by laughing with it, and good for him for having the ability to roll with being the butt of a viral joke. But he’s missing the point. Forever etched in Americans’ minds is the image of this upstart criticizing the president as he tanks under the pressure of the national spotlight. Ineffective, uninspiring, and forgettable, save for the bewildered Lost Boy moment.
This fail is more the fault of the Republican Party than Marco Rubio. They wasted yet another young talent by shoving him out of the nest before he was ready. But they’re also guilty of letting their desperation delude them into thinking they can make anyone a star. If star-making were so easy, everyone would be doing it. This is also why Republicans are so derisive of Obama’s star power. You can’t manufacture a real star. They just are.