Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has not been having a good week. His image struggles are dragging him down in the polls, his fighting talk on immigration looks as if it will cost him a key demographic, and he dissed a man’s baking skills.
At a picnic stop on Tuesday in Bethel Park, a suburb of Pittsburgh, Romney added another gem to what is becoming an increasingly gaffe-encrusted campaign when, in a single brief squirt of verbal diarrhea, he managed to insult both a mom-and-pop store and a multinational food retailer. “I’m not sure about these cookies,” he remarked to the gentleman who had just placed a plate of baked goods in front of him. “They don’t look like you made them. No, no — they came from the local 7-Eleven, bakery or whatever.”
Turns out they had been made by local business owner and Romney supporter John Walsh, whose Bethel Bakery is apparently beloved as one of the best eateries in town. Oops.
Turns out also that 7-Eleven does have bakeries that supply fresh baked goods to its stores nationwide. Double oops.
While this story stands out in that it almost beggars belief that a seasoned politician like Mitt Romney could fluff one of the cardinal rules of campaigning (i.e. the town or state you’re in is the friendliest and most delightful place you’ve ever visited; your host’s family is beautiful, wholesome and flawlessly hospitable; any food offered to you is the most delectable ambrosia that has ever passed your lips), it’s also remarkable for another reason. It’s a classic encapsulation of the resilience and ingenuity of American entrepreneurship.
Once he’d got over the shock and disbelief of what he’d just heard (and it did take him a while), Walsh immediately got to thinking how he could turn Romney’s foot-in-mouth moment to his advantage. The next morning, Bethel Bakery began offering a “Cookiegate Special”, offering customers half a dozen cookies free with every dozen purchased. Walsh and his employees were soon dealing with a deluge of orders, some from as far away as Georgia — and one from the Pennsylvania office of the Obama campaign.
Nor was 7-Eleven fazed for long. Not to be outdone, the convenience store giant put out a statement explaining that actually, they did offer fresh, high quality baked goods and that therefore Romney had been quite correct in asserting that Walsh’s delectable cookies could have come from one of their stores.
Turning bad publicity into good is, of course, nothing new: just ask Charlie Sheen, and the brands currently benefiting from his presence in their TV commercials. Or out-gay comedienne, talk show host and freshly minted JC Penney spokesperson Ellen DeGeneres, who invoked the wrath of pro-family group One Million Moms, which threatened a boycott of the store, then dropped it after receiving a deluge of comments on its Facebook page from women stating that although they hadn’t shopped at JC Penney before, they would be shopping there now.
And that’s just business. Politicians are also just as capable of digging themselves out of the deepest of holes — and then building palaces on the resulting piles of dirt. Think of Ronald Reagan, the “Teflon president”; or that most epic piece of bad publicity turnabout, the Lewinsky scandal.
This particular storm in a biscotti-dunkable teacup is unlikely to do much damage to Romney in the grander scheme of things, although he can be certain that it will come back to haunt him many times between now and November — at least it will if Democratic strategists have been paying any attention, which they have been. On the contrary, it might very well, as we have seen, help him. John Walsh says he still supports Romney, and would love him to come back and try the cookies he spurned. If it accepts Walsh’s invitation, and times the return visit right, the Romney campaign has a potential public relations goldmine right there.
We shall see. For now I must leave you, dear reader, to ponder this shining illustration of small and big business cleverness in adversity, while I go and find some lunch. Unlike Mitt Romney, I have just a little bit of an appetite. Oh, and there’s a 7-Eleven just down the street.