This week marks the 10th anniversary of my 47-percent scoop. So please allow me to tell you a story about it that I have not shared publicly.
On the night of Election Day 2012, after President Barack Obama had won reelection, after he had delivered his victory speech at the McCormick Place convention center in Chicago, after the delighted crowd of thousands had dispersed, after I had filed a story (“The election, a close call for Obama, signaled that division is still rampant within the political culture”), after I had waited for a television hit that was then scrubbed, after most of the press had cleared out, I needed to get back to my hotel. It was cold and rainy, and I heard that finding a cab had become impossible. I was combatting a cold and carrying a large bag and did not relish the prospect of a three-mile, post-midnight walk through wet and windy streets. I knew that two pals of mine were still in the building attending a reception for friends and family (and fundraisers) of Vice President Joe Biden, and they were staying in a hotel next to mine. Surely, they might have access to transportation. (You don’t leave funders stranded on the northern edge of the South Side.) I texted them, and they told me that if I could find my way to them, they would get me on to a shuttle.
Two reception areas had been set up behind the stage, one for Obama people, one for Biden’s gang. They were pens bordered by tall, thick curtains. There was no joint celebration. One security guard was posted at the entrance to the Biden event. While he was talking to someone, I slipped past and entered the make-shift room. About a hundred people were milling about. There was a limited bar and modest food offerings. It was far from glamorous. No media were allowed here, and I felt like an intruder. My intent was to hang in a dark corner and wait until my friends departed. I did not want to be seen as a reporter sneaking into a private function. And I didn’t want to be tossed out. Low-profile—that was my goal.
My plan didn’t work. I was soon spotted and recognized. Several members of Biden’s family approached me, and I prepared my tale of woe: I’m feeling awful, and I’m just waiting for John and Joe so I can catch a ride and not have to walk back to the hotel. But I didn’t need it. They greeted me warmly and pulled me into the center of the room. “Look,” someone said. “It’s the 47-percent guy.”
I was greeted with praise and congratulations for being the reporter who had revealed a secretly-recorded video of Mitt Romney telling a group of high-rolling funders at a private Florida dinner that 47 percent of Americans were freeloaders “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.” He added that it was not his job “to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Romney had denigrated nearly half of the country. The story went viral and reinforced the Obama-Biden campaign’s accusation that Romney was an out-of-touch plutocrat who did not understand or care about regular folks. For a reporter, it was a dream scoop: video that disclosed the inner workings of big-money politics and revealed what a presidential candidate told the fat cats when (he thought) there were no cameras. Best of all, it could not be denied. This was not a sources-say story that could be challenged. It was all there in digital footage. Though Romney, his campaign, and his allies initially made a sad attempt to claim his remarks were being reported out of context, we at Mother Jones released the entire hour-long video. Nothing was out of context. (You can read how I nabbed this story here or check out my ebook, 47 Percent: Uncovering the Romney Video that Rocked the 2012 Election.)
This was the sort of story a reporter yearns for. It was impactful and generated headlines across the nation and even overseas. Romney flubbed the response. After he couldn’t spin his way out of the mess, he semi-apologized and then had to apologize again.
In the years since, analysts have discussed whether the 47-percent video—which was surreptitiously shot by a bartender at the fundraiser—made a difference in the outcome of the race. Polling data is inconclusive. But what data cannot measure is opportunity cost. Romney’s clumsy efforts to deal with the story kept it alive for news cycle after news cycle, for almost two weeks of the general election campaign. (At one point, about 10 days after I posted the video, a producer at CBS News exclaimed to me, “It’s still in the news. That never happens anymore.”) This meant the Romney campaign was not able to focus fully on other matters, such as attacks on Obama or actions to sell Romney as the potential economic savior for the nation.
In a political campaign, time is a valuable resource. Romney had only about 11 weeks after the convention to make his case to American voters. Whether his remarks had pushed voters into Obama’s column, they had undercut his campaign’s plans for the second half of the month of September. At the least, the revelation had stolen time from Romney. Years later, a Romney adviser told me that the exposé had thrown the Romney campaign off its game. He also asked me if the Russians were behind the leak of the video. He had concocted the conspiracy theory that Moscow had orchestrated this whole thing to sabotage Romney. His evidence: Some funders at that dinner had Russian girlfriends or wives. No, I said, there was no Russian involvement.
Many people did believe the 47-percent story had sunk Romney. That seemed to be the view of the Bidenites who warmly welcomed me into the victory-night reception. I felt a bit uncomfortable. I was a reporter, not an Obama-Biden partisan. But, hey, if they didn’t mind my presence and this saved me a long trek in the rain, I could go along with it. I nibbled, had a drink (water!), and chatted with my two friends and others. After some time, a few men dressed in suits—Secret Service?—entered the room and set up a podium and a rope line in front of it. A little while later, we heard a roar from the reception next door. Obviously, Obama and Biden were in the house.
The Biden room buzzed with excitement. The winners were coming. The Biden people waited patiently. Finally, another roar came from the Obama room. That seemed to signal the Obama-Biden visit there was done. A few minutes later, the pair entered the Biden reception and were met by cheers and applause. The crowd surged forward and pressed against the rope line. I saw a few people shedding tears of joy.
Obama went to the podium first. He graciously thanked his vice president and running-mate, noting that he valued Biden’s counsel and that Biden deserved much credit for Obama’s successes in the White House and on the campaign trail. He thanked the attendees for their support and took a few steps back to allow Biden to take the stage.
Biden was ebullient. He called out friends and supporters he saw in the crowd. He talked about his partnership with Obama. While he spoke, Obama scanned the audience. His gaze turned in my direction. Hold on. Did the president just wink at me? I thought so. I kept watching him and didn’t see him shoot winks at anyone else. I had met Obama a few times and was once invited to the White House with several other columnists for a lunch with him. I had not spoken to him during the campaign. He might have recognized me. But was that wink really intended for me? And what did it mean? I imagined him thinking, what the hell are you doing here?
When Biden finished speaking, he walked in front of the podium and began shaking hands with the people behind the rope line. You know the drill. Secret Service agents kept him moving, as he leaned over the line to embrace people. And Obama worked the line right behind him. Everyone tried to get closer to the two men of the hour so they could shake a hand or exchange a few words. I kept my position several feet behind the devotees. A joyful Biden passed by, exulting in the moment.
When Obama was in front of me, he leaned over the rope line and the few bodies that separated us, swept out his long arm toward me—the man has an impressive wingspan—and put out his right hand to shake mine. You don’t leave a president hanging. I extended my hand. He gripped it tightly and pulled me closer to him, scrunching the two or three people between us. With his face next to mine, he said, “Thanks, I appreciate it.”
In the years since, I have asked friends and relatives how they would have replied to the president. The response has tended to be a simple “thank you.” But I had not reported the Romney story as a favor to Obama. The point had been to show the public the truth. Obama’s expressed gratitude, though nice, was not material. In this moment, I didn’t have much time to think through a response. But it didn’t feel right to shoot back a “thank you” or a "you're welcome." Instead, I said, “Put it to good use.” He shot me one of those all-knowing Obama glances, pumped my hand, and said, “I will.” Then, with a nudge from a Secret Service agent, he moved on.
When Obama and Biden finished with the rope line, they left the room. The Biden people were beaming. And now, in the wee hours, it was time to go. There were shuttles waiting, and my friends escorted me on to one. We were driven to the hotel where the Biden crew was staying. Some of them wanted the party to continue, but the bar there was long closed. The celebration was over. People went to their rooms. I walked the block or two to my hotel. The night was done.
Put it to good use. History and all of us can judge whether Obama did so.
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