Rule One of great acting is, Do not read the stage directions.
You don’t, for instance, wrap up Hamlet’s big Act Two soliloquy — “ . . . the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” — and then say “Exit.”
Years ago, during the George H. W. Bush administration, public-opinion surveys began to register a troubling trend for a president campaigning for reelection: More and more people felt that Bush just didn’t care about people’s suffering during the (fairly shallow) recession of the early 1990s.
You’ve got to send them the message that you care, they told him. So, dutifully, in his next big public outing, he tried to send the message to the voters that he cared. He wound up a boilerplate stump speech by declaring, with as much passion as he could muster, “Message: I care!”
No, no, Mr. President, you could imagine his advisers saying. The “message” part is for us, it’s an internal thing. You’re supposed to give them the message that you care. By showing that you care.
Right, he might have replied, I did that. How much clearer could I have been?
You’re not supposed to say the “message” part, they might have replied as the presidential limo sped away.
But it says right here on the talking-points card you gave me, he could have shouted back. Right here! “Message: I care!”
But by that time, a pudgy governor of Arkansas had already bit his lower lip, felt our pain, and made us temporarily ignore his brittle wife. That was a guy who understood Rule One.
That guy can write, can't he?
But I've been looking ever since for a perfect "Message: I Care" moment from our current flailing, hapless, doomed president. Here's the first of what I know will be many examples. From Politico:
At Wednesday’s town hall in Atkinson, Ill., a local farmer who said he grows corn and soybeans expressed his concerns to President Obama about “more rules and regulations” – including those concerning dust, noise and water runoff -- that he heard would negatively affect his business.
The president, on day three of his Midwest bus tour, replied: “If you hear something is happening, but it hasn’t happened, don’t always believe what you hear.”
When the room broke into soft laughter, the president added, “No -- and I’m serious about that.”
Saying that “folks in Washington” like to get “all ginned up” about things that aren’t necessarily happening (“Look what’s comin’ down the pipe!”), Obama’s advice was simple: “Contact USDA.”
“Talk to them directly. Find out what it is that you’re concerned about,” Obama told the man. “My suspicion is a lot of times they’re going to be able to answer your questions and it will turn out that some of your fears are unfounded.”
Anybody ever tried to call the USDA? Here's the website. Find the number.
And even if you somehow did find the number, call it, and get a prompt answer -- a tall order, as anyone who has ever dealt with a federal bureau knows -- the answer will be, "Nope. No new regulations from this department. Please call another department, like the EPA. I think they're issuing regulations about dust. Yeah, you heard that right. Thank you for calling."
And here's what the EPA will tell you, from News9 in Oklahoma, where they know a thing or two about dust:
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering a crackdown on farm dust, so senators have signed a letter addressing their concerns on the possible regulations.
The letter dated July 23 to the EPA states, "If approved, would establish the most stringent and unparalleled regulation of dust in our nation's history." It further states, "We respect efforts for a clean and healthy environment, but not at the expense of common sense. These identified levels will be extremely burdensome for farmers and livestock producers to attain. Whether its livestock kicking up dust, soybeans being combined on a dry day in the fall, or driving a car down the gravel road, dust is a naturally occurring event."
Many in the Oklahoma farming industry are opposed to the EPA's consideration. One farmer said the possible regulations are ridiculous.
"It's plain common sense, we don't want to do anything detrimental," said farmer Curtis Roberts. "If the dust is detrimental to us, it's going to be to everybody. We're not going to do anything to hurt ourselves or our farm."
Roberts, a fourth generation farmer and rancher in Arcadia, said regulating dust in rural areas will hurt farmers' harvest, cultivation and livelihood.
"Anytime you work ground, you're going to have dust. I don't know how they'll regulate it," Roberts said. "The regulations are going to put us down and keep us from doing things we need to be doing because of the EPA."
So, if you're keeping score: Farmers, 1; President Obama, 0. When a sitting president of any party can't figure out how to connect meaningfully to a farmer at a rural town hall event, it's over.
Message: I'm losing.