As campaign tactics go, heckling can be among the most dangerous. A quick-witted candidate can wield a well-timed comeback as a sharp sword, disarming the assailant and turning the battle quickly in his or her favor.
Years ago, as the story goes, the first woman to serve in the British House of Commons, Mary Astor, was making a statement on agriculture when she was interrupted by none other than Winston Churchill, who wondered aloud whether she even knew how many toes a pig has.
"Why don't we take off your shoes and count them," she reportedly said, not missing a beat.
More recently, Maine Gov. Paul LePage was speaking at a university when a heckler yelled that he should "tax the rich." As the Bangor Daily News reported, LePage responded, "I would love to tax the rich if we had any in Maine." He used the comment as a springboard to talk about how taxes in his state are too high.
In comparison, the carefully scripted, stay-on-point, control-the-sound-bites campaigns waged by modern presidential candidates seem only befuddled by disrupters.
Which is why the tactic seems to be working, on both sides.
Hecklers took center stage in the campaigns this week as Mitt Romney not only accused Barack Obama of orchestrating efforts to shout him down at campaign appearances, he admitted he was doing the same to the president.
Strange things happen when politicians are certifiably honest. The gasps are audible. It's as if a mechanic has just told you nothing is wrong but he's going to replace something anyway just to get your money. You're not sure whether to scream or applaud.
Romney had taken to either rescheduling events or not announcing them ahead of time, keeping the protesters guessing. He diverted an appearance at a Wawa store in Quakertown, Pa., to a different Wawa store to avoid the cries of several Democrats who have been shadowing his campaign like a swarm of irritating bees.
With a dash of socially appropriate concern, Obama adviser David Axelrod condemned the anti-Romney protests, posting on Twitter, "Shouting folks down is their tactic, not ours. Let voters hear BOTH candidates & decide."
That's when Romney not only fess'd up, he used military terms. America, he said, "has a long history of heckling and free speech." He said he doesn't believe in "unilateral disarmament," but would welcome some sort of peace agreement to stop the interruptions.
Meanwhile, the war rages. Romney's people are even Tweeting about attempts to disrupt Obama as they occur.
In the middle of all this, a journalist decided to heckle the president during his announcement of a new policy on illegal immigrants.
What in the name of the late Rodney King is going on here? Can we really not just get along?
Or, perhaps more to the point, can either side really make any political headway using this tactic?
The answer is yes, if either side would come up with the kind of snappy comebacks that turn the tables. This becomes more difficult as protesters grow louder. The best Axelrod could manage to Romney supporters whose shouts made it hard to hear at a recent event was, "You can't handle the truth, my friends."
That's pretty lame. He at least could have said something political, such as, "Once Obamacare kicks in, maybe we can find you folks the right medication."
For their part, Romney could always say, "Once I'm elected and we find you a job you're qualified for, I promise not to retaliate by coming down and playing with the Slurpee machine."3 comments on this story
OK, those are pretty lame, too, but it's not my place to give advice that helps either side.
We can't all be Mary Astor or Winston Churchill, who traded barbs several times.
Astor once reportedly heckled Churchill, "If you were my husband, I'd put poison in your tea."
To which Churchill responded, "If I were your husband, I'd drink it."
Ah, for the statesmen, and women, of old.