“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
If you haven’t already listened to the audio of POLITICO reporter Marc Caputo talking with Congressional candidate Dan Bongino, it’s worth checking out. You can read all about it at any number of national outlets: Mediaite and Raw Story both have decent takes. And now, there’s even a new chapter, in which Bongino doubles down and calls a press conference, ostensibly to capitalize on the media attention he needs in order to defeat former Ambassador Francis Rooney in the Republican primary for Congressional district 19.
In a nutshell, Bongino challenged the reporting in a story by the Naples Daily News. Marc Caputo then asked Bongino for a specific example of what the Naples Daily News got wrong. When Bongino tried to brush him off, Caputo smelled blood and ratcheted up the pressure, eventually getting Bongino to agree to a recorded phone conversation in which Bongino lost his cool, tried to regain it, and then totally blew his stack in one of the most profane tirades ever caught on tape.
Maybe this was just another case of “Trickle-Down Trumpism,” where a whole lot of conservatives are trying to hitch themselves to Trump by aping him. But so far, only Trump has been able to pull it off.
Bongino, like Trump, is no stranger to media interviews, but he’s the type of true red-meat conservative actually who buys into what Trump is selling. Bongino has no time for “liberal” reporters, a sentiment that underpins the basis of his campaign style. A few years back, he became something of a conservative media darling when he first left the Secret Service, and immediately parlayed his stint on the elite Presidential Protective Detail into a tell-all book deal called “Life Inside the Bubble.” Here’s the Amazon.com description of the book:
He swore to take a bullet for the President and left it all behind to take a bullet for the American people;
Why would a successful, twelve-year Secret Service agent resign his position in the prime of his career to run for political office against all the odds?
That seems to be one of the biggest unanswered questions of Bongino’s life. But regardless of whether or not it was a sound career move, Bongino seems to have found a way to make a living as a perpetual candidate and conservative author.
He has since written a second book and is presumably working on a third (he even promised to make Caputo himself “Chapter 4” of this latest work). In the course of promoting his books, he’s done a number of media tours and has made the rounds on Hannity, Glenn Beck, and other typical talking-head cable news and radio shows around the nation. He’s also spoken at conservative conventions in front of big crowds. All of those experiences have undoubtedly shaped Bongino’s attitude toward the “traditional media” and reporters in general.
But Marc Caputo is not a “traditional media reporter.” For starters, he works at POLITICO, a new media publication that, long before Caputo joined it, reshaped the political landscape in Washington D.C. by treating politics the same way ESPN treats sports. And Caputo himself worked on the cutting edge of Florida journalism before POLITICO snapped him away from the Miami Herald.
During my tour of duty as communications director for Governor Rick Scott, one of the things I dreaded most was the “Caputo Cam,” where Caputo would approach an unsuspecting public official with a camcorder held under the person’s nostrils, ask a pointed question or two, record the answers on video, then retreat back to the safety of his bureau desk where he would upload the footage for the whole world to see. Here’s the Miami Herald’s description of Caputo from 2010:
In recent years, Marc has gone multi-media with a video camera – we call it ‘Caputo-cam.’ He wastes no opportunity to stick it in the face of politicians and ask tough questions.
So, yeah, if you don’t already know him, take my word for it, Marc Caputo is a journalistic force to be reckoned with. He’s smart, aggressive, and fearless. He’s also cynical, experienced, well-informed, well-sourced and has a quick wit made quicker and sharper by his relentless presence on social media. Is he a liberal? I’m not really sure. If I had to wager, I’d say Caputo is a libertarian. But it hardly matters, because no matter his political persuasion, Caputo will gleefully deliver an equal dose of pain to any deserving politician regardless of ideological leanings.
Enter the “Law of the Hammer,” a cautionary concept that warns against over-reliance on a single tool. The American philosopher Abraham Kaplan described it this way: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”
To Bongino, this pissant POLITICO reporter on Twitter looked to him like just another nail to be hammered back into place. And so he proceeded to walk head-first into the baseball-bat-wielding Caputo, who swung for the fences and connected on the kind of long ball that Giancarlo Stanton would be proud to claim.
Caputo chose the conditions in which he and Bongino would meet. Caputo studied his adversary before calling him, which is evident from the transcript of their conversation, in which Caputo needles him with questions about things like spending campaign dollars on repeated visits to Outback Steakhouse.
And for all his Secret Service training, Dan Bongino either forgot, or never learned, the key concepts from one of Marc Caputo’s favorite books: Sun Tzu’s Art of War:
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
Bongino succumbed because he knew not his “enemy.” And of course, Caputo didn’t have to be Bongino’s enemy in the first place. If there’s one thing any of my colleagues in the media relations business will tell you about Marc Caputo, he doesn’t hold any real grudges. If you’ve got a good scoop, he’ll run with it – even if you’ve fought tooth and nail with him in the past.
In a business where success is dependent on winning people over to your side, the last thing any political candidate needs is more enemies, especially in the media. My advice to Bongino if he wants to be taken seriously: hire a media consultant with political experience. They do more than just send out press releases. They’ll help you avoid disasters, they’ll give you the background on Florida’s top media outlets and personnel, they’ll keep you relentlessly on message, and when possible, they’ll get you media coverage on topics that are actually helpful to your campaign goals.
Not every object is a nail needing to be hammered, just as not every reporter is a liberal media hack. Dan Bongino is a smart guy, who undoubtedly has other tools in his toolbox. It’s time he learned to use something other than his hammer.