All of us have said something stupid or insensitive. Most of us don’t do it on purpose or practice it as our key message. Most of us are not Rick Santorum.
Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union” the day after thousands of young people took to the streets to demand an end to gun violence, the former GOP senator and presidential aspirant from Pennsylvania said student survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School should learn CPR instead of protesting. Santorum said the students were pushing for “phony gun laws” that wouldn’t stop school shootings.
Regardless of your point of view, it would be hard to imagine a more tone-deaf or badly timed comment in the wake of massive nation-wide student-led protests. Recognizing the significance of what was happening, the National Rifle Association turned off its propaganda engines for the weekend. President Trump praised the students for exercising their First Amendment rights.
Santorum was part of a panel discussing the student protests, so perhaps he thought it was his job to lob a grenade into the conversation. Whatever his motivation, he sounded like a nincompoop.
Coincidentally, Santorum’s comment came the same day as an interview aired on “CBS Sunday Morning” with outspoken radio legend Don Imus. At age 78, Imus is ending his 50-year career on radio and fighting a battle with emphysema.
During the interview, he unhesitatingly answered a question about his flip and bigoted remark in 2007 about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. The remark cost him his job. It also caused him to reflect on such remarks.
"It did change my feeling about making fun of some people who didn't deserve to be made fun of, and didn't have a mechanism to defend themselves," he told CBS’ Anthony Mason. "I'm not full of sh*t. If I've done it, I'll own up to it. And then I have some sorta weird relationship with the audience. I think they saved me most of the time."
Later in the interview, Imus recalled how he met in person with the Rutgers team and their parents and apologized. “I sat and listened for four or five hours. And there was nothing I could say other than, 'I'm sorry,' and promise them that I would never give them a reason in their lifetime to be sorry that they forgave me. And I haven't."
The contrast between Santorum and Imus couldn’t be starker. Imus said something stupid and hateful, paid a price for it, owned it and sought redemption. He said he regretted ever saying what he said, adding “[be]cause I knew better.”
Santorum apparently felt it was his duty to say something stupid and dismissive in defense of his point of view. It seems unlikely Santorum will seek out student survivors of the Parkland school shooting and apologize, or even regret what he said because he knew better.
All of us say stupid things. What matters is what happens after you say something stupid.
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.