By sheer coincidence, my nine-year-old begged me just the other day to buy him one of those iconic toys from my own childhood, the Etch-A-Sketch, which is manufactured by that equally quirky and iconic toymaker, Ohio Art.
And so, thanks to my son, I am now equipped to pile on like everyone else onto Mitt Romney's PR wingman, Eric Fehrnstrom.
Fehrnstrom, as by now everyone with access to YouTube surely knows, famously said this when asked by CNN's John Fugelsang how Romney intended to pivot from the Republican primary to the general election: "Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch-A-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again."
It was a stunning, perhaps catastrophic, mistake. Rachel Maddow called it the gaffe of what has been a gaffe-prone campaign. Not only was Fehrnstrom's answer supercilious and snarky. It also fed into one of the central narratives against Romney in this campaign, namely that he is an unprincipled fraud who will do or say anything to be president. And now Romney's top aide has said he agrees. On the record!
Eric Fehrnstrom is living every press secretary's and publicity agent's worst nightmare. He's not only given his guy's enemies a talking point they can use against him. He's given them a talking point with props!
I never much cared for the Etch-A-Sketch myself. I quickly tired of the toy once I discovered the best I could do by twisting its two white knobs was to produce a tedious succession of boxes and big city skylines. But somehow I am guessing that between now and next November Ohio Art's signature product will be the toy the political world just can't put down.
As Timothy Noah of New Republic says, Fehrnstrom may have just committed "America's first multi-platform gaffe."
What makes it so new and different, says Noah, "is its extreme ripeness for visual exploitation at the virtual dawn of a new era of social networking on proliferating varieties of gadgets."
Normally when a candidate or top aide commits a gaffe, says Noah, it enters some vast "echo chamber" either of words or images and is quickly forgotten as other words and images overwhelm and take its place.
But Noah says the Etch-A-Sketch gaffe is different. It provides endless possibilities for parody and visual mockery using an image familiar to most Americans to say something about Mitt Romney that has the virtue of being fundamentally true: that he's a fake, a fraud, untrue, what you see today is not what you get tomorrow. And that, says Noah, is a "fatally candid" combination.
As it turns out, I know Eric Fehrnstrom pretty well from our days in the Massachusetts State House Press Gallery when Eric covered politics for the right-leaning Boston Herald when Mike Dukakis was Governor.
Our paths crossed again when Eric was State Treasurer Joe Malone's press guy in the early 1990s and again when Fehrnstrom ran the communications shop for then-Governor Romney.
I'm also guessing that despite the sort of grim sympathy a herd of wildebeest has for one of its own being devoured by a pride of lions, Massachusetts own political herd is no doubt watching the hard-ball playing Fehrnstrom being devoured today and is thinking to itself: This couldn't be happening to a nicer wise-guy.
But Fehrnstrom is simply too experienced a media pro for me to believe his epic gaffe occurred just because he'd let down his guard while savoring the satisfaction of another primary win. Something this big and stupid has to be cultural.
And in reaching for the Etch-a-Sketch metaphor, Fehrnstrom was only doing instinctively what the Republican Party has been doing deliberately ever since George W. Bush ended his disastrous eight-year reign, which is to wipe the historical slate clean and forget all about it so that everything that's gone wrong before or since can be blamed on Barack Obama.
Fehrnstrom's cynical response on CNN is nothing more than of a piece with a Republican presidential campaign and a Republican Party that is steeped in cynicism and betrays a contempt for facts, a contempt for truth, a contempt for principled consistency, a contempt for American traditions and institutions and a P.T. Barnum-like contempt for the average American voter that you'd expect from a party that thinks it's found the secret to creating its own reality.