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Perils of the political world include the ‘hot mic’

A close-up of a retro microphone, a type sometimes used at public events. (Photo: vectorfusionart, via Shutterstock)

It isn’t something that politicians and other public figures worry about very much, although perhaps they should. It’s embarrassing, of course, but most of all, it’s revealing. 

We’re talking about the dreaded ‘hot mic’ menace. 

The term goes back to the early days of radio broadcasting, at a time when currents running through electrical equipment – like microphones — could generate real heat. Now it means the microphone is alert and listening.

Biden was heard calling a Fox News reporter a “stupid son of a bitch.” Biden apologized to the reporter about an hour later.

Utterances from our politicians meant for public consumption are carefully thought out, vetted by staffers to make sure they convey the right tone, are properly dignified and are consistent with whatever the party line is at the moment. At least, that’s the ideal.

But the unguarded moment, the blurting out of what the politician really thinks, or a bit of lechery – that usually means trouble.

Across the years and across the nation, the hot mic menace has dogged public figures who let their true feelings rise to the surface when they thought their comments were private.

The latest biggie came in January. President Joe Biden was caught on a hot mic uttering a vulgarity about Fox News reporter after the reporter shouted a question about the impact of rising inflation on this year’s congressional elections. Biden was heard calling the reporter a “stupid son of a bitch.” Biden apologized to the reporter about an hour later.

“I’ve had it with … I’ve had it with her. You know, I’ve lost confidence.” — Kevin McCarthy about Liz Cheney

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on Jan. 11 called Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) “a moron” with a hot mic listening. Marshall had claimed he couldn’t find Fauci’s financial disclosures.

The most famous hot mic moment in recent times, of course, was when during a filming of Access Hollywood  Donald Trump said “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything … grab them by the pussy.” The Washington Post broke the story during the 2016 presidential election. Several dozen Republicans renounced their support of Trump. He apologized and was elected president.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — a former GOP leader in the California Legislature —  was caught on a hot mic in May 2021 saying he has “lost confidence” in Representative Liz Cheney.  “I’ve had it with … I’ve had it with her. You know, I’ve lost confidence. … Well, someone just has to bring a motion, but I assume that will probably take place,” the Bakersfield Republican said.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina was caught mocking California Sen. Barbara Boxer’s hairstyle during a 2010 appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” saying, “God, what is that? … Sooo yesterday.” Fiorina lost.

Janet Napolitano, unaware that her microphone was on, said to a colleague during tuition-increase protests that the Regents “didn’t have to listen to this crap.”

California Republican Assemblyman Mike Duvall found himself in the national spotlight back in 2009 when he told a fellow lawmaker during a break in a committee hearing all about his extramarital affairs with two women. He claimed of one “I’m getting into spanking her.” It all went viral thanks to a YouTube video, and Duvall resigned a few months later.

The list goes on and on and doesn’t always involve politicians.

Students in their underwear (presumably to attract media attention) were protesting proposed tuition hikes at a meeting of University of California regents back in 2015 when then-UC president Janet Napolitano, unaware that her microphone was on, remarked to a fellow regent that they “didn’t have to listen to this crap.” 

In February of 2021, the entire Oakley Union Elementary School District Board resigned days after they were heard making disparaging comments about parents at a virtual board meeting. They didn’t realize their remarks were being broadcast to the public.

Then there was the pilot. In March 2021 a Southwest Airlines pilot let loose with a rant  about “liberal [expletive]” in the San Francisco Bay Area and was caught on a hot mic while preparing to depart for a flight.    

Chances are hot mic moments will continue, raising eyebrows, delighting reporters and giving pause to voters. We might want to revise that old saw about Death and Taxes.

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