Jonestown Reference Upgraded From "Barb" to "Gaffe"

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 18 2013 2:58 PM

Jonestown Reference Upgraded From "Barb" to "Gaffe"

John Podesta isn't in the mood for Kool-Aid.

Photo by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

The power that Politico holds over the Washington "narrative" is tough to compare to any other media-coverage area relationship. ESPN and the world of sports is perhaps the closest analogue. The whole life cycle of a story, from gaffe to controversy to apology, can occur within the Politico biodome. And so it did today, after Glenn Thrush, the site's fantastic White House reporter, published a lengthy story on the White House's planned 2014 relaunch. Thrush had been talking to John Podesta before he was brought into the administration. It was one of those interviews that poroduced this quote.

Podesta, whose official mandate includes enforcement of numerous executive orders on emissions and the environment, suggested as much when he spoke with me earlier this fall about Obama’s team. “They need to focus on executive action given that they are facing a second term against a cult worthy of Jonestown in charge of one of the houses of Congress,” he told me.

If you were naive, you'd think that Podesta's admission that the White House will have to start diving over the heads of John Boehner and Darrell Issa was the "news" here. Wrong. The news was that Podesta had referenced the mass suicide in Jonestown. On Twitter, and then Drudge, and then from the Boehner press shop, the great Wurlitzer of Outrage began to blare. "For those who’ve forgotten," said a Boehner spokesman, "a Democratic member of Congress was murdered in Jonestown and a current one, Rep. Jackie Speier, was shot five times during the same incident." Podesta quickly apologized.


Did he FORGET Jonestown? I doubt it. Instead, I bet he assumed that an offhand reference to the Kool-Aid-drinking cult was not going to be a problem. A cursory check of news from the past few years finds that people love to use (and overuse) the Jonestown reference, and that only rarely do they back down from it. Four examples:

1) Haley Barbour, 2009, on Obamacare.

if the Democrats wanna do something to help Republicans, I can't improve on this. I've been looking for Jim Jones and where's the Kool-Aid. This is awful, awful policy for our country — and the people know it.

Did he have to apologize? Not really. Rep. Speier issued a blistering statement, saying that Barbour "should be ashamed of himself, but shame is as foreign a feeling to that man as common sense and intellect." But he didn't say anything.

2) Vermont state Sen. Hilda Miller, 2011, on a proposed single-payer health plan.

I haven’t drunk the kool-aid. I don’t care if it costs me my re-election.

Did she have to apologize? No, but she decided not to run in 2012.

3) Iowa Rep. Steve King, 2013, on amnesty.

It appears some of my Republican colleagues in the House have drunk the Kool-Aid—they’re determined to pass the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform – or what people outside the DC beltway more accurately call amnesty.

Did he have to apologize? No.

4) Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, 2013, on gun control legislation.

This is a president who has drunk the Kool-Aid.

Did he have to apologize? No, Democrats critized him but didn't need a fainting couch.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 



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