Whether President Enrique Peña Nieto wore his socks backward when he ran a road race last weekend might seem utterly incon-sock-quential.
But the social media commentaries that have exploded over the matter – and Peña Nieto’s efforts to address them – speak to something larger about his aloof governing style, sagging popularity and the challenges of dealing with ridicule on the Internet.
Even Peña Nieto has come to refer to the matter as “Sockgate,” as if it rose to the level of Watergate, the wiretapping scandal that forced President Richard Nixon to resign in 1974.
The 49-year-old Peña Nieto is charismatic and relatively fit. He proved his fitness Saturday when he ran a 10-kilometer race in 50 minutes and 48 seconds.
The PR machine at Los Pinos, the Mexican equivalent of the White House, went full bore for the race, sending out some 50 photos. In a press release, Peña Nieto’s office highlighted his efforts to fight obesity and sedentary lifestyles.
In at least one of the photos, if one looks extremely closely, it appears as if Peña Nieto might have placed his white athletic socks on wrong, with the grayish heel at the top of the feet, an error befitting of a kindergartener.
A few tweets about the matter soon became trending topics. The tone was mocking and cruel: What a moron! He can’t even put his socks on right! For the record, Peña Nieto, a lawyer who also has a master’s in business administration, is no dummy. His governing style is simply one that keeps him at arm’s length from the public at large, with orchestrated events that feature handpicked, usually adoring, audiences. But the past year has seen him face a swelling tide of crises.
Calculating how to quell the furor, Peña Nieto stepped into the fray.
At 6:44 p.m. Tuesday, a tweet went out from his account with a photo of his athletic socks. The text said: “Clearing up #Sockgate.” The photo shows Under Armour brand athletic socks with gray patches on the top of the foot. Thus – voila! – he wasn’t wearing them backward after all.
But the tweet has only made matters worse.
Don’t you think Mr. President @EPN that there are more important things to clear up? #sockgate.
A tweet from Mexican actress and film director Patricia Zepeda
By Wednesday morning, Twitter in Mexico was abuzz, columnists were churning out commentary and a satirical website seized on the issue, referring to him as Mexicans commonly do, by his initials EPN.
“Don’t you think Mr. President @EPN that there are more important things to clear up? #sockgate,” tweeted Patricia Zepeda, an actress and film director.
Always using the hashtag #calcetagate, which in English would be #sockgate, the mockery grew intense. If Mexico’s leader can clear up the matter of the socks, users suggested, could he also clear up the recent plunge in value of the peso, and why drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped from Mexico’s highest security prison last month?
How about what happened to the 43 student teachers who went missing nearly a year ago in Guerrero state? Or the slaying of numerous journalists in recent years? Or the apparent conflict of interest that allowed his wife to acquire a mansion known as the White House?
Under a list of all events that need “clearing up,” political analyst Denise Dresser sent out a simple tweet Wednesday morning: “Speechless.”
“Los Pinos has not bothered to clear up the disappearance of the student teachers of Ayotzinapa, the White House, Chapo’s escape or the murder of dozens of journalists in the country but they took the time to show the ability of the president to put his socks on,” wrote syndicated columnist Patricio Morelos.
“Worrisome the bubble in which the PR people of @EPN live. Where DO they live?” asked journalist Veronica Calderon in a tweet.
Peña Nieto faces dwindling public support halfway through his six-year term. A recent Reforma.com poll showed that 34 percent of Mexicans support him while 64 percent oppose him, a historically low level for a Mexican leader.
Ebbing popularity is one reason Peña Nieto’s managers carefully pick his venues for speeches. When the president appeared in Monterrey on Aug. 1 to inaugurate a 51,000-seat sports stadium, no spectators were admitted to the empty venue, apparently to avoid any booing.
Mexico’s most widely known satirical website, eldeforma.com, which is similar to The Onion in the United States, posted a fictitious article with the headline: “Approval rating of EPN shoots up to 98% after clearing up Sockgate.”
“Tonight the president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, demonstrated his leadership and concern about clearing up matters that are important to Mexicans,” the satire began.
It said Mexicans could be forgiven for mistaking that their president wore his socks backward because “a blunder of this nature would not be unthinkable given his past behavior.”
Tim Johnson: @timjohnson4