WASHINGTON — The video was harsh.
There was U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, a grandfather with a nice-guy reputation, fuming on a Washington, D.C., sidewalk. He grabbed the wrist of a young man – and then the scruff of the youth’s neck – all the while demanding: “Who are you? Who are you?”
Etheridge, a Lillington, N.C., Democrat, apologized by the end of the day: “I deeply and profoundly regret my reaction...” he began.
The Internet video immediately dominated the political headlines Monday. It also highlighted a growing trend in political discourse: the phenomenon of bloggers and students catching politicians off-guard, recording unflattering moments and blasting them across the web.
“We live in a different world. There are no unguarded moments,” said Gary Pearce, a former Democratic campaign consultant for Jim Hunt, John Edwards and Terry Sanford.
“Any exchange you have with somebody, any flash of temper. Any stupid thing you say or do is liable to be seen by thousands and thousands of people in a matter of hours,” Pearce said.
The video was linked off national websites and highlighted on cable news networks.
“Bob Etheridge has lost it,” said a national Republican spokesman.
“I guarantee you Bobby Etheridge’s mother did not raise him to behave that way,” said Tom Fetzer, chairman of the N.C. GOP.
Renee Ellmers, the unknown-until-now challenger to Etheridge, acknowledged that the video could play quite well in a campaign commercial.
The video of Etheridge was just a minute long, but it was linked off the Drudge Report and other conservative websites early Monday.
Many bloggers encouraged readers to support Etheridge’s Republican opponent. And by Monday afternoon, Ellmers had a fresh injection of cash from hundreds of supporters in California, Wisconsin, Georgia and other far-flung states.
“I think this does put a whole different spectrum to who he is,” said Ellmers, a nurse from Dunn, N.C., in an interview Monday morning. “I’m not going to try to take advantage of it. It’s a terrible situation. I feel badly for him.”
It’s unclear who made the video. It was posted anonymously, with the face of one of the two men blurred to prevent identification. The second man never appears on the video; only his voice is heard from behind the camera.
The video shows Etheridge walking from a Democratic dinner with Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday, June 9. (Etheridge does not drink alcohol and said he hadn’t been drinking at the event.)
In the video, one of the men greets him, then holds a small camera inches from his face.
“Do you fully support the Obama agenda?” he asks.
Etheridge demands to know who the men are, and grabs the wrist of the first one. He holds on for several seconds as the man repeatedly asks him to let go. Then Etheridge snags the guy by the back of the neck.
The men reply that they are college students working on a project, but they don’t say where they study or give further information.
Etheridge was roundly criticized for his actions.
“He had a choice,” Fetzer said. “He could have just walked on by.”
“It’s obvious I wasn’t thinking as straight as I should have thought,” he said in an interview. “There’s no excuse for it.”
After Etheridge’s apology, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who once worked for Etheridge, called him “one of the most honorable people I know.”
“Everyone makes mistakes, and I’m proud of Bob for taking responsibility and apologizing for this,” Gibbs said.
No blog or organization has taken credit for the video. It appears to first have been posted on Big Government, a website run by conservative Andrew Breitbart – the man behind several ambush videos against liberal politicians or organizations.
Andy Taylor, chairman of the political science department at N.C. State University, said most people now have a video camera in their pocket. With a quick clip, they can influence the public discourse.
"These people don't need to be professional reporters and they don't need access to mainstream media or direct access to mainstream media," Taylor said.
Traditionally, mainstream reporters covering beats have been setting the agenda, he said. Now anyone can do it.
Ambush videos have been ramping up since the infamous “macaca” moment back in August 2006. That was when Republican U.S. Sen. George Allen of Virginia saw his presidential aspirations evaporate after calling a Democratic tracker a “macaca” – an ethnic slur -- during a campaign rally.
In the past year, there were the videos in which two young conservatives videotaped ACORN staffers appearing to suggest criminal actions to potential clients.
A few weeks ago, the liberal blog Think Progress posted a video of U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and other Republicans walking into a fundraiser with the financial affairs lobby.
Burr, of Winston-Salem, didn’t engage the videographers; he smiled and walked away.
“I think as you see more and more of these type of blogs, you see more and more of this kind of partisan journalism,” said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee and a former employee in Etheridge’s office.
Woodhouse said he suspects the Etheridge video was taken by Republican trackers – low-level campaign workers who routinely film opponents’ actions -- who didn’t expect Etheridge to turn combative. Woodhouse pointed out that bloggers usually take credit for their work.
“It’s important for the mainstream press to ask: What were their motives?” Woodhouse said.
Both the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee said they had nothing to do with the video.
Etheridge said he’s trying to put the incident behind him.
But Ellmers, his opponent, appeared at a news conference Monday afternoon with state Republican party officials. She is so new to politics that a GOP news release on the event initially misspelled her name.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, which seeks out good local candidates, was in touch today with Ellmers’ campaign staff.
Ellmers said she feels bad for Etheridge and wanted the campaign to focus on his voting record. “I hate to stick the dagger in deeper,” she said.
But, she added, the video is out there now and cannot be ignored.
By days’ end, Fetzer had sent an email to Republican supporters offering them a choice: Etheridge or Ellmers?
The email included a link to raise money for Ellmers’ campaign.