Please Advise! Calgary Mayor Sorry for Uber Honesty

Doc Steve soothes a chastened Nenshi: if only all gaffes were so endearing.

By Steve Burgess 27 Apr 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

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Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi: yet another victim of secretly recorded remarks. Photo by Sergei, Creative Commons licensed.

[Editor's note: Steve Burgess is an accredited spin doctor with a Ph.D in Centrifugal Rhetoric from the University of SASE, situated on the lovely campus of PO Box 7650, Cayman Islands. In this space he dispenses PR advice to politicians, the rich and famous, the troubled and well-heeled, the wealthy and gullible.]

Dear Dr. Steve,

I was recently in Boston. Perhaps you saw the video. While riding with a Lyft driver I spoke rather harshly about that other car-hire service, Uber. And I may have referred to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick as a dick. This was off the record, until I realized I was being recorded. I have since apologized for my indiscreet remarks, but perhaps you could help with the damage control. Spin it for me, would you?

Very sincerely,

Mayor Naheed Nenshi

Dear Mr. Mayor,

God bless you, sir. All our gaffes should be so endearing. There are secretly recorded remarks and secretly recorded remarks; some are shocking revelations of hidden poison, while some are just explicit confirmation of what we knew all along. Yours, Mayor Nenshi, definitely falls into the latter category.

It's not like you are Alabama Governor Robert Bentley. His recently revealed recorded conversation with an advisor reportedly went like this: "You'd kiss me? I love that. You know I do love that. You know what? When I stand behind you and I put my arms around you, and I put my hands on your breasts, and I put my hands on you and pull you in real close. Hey, I love that, too."

If you had said something like that, Mayor Nenshi, perhaps your relationship with the Uber CEO might take a turn for the better. Unfortunately for Governor Bentley, his secretly recorded remarks haven't gone over well in Alabama. Perhaps Alabama voters are confused -- it's traditional for political staffers to stand behind a leader rather than the other way around. But the bigger issue is that the married governor has denied having a physical relationship with Mason, which suggests he has a unique way of discussing economic policy.

But you, Mayor Nenshi, merely spoke your truth in unvarnished fashion. Now, some of your truth wasn't actual truth, as you have acknowledged -- there isn't any evidence that a sex offender has passed Calgary Uber screening. But then, you weren't in court. You were having what you thought was a private conversation, and beyond the specifics the points you made were valid.

You also provided a rather neat summary of corporate culture when you described the realization you had after meeting Uber CEO Kalanick: "Oh, it's because you're a dick and this has percolated to the entire organization."

That's often the way it works, all right. I realize your rude language will offend some, and of course your next Christmas card from Mr. Kalanick should probably remain unopened. But I don't think you've done yourself any harm here. Far from it.

An honest minefield

Still, the whole idea of politicians speaking honestly is a minefield -- not just for the politicians but also for the public and the media.

Recall two examples from U.S. presidential politics. In April 2008 during the Democratic primary campaign, Senator Barack Obama was in San Francisco, making what he thought were private remarks about some small-town Americans: "They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

And in May 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney was at a private fundraiser in Boca Raton, Florida when he made these infamous remarks: "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what . . . who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims . . . These are people who pay no income tax . . . and so my job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

Both remarks caused controversy. Both caused particular groups of people to feel insulted. Both were viewed as accurate assessments of the candidates' true feelings. But did both statements qualify as truth?

Both candidates were being honest. But honesty is not the same as truth. I felt then and now that then-Senator Obama was speaking the truth. I thought that Romney, on the other hand, was simply pasting a negative stereotype onto those who did not support him. But of course, that's just how small-town Republicans felt about Obama's remarks. There are more versions of truth out there than there are fender benders at the intersection of Knight Street and Marine Drive.

Obama eventually apologized and surely learned to be more circumspect regardless of who he was speaking to. Honesty can be explosive in any relationship, and when you are attempting to forge a relationship with an entire nation, frank speaking is like firing up a propane barbecue in a fireworks factory.

And then there is Trump. It always seems to come back to him this year. Trump supporters claim to love his honesty, his truth-telling. You may know it better as pandering. And indeed Trump's brand of truth is the kind politicians usually prefer -- find out what people want to hear and feed it back to them as the unvarnished, I-don't-care-who-knows-it reality. Leave it to Trump to make truth a dirty word.

But still, honesty in public life is a rare and precious thing. Hearing you talk about Uber was a joy, Mayor Nenshi, and confirmation that Calgary is in good hands. But from now on, no matter what the guy's name is, it might be better to call him "Richard."  [Tyee]

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