Even before the fatal shooting of Michael Brown last week, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon was a figure of national importance. The popular Democratic governor has expressed interest in the White House, and, while he backs Hillary Clinton for 2016, could be considered a candidate for president down the line. Or could have been.
If he's drawing widespread attention now, it's for how slow he's been to respond to unrest in Ferguson, where tensions between police and residents have mounted in the wake of Brown's death. Nixon's first public comments on the issue didn't come until Tuesday night, at a gathering with local religious leaders. But he's mostly stayed far from the fray in the St. Louis suburb, leaving scores of journalists to speculate as to where he might be.
It wasn't until late Wednesday night, when live streams of the riots were blanketing Twitter and network television, that Nixon announced he would be canceling his Thursday appearances at the Missouri State Fair and heading to Ferguson, where he addressed national audiences Thursday afternoon. "Feel bad that Jay Nixon won't get any funnel cake tomorrow," snarked one reporter. "No cheese curds," replied another.
It didn't help that local officials have been somewhat useless on the issue. Asked on MSNBC Thursday about the police's outsize use of force, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles shrugged. "I can't second-guess these officers," he said. Nor did it help Nixon's political optics that President Obama, operating in a different time zone, issued a statement on Ferguson before the governor did.
Not that the president has mastered the optics game either. A poorly timed White House pool report, filed just after 10 on Wednesday night as riots escalated in Ferguson, described a birthday party in Martha's Vineyard that the president had attended along with Clinton, saying "a good time was had by all." Within the hour, BuzzFeed had shared the White House pool report while noting that "violence continued" in Ferguson, and The Huffington Post ran with the headline: "Here's What Barack Obama And Hillary Clinton Were Doing During The Chaos In Ferguson."
If you'd been off Twitter for the past few hours, you might think such an update was well-timed. Just that afternoon, following the publication of a controversial Clinton interview, reporters had barraged a White House spokesman with questions about the president's relationship with Clinton and whether they would be "hugging" out any foreign policy differences at the gathering in Martha's Vineyard that night. "Can you talk about what is going to happen tonight? Is there going to be any access for this hug?" asked one reporter. "Secretary Clinton said she wanted to 'hug it out,' " began another. Indeed, in the entire press briefing there was just one question about Ferguson.
But by 10 p.m. Wednesday, nobody cared about the party.
Underlying the elevated media coverage were disturbing facts like this: While Ferguson is 60 percent black, virtually all of its cops are white. More than a dozen people, including two reporters, had been arrested in Ferguson on Wednesday night and horrifying footage from the riots was finding its way to social media.
In an address on Thursday afternoon, the president cautioned Americans against being too quick to jump to conclusions. "Today I'd like us all to take a step back and think about how we're going to move forward," he said with regard to Ferguson. There is never an excuse for violence against the police, the president continued, but neither is there an excuse for police to use excessive force.
After discussing the actions he's taken, including directing the Justice Department to investigate Brown's killing and consulting with local authorities on maintaining public safety, the president encouraged Americans to be mindful of the conflict's origins. "It's important to remember how this started. We lost a young man ... his family will never hold Michael in their arms again."
Then, unfazed by the critics, he left to go golfing in Edgartown. Twitter went back to doing what it does best. And the whole cycle of Internet finger-wagging was born anew.