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Rubio's Water Bottle And The Authenticity Craving

In this frame grab from video, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio takes a sip of water during his Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday.
In this frame grab from video, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio takes a sip of water during his Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday.

Part of the reason Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's water grab during his response to the State of the Union on Tuesday night made such a splash was surely political. For people who disagree with him, seeing him stumble in the middle of a speech was probably a little thrill in the same way it's a thrill if the quarterback on the opposing team trips over his shoelaces on the way to the bench.

But even a lot of people who would freely admit that grabbing a water bottle has less than nothing to do with governing and nothing to do with anything of consequence pounced on the water-bottle moment with the feverish madness that only social media can bring, and they might have done so for a different reason entirely: It wasn't on the program.

Both the State of the Union address and the response to it are exhaustively choreographed and calculated, and that's true no matter what party holds what office. Many of us assume that everything we see from the moment a political figure appears, from clothing to handshakes to inflection to props to lights to podiums, has been cleared by a room full of consultants, so that nothing has been left to chance. Cultivated, hard-earned cynicism tells many of us that what we are seeing has been exsanguinated by experts, and we're really just looking at a bunch of marionettes.

And then what happens? In the critical moment: dry mouth. And because you're not supposed to need a drink of water, it certainly seemed like there weren't preparations for Rubio to get one, which resulted in what seemed like a furtive dart in the direction of the bottle, done as quickly as possible with as little loss of eye contact as possible, which wound up looking ... funnier, probably, than it would have if they'd realized they should have left it a little closer just in case.

It was awkward and weird, but it was also genuine and obviously unplanned, and that's what made it so addictively shareable, jokeable, watchable, animated-gif-able.

It's the same thing that happened with the blackout at the Super Bowl. In both cases, you're watching something that's been so heavily handled by so many people that it's been drained of anything natural (the State of the Union itself is the same way) and all of a sudden, you see the unmistakable mark of human frailty. In the case of the Super Bowl, you instantly think about your own power outages, who's getting yelled at, which manager is freaking out, and where Beyonce is right now. In Rubio's case, you briefly see a guy, a real guy, a guy who's having an experience you have had, where in the middle of a job interview or a presentation or asking someone out, the spit is gone. THE SPIT IS ALL GONE, and the water is waaaaay over there. In that moment, there may be a measure of politically fueled schadenfreude for some, but for many more, it's just, "Oh, oh no, oh no no, that was so uncomfortable, oh ... no." Maybe even a little, "Oh, honey." Maybe even, "Bless your heart."

There's something refreshing about a moment that was so obviously not supposed to happen — it's why blooper reels exist. It's why debates are spent waiting for someone to say the wrong thing, even by people who don't particularly care about the outcome. When things go awry — even in a tiny, tiny moment — the bottom drops out and the foreheads get clammy and all of a sudden, it's interesting. It's alive. It's: We interrupt this impeccably produced presentation to bring you a little story we call "Humans: What Are You Gonna Do?"

In all honesty, the water gulp was just about the only part of that evening you couldn't have known was going to happen 24 hours earlier. Just like the blackout, it was the major plot development (minor as it was) that felt like a collapse of the narrative, and the truth is, people like collapsed narratives. They feel, to use a nonword, real-er, truer, simpler, and more reflective of our experiences. And the fact that he rallied shortly thereafter with a post to his own Twitter feed making light of it made him seem like he could roll with a collapsed narrative, and that may well have left him better off with at least some people than he was before.

You could talk to 100 people about all the statements made in the State of the Union and all the statements made in the response, and they'd give you 100 different answers about the motivations and what was true and what was false and who did what to whom, but if you ask 100 people what it was like to be Marco Rubio at that moment, and if they all search their souls and they're all honest, they're going to say the same thing: "Not great."

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Linda Holmes
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.