March 15 (Bloomberg) -- History sometimes has a way of tying itself up with a little bow. That’s the way I felt in January when I introduced Scott Prouty, the bartender-turned-videographer who helped sink Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, to Teddy Goff, the 28-year-old director of digital media for President Barack Obama’s re-election.
Prouty was a new source. After scratching at the story for weeks as part of research for a new book, I had convinced him to meet me in Washington in January. I wanted him to tell me everything he could about recording Romney at the now-famous Boca Raton fundraiser where the Republican candidate said that 47 percent of Americans were “victims” who wouldn’t “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” David Corn of Mother Jones broke the original story; I wanted the back story.
Goff is the kind of young campaign worker whose competence and dedication caused the president to shed tears at his Chicago headquarters the day after the election. The aide had cracked the code on Internet fundraising, helping take the Obama campaign from $15 million a month in online donations in the spring to more than $150 million a month in the fall, with an average donation of just $65.
The night after our first meeting, I ran into Prouty and his girlfriend at an inaugural ball. I asked if he wanted to meet someone from the Obama campaign. He had been given tickets to the inauguration and the ball by friends at the United Steelworkers of America; he had never met or even corresponded with anyone from the campaign or the White House.
Prouty said he wanted to say hello -- he had become an Obama fan -- but asked that I not reveal his name or that he was the bartender who shot the images in Boca Raton. He was still uncomfortable with the idea of becoming a public figure and worried that his old friends at the Florida catering company where he worked would suffer repercussions.
Goff and his family were floored when they met Prouty, and they promised to keep their mouths shut. Goff’s mother gushed, “You changed the campaign! You changed history!”
Indeed, he did. We’ll never know for sure whether the president would have been re-elected without the footage, which crystallized perceptions of Romney as callous and unconcerned about almost half of the people he sought to lead. Obama was already ahead in battleground states before the feeding frenzy over the video and had a much better digital strategy and field organization.
But a fortnight later, the president lost the first debate to Romney. It could be argued that he needed the cushion of the 47 percent imbroglio (and a good answer about it at the end of the second debate) to regain momentum.
To me, this unanswerable question was less compelling than finding out Prouty’s motivation and how he fit into the “makers versus takers” theme of the campaign. As I researched his past, he seemed to be who he said he was: A blue-collar guy from Quincy, Massachusetts, whose life experiences equipped him with unusual empathy.
Prouty, who looked as if he was straight out of the white, middle-aged male demographic that voted overwhelmingly for Romney, described himself as a registered independent. Except for attending one demonstration against the Iraq war, he hadn’t been politically active, and his actions weren’t driven by a grudge against Romney. He did put a big memory card in his Canon camera before working the bar at the Boca Raton event, convinced he might hear something different than what he saw on television.
As Romney talked, Prouty wasn’t most offended by the candidate’s comments on the 47 percent that later got all the attention. He was more disturbed by Romney’s retelling of a tour of a Chinese appliance factory that he said was surrounded by barbed-wire fences and guard towers and where young female workers were stacked “12 to a room” and paid “a pittance.”
“I was waiting for him to say, ‘And I knocked down those fences and improved the working conditions and it became more profitable because of it,’” Prouty told me. “But he never did.”
Instead, he said Romney seemed to suggest it was a good investment.
For two weeks, Prouty agonized over whether to post the recording. Finally, he looked in the mirror in the middle of the night and said to himself: “You [expletive] coward.”
The next day, under the assumed identity of a young Chinese female worker and the pseudonym Anne-onymous, he began posting short clips of the China portion of Romney’s remarks, with details darkened so that they weren’t traceable to the $50,000-a-head fundraiser.
Prouty made contact with Corn after the journalist reported that, in 1998, Brookside Capital Partners Fund, an affiliate of Bain Capital Partners LLC, which was run by Romney, bought 6.13 percent of Hong Kong-based Global-Tech Appliances. Prouty thought Global-Tech sounded just like the appliance factory Romney described at the fundraiser, though Romney’s campaign refused to comment.
After the furor last September, Prouty quit his job, delisted his phone number and hid. He wasn’t sure what to do with the rest of his life.
As I was leaving the inaugural ball that night, I suspected that Prouty wouldn’t stay underground until the publication of my book in June. Sure enough, Ed Shultz scooped me March 13 when Prouty surfaced on his MSNBC show.
My guess is that he went public because he needs a job, and I expect he’ll get one with the Pittsburgh-based Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, a United Steelworkers-backed nonprofit known for accusing the talk-show host Kathie Lee Gifford in 1996 of manufacturing her clothing line in sweatshops.
The institute, which sent undercover investigators to Global-Tech after seeing the clips posted by Anne-onymous, is the perfect place for Prouty, who can move from bartending to helping expose inhumane working conditions around the world.
He’s a humble guy and isn’t looking to cash in. He now takes his rightful place as an important footnote in U.S. history.
(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” His book, “The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies,” will be published in early June. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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