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For Rubio, a swig that made us gulp

By Peter St. Onge

It began with a flick of his finger. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, about five minutes into the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union, felt a bead of sweat on his right temple. He reached up, swiped it away, kept talking. It was odd, but it was understandable, hot TV lights and all.

Then, another flick a minute later, this time on the left temple. Then a quick wipe of his dry lips, and another, and soon it didn’t really matter what words he was speaking. Would he go for the nose next? Worse. With the nation’s eyes surely saucering, Rubio leaned over far to his left, stretching to pick up a small water bottle. He took a couple of gulps, still glancing back to the camera, as if to check if we’d noticed.

Oh yes. We noticed.

Within seconds, Twitter was exploding. Within minutes, Facebook pages were speculating about whether Saturday Night Live or Jon Stewart would heap more abuse on the thirsty senator. Within hours, media were wondering if Rubio’s gaffe spelled the premature end to his 2016 presidential candidacy.

Well, maybe not. Because what happened to Marco Rubio wasn’t much of a gaffe. It was a moment, awkward and so very recognizable.

Another moment, long ago but clear as spring water: I was 12 years old, playing forward in a middle school basketball game. Home gym. Big crowd. On one play in the second quarter, I fought for a rebound, grabbed the ball, went back up strong and scored.

I remember the crowd’s roar seemed a little off key then, and I remember the unusual look on my teammates’ faces as they ran up the court alongside me. One of those teammates dribbled a basketball, which meant we were on offense, and I realized: My rebound had come off an opponent’s shot. I had scored for the other team.

My coach called a timeout. All eyes turned to me. The volume went down on everything except my heart.

Lots of you probably know this feeling. Maybe it was a school presentation gone bad, an office speech with the wrong slides. A friend remembers running for junior high class president back in the 1980s, when the Rubik’s cube was the hot, new thing. He had a brilliant idea that he would give his big speech while solving the cube, but instead, he stopped speaking to look down at the cube, and he stopped cubing to look up at his audience. He threw the cube down. He lost the election. He remembers it vividly.

Rubio, properly lubricated, finished his speech smoothly Tuesday, which is pretty impressive whether you liked the content or not. And yes, there’s been the requisite Internet chuckling and late-night TV poking. But all the harsh stuff? It really hasn’t come.

That could be because Rubio was a good sport, tweeting a picture of the water bottle shortly after the speech.

Or it could be because the senator’s big gulp was the least choreographed moment in a night of choreographed moments. It was authentic in an age of carefully planned confessions and lip-synced anthems and staged reality shows. We didn’t need a hidden camera to capture it or reporters to root out the truth behind it. It was real, plain to see, so clumsy that we instantly could imagine what he must be feeling.

It’s funny – as hard as politicians try to show how much they’re like the rest of us, it takes a water bottle to strip the differences away, to remind us all about the things we can’t predict, the things we can’t control, no matter how hard we try.

And also, to bring us together for one more thought: Thank goodness it was him, this time.

Reach Peter: 704-358-5029 or pstonge@charlotteobserver.com
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