Arena of Public Opinion Floods from a Bottle of Water

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had an important job to do Wednesday night: Go on live national television and give the Republicans' response to the president's State of the Union address by explaining the flaws in the Democrats' agenda and the virtues of his party's approach.

He did that, but what was everybody talking about afterward? The clash of big ideas?

No. A sip of water - and whether it had ended Rubio's political career just as the cover of Time magazine was proclaiming him to be "The Republican Savior."

In case you missed it, Rubio was about five minutes into his 15-minute speech when he started showing small signs of distress. His mouth was getting dry and he began wiping sweat from his temples. He soldiered on, but his lips and tongue were getting stickier, making little smacking sounds, and his articulation faltered.

Finally, at about the 11-minute mark, he cast a furtive, sideways glance, and abruptly lunged for a bottle of water on a low table far to his left - all while nervously struggling to keep eye contact with the camera. He took a sip from the bottle, gulped audibly, and continued speaking, working to regain his composure. You can watch it for yourself at

Rubio ended the speech fairly well - but the damage had been done. The Internet - Twitter, Facebook and so on - lit up like a Christmas tree as people rushed to their keyboards to remark on "the sip".

The commentary continued through the night and into the next day - with lots of puns, snark and other humorous comments flying through cyberspace and over the airwaves. Some dubbed it the new "water-gate," others invoked the "Stay thirsty, my friends" line from the Dos Equis TV ads. Movie titles were a common resource including "Zero Dark Thirsty" and, my favorite, the blogger who posted a picture of Rubio drinking and titled it "Water for Elephant."

Countless mocking videos soon followed.

Whatever Rubio actually said was pretty much lost in the tidal wave of babble about the water. Sure, you could find discussions about the substance of the speech, but the big story was about the water bottle.

Why was everyone obsessed with it?

NPR's Linda Holmes had an interesting answer to that question, trying to understand why so many people "pounced on the water-bottle moment with the feverish madness that only social media can bring."

Her view is because it was unscripted, unplanned - an exceedingly rare thing in politics.

"There's something refreshing about a moment that was so obviously not supposed to happen," she writes. "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."

That makes sense - especially when you think back to other moments involving politicians that became the focus of talk and memory to the exclusion of everything that came before or after. Howard Dean's "scream." Rick Perry's "oops" when he couldn't remember the names of the federal agencies he wanted to abolish.

Politicians try so hard to be so polished, so cautiously buttoned-up, that when the real person behind the mask emerges, we are amazed and entranced.

Of course, these little displays of humanity often cost dearly. On CNN, Wolf Blitzer introduced a piece on Rubio by asking, in all seriousness, "So can a drink of water make or break a political career? A U.S. Senator, possible presidential candidate. We're going to find out, whether he likes it or not."

The ominous caption on the screen read, "Career-Ender?"

Politico found that even some Republicans were fretting that their young "savior" had been damaged.

"I still love Marco for the party but last night was not good for him," said one GOP operative.

"Rubio's national introduction is now a punch line," said another. "For Rubio, a real setback."

You may or may not like Rubio or what he stands for, but the idea that a man needing a drink of water gives us insight into his worthiness or viability as a politician is...well...not a mature evaluation standard.

Rubio himself tried to make the best of situation. He tweeted out a picture of the infamous water bottle. His PAC is now offering donors water bottles bearing his name for a $25 contribution. He joked on ABC that "God has a funny way of reminding us we're human."

He doesn't say why God chose that particular moment to do that, but the self-deprecating comment doesn't hurt. What else can he do?

"The sip" may fade quickly into oblivion - you know, water under the bridge. Or it might endure. Rubio might walk away from it unscathed, or it might shadow him forever. Memes are like that - some stick, some don't.

But it is a little sad that we complain when politicians give us nothing but scripted words and fake emotions - and then pummel them when they act like real people.

You can bet that if you asked Rubio what he would change about his speech, he'd say, "The water bottle thing."

In other words, the part where we saw a man and not a mannequin.

This column was originally published in The Sentinel (Carlisle, Pa.).

Rich Lewis, a former reporter and editor, teaches at Dickinson College. He can be reached at His column appears Sundays in The Sentinel (Carlisle, PA).