While slipping into my metallic costume, not far from where Bill Clinton was speaking, I didn’t know if I would be fired upon, fired from my job, or sent to Guantanamo Bay. So I wasn’t taking any chances. Well, I was taking a few risks, but for someone who was about to confront a former U.S. President dressed like a robot, I was being as cautious as humanly possible.
It was the beginning of another presidential primary season, a month before the 2008 Iowa caucuses, and I was surrounded by news media. You couldn’t throw a rock in Iowa City without hitting out-of-state reporters, and they all seemed to have descended on this rally. Hilary Clinton was the Democratic Party’s heir apparent and was leading Barack Obama in the polls, so there was a lot of energy and attention focused on her husband’s visit. I smooth talked my way into the raised press area, which gave me a visible stage from which to execute the prank. My outfit: silver gym shorts; a reversible black and silver ski vest; a chrome bicycle helmet; metallic sneakers; wraparound “Electronic Rap Shades”; and a High School Musical microphone/speaker combo. I stuffed it all in a gym bag, which no one thought to search (hey, it’s Iowa!).
When Clinton took the stage, the photographers and other reporters stood up, some on their toes, vying to get a good view of the man. The wall of bodies provided the cover I needed to hunch down on the floor, don the costume, and climb atop a wobbly chair. The toy microphone amplified and distorted my voice, making me sound like an agitated Hal 9000 from 2001, A Space Odyssey. “BILL CLINTON, APOLOGIZE TO SISTER SOULJAH,” I abruptly announced, stopping him mid-speech. “ROBOTS OF THE WORLD WANT YOU TO APOLOGIZE TO SISTER SOULJAH!” I tossed into the air hundreds of tiny flyers that offered journalists clues about my motives. Immediately, several power-suited Hillary staffers and Secret Security agents surrounded me.
The Clintonite crowd turned to me, and then turned on me, letting out a massive roar: BOOOOOOOOOO! “He has nothing to apologize for,” someone shouted. Then a grandmotherly woman snapped, “Screw you, pal.” Security wrestled the plastic mic from my hands before I could get in another word. “You need to get down, right now!” Not wanting to be tazed, shot, or sent to Gitmo, I complied as they whisked me away to be debriefed.
The incident I wanted Bill Clinton to apologize for took place many years before. Sister Souljah was a young black activist who joined the provocative hip-hop group Public Enemy as their “Sister of Instruction/Director of Attitude” in 1990. A couple years later, in the summer of 1992, she made headlines when Slick Willie intentionally took her words out of context. In an interview with Washington Post reporter David Mills, she paraphrased the mindset of a gang member involved in the racially charged Los Angeles riots. “I mean, if Black people kill Black people every day,” she said, “why not have a week and kill white people?” That was the money quote Clinton latched onto. However, Souljah unequivocally stated she did not advocate violence against whites, nor was she airing her own personal views. She was simply answering the reporter’s question about why Reginald Denny (a white truck driver caught in the riots) was dragged from his vehicle and brutally attacked. Souljah also criticized the institutions that looked the other way as blacks were being murdered in the streets of L.A. on a daily basis. “In other words,” she said, “white people, this government, and that mayor were well aware of the fact that Black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you’re a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person?”
Clinton’s campaign was flagging, so he pulled a surprise political stunt by blasting Souljah at a meeting of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech,” Clinton said, referring to the Louisiana Klansman-turned-politician who was running for state office at the time. After his speech, Jackson was hopping mad, but it was political gold for the candidate. “At the time,” rapper Jay-Z recalls, “everyone knew he was trying to prove to white America that he could stand up to black people, particularly young black people involved in hip-hop, and especially in the aftermath of the L.A. riots.” In 2008, New York Times columnist Michael Cohen called it the most influential campaign speech of the past twenty years, one that “fundamentally changed the popular perception of the Democratic Party.” (And, to be more precise, moved it further to the right.) The candidate’s actions resembled a prank, though with an intellectually dishonest dark side. “Clinton really did take her comment out of context,” said David Mills, who wrote the Post article. “Souljah was describing the attitude of the L.A. rioters, not prescribing future action.” This incident revealed Bill Clinton to be just another opportunistic politician, rather than a genuine advocate for social justice. Years later, I had a chance to hold him accountable—in my own peculiar way.
After RoboProfessor’s debut, I sat in my Iowa City living room slack-jawed as the story looped on television over the next few days. “Well, Hillary Clinton may have lost the robot vote,” CNN anchor Kiran Chetry soberly reported, as though she were covering Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Another newscast: “Bill Clinton has seen a lot in his decades in politics, but probably it’s safe to say that he has never ever ever ever ever been heckled by a man dressed as a robot. Let’s take a look now at how it went down.”
The cable news echo chamber distorted my intended message, morphing the story in an elaborate game of telephone. For instance, one blog facetiously claimed I said, “Don’t taze me, human!” (a reference to a protestor who had recently pleaded “Don’t taze me, bro!” when confronted by an officer at a speech by then-Senator John Kerry). I never said that, or anything of the sort—RoboProfessor is not quick enough on his feet—but some journalists misread the joke and reported that I did. “Did they taser him, a la John Kerry?,” talk show host Tucker Carlson asked. “As a matter of fact, they did not,” the commentator replied. “He said, ‘We are polite in Iowa. They were polite to me, I was polite to them, and they escorted me out,’ and that was the end of it.’”
My favorite moment occurred on MSNBC’s Countdown With Keith Olbermann, which inexplicably ranked my confrontation as the number one story of the night. During the broadcast, the show’s host asked a Washington Post columnist about the security implications of my stunt. “Well, robots are not yet on any terrorist watch list,” Dana Milbank replied, “so there wasn’t necessarily anything nefarious about him.”
Why did I dress in a robot costume? I chose a ridiculous persona because I had no desire to play the role of an aggressive, chest-thumping activist screeching away at a politician. One can catch more flies with honey—or in my case, tasty robot motor oil. I also knew my android outfit was the sort of look, and hook, reporters would go for. Spectacle-over-substance is the stock and trade of news media, which churned out wacky headlines like “Roboprofessor Heckles Former President.” I figured one reaction would be, “Why is a robot complaining about this obscure sixteen year-old issue?”—or—“Why in the world is a white professor from Iowa demanding that Clinton apologize to Sister Souljah?” I hoped to shock, befuddle, and/or amuse, as well as annoy the former President. The incident didn’t leave a lasting mental scar on him, but it sure was cathartic for me.
As I have argued, the most important stage of a prank is “the reveal”—the teaching moment that comes in its wake. Before my robotic intervention, no paper would have printed an op-ed that criticized Clinton for his Sister Souljah Moment. The subject was deemed old and irrelevant, but after I strapped on that silver outfit, the Washington Post printed my column about it. Nevertheless, my message was lost in a sea of disinformation. Clinton’s 1992 comments about Sister Souljah shaped our collective memories of that incident, leading to lazy coverage then, and in 2008. Two days after my debut as RoboProfessor, a CNN anchor informed viewers that she was a rapper who “asked for a Kill White People Week, which Clinton called racist.”
She asked for a Kill White People Week? Which Clinton called racist?!? Flatly untrue. It would have taken an intern with access to an Internet search engine less than a minute to discover the falsity of that statement. I assume the good folks in the CNN newsroom figured that because she was an Angry Black Rapper, Sister Souljah surely wanted to Kill Whitey. Therefore, no need to fact check. In trying to correct the (a)historical record about Clinton’s demonization of Souljah and his sometimes-problematic relationship with race, my prank failed. Journalists repeated a more simplistic and inaccurate version of this story than they did back in 1992. For those who forgot or never knew, all they learned was that Sister Souljah was a scary black woman who called for a “Kill White People Week.” I’m sorry to say that I probably did more harm than good.
When executing a prank it is important to clearly communicate, something that didn’t happen during my face-off with Bill Clinton. Picking an obscure issue made this difficult, for it required too much explanation and backstory to successfully make my point. I was quite conscious of this problem four years later when my prankster alter ego encountered anti-gay Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann. This time I made sure my message was sharp (though still silly). “NOT ONLY ARE YOU A HOMOPHOBE,” RoboProfessor said as she got off her campaign bus, “YOU ARE A ROBOPHOBE!” I trailed close behind her and spoke through a small silver megaphone so I could be heard over the background noise.
By calling out Bachmann on an issue that was a central part of her public persona, I knew my actions would be understood—even by those who did not agree. And, boy, some folks really disliked what I did. The Bachmann supporters packed inside the Hamburg Inn restaurant booed and shoved me, and after I came out as a gay robot, some started a “Stay in the closet!” chant. “I CANNOT HELP MYSELF. I WAS PROGRAMMED TO DO THIS. I AM GAY,” pleaded RoboProfessor, further infuriating them. When a harried restaurant manager asked me to leave, I immediately agreed. After all, we are polite in Iowa.
Reporters soon came calling, and I got the chance to explain myself. But even without any follow up commentary, the prank’s point was fairly legible because I customized it with Bachmann in mind. “I AM A GAY ROBOT,” RoboProfessor said, “I OPPOSE BACHMANN’S POSITION ON GAYS, WHETHER HUMAN OR ROBOT.” I also knew the phrase “gay robot” would be an irresistible hook that could get reporters to spread the story far and wide.
England’s Daily Mail trumpeted, “Republican Candidate Michelle Bachmann Harangued by ‘Gay Robot’ on the Campaign Trail in Iowa,” and the International Business Times ran the headline “Gay Robot ‘RoboProf’ Crashes Michele Bachmann Rally in Iowa City.” Another tactical choice I made, in terms of publicizing the story, was to document the encounter. A friend followed me with an inexpensive handheld HD camera, and an hour after leaving the campaign stop I edited the material and uploaded it to the video sharing platform YouTube. That encouraged online news sites to embed the eye-popping visuals in their articles, and because the video quality was fairly good MSNBC used a full minute of the footage in its coverage. This playful source material also allowed news outlets to have fun with their reporting. “Many of her views seem to come from outer space,” the MSNBC segment began, “so what would be of little surprise that at a campaign stop in Iowa Michele Bachmann got a visit from a robot. Take a look.”