Oct 9, 2010

On Rich Iott, Nazi Uniforms, and Imploding Campaigns

Pictured: Rich Iott, second from right, in a Nazi Waffen SS uniform; photo courtesy of The Atlantic

I have been watching with some amazement the news reports related to the revelation that congressional candidate Rich Iott has participated in historical re-enactments as a Nazi soldier. For at least four years Iott was a member of the Wiking Historical Re-enactment Society, which is dedicated to the study and re-enactment of the history of the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking.

Let me begin by saying that as a historian I see significant pedagogical value in historical re-enactment, and that participants can learn a great deal about the periods and peoples they are covering. And no: I do not believe Rich Iott has any Nazi sympathies. Moreover, as a voter I had yet to decide (until this debacle, at least) whether I would vote for Marcy Kaptur (thus preserving the Toledo area's influence in the powerful House Appropriations Committee) or Rich Iott (who at least talks about a return to fiscal responsibility).

That being said, there are few controversies that Kaptur operatives could dream up that would be as effective as the gift that Rich Iott provided them with these Nazi uniform photos. I can just imagine Kaptur campaign aides sitting around the table when word of the photos emerged:

"Let me get this straight: we have photos of Rich Iott in Nazi regalia? Not Photoshopped, right? Hmmm...... HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"

And so on.

Here is how this will probably play out: Iott will spend an entire week just before the election backpedaling and denying he is a Nazi. Kaptuir will take the high road, saying something like: "I have no reason to think Rich Iott is a Nazi sympathizer, and it is perfectly acceptable for historical re-enactors to wear period clothing, like Rich Iott and his son when they wore Waffen-SS uniforms for several years." She probably will not even put a loaded qualifier in there, like "Rich Iott needs to come clean to the voters about his views on the Nazis," because the photos are enough of a bombshell.

But the coverage from newspapers, television programs, radio talk shows, and Internet blogs and message boards will inevitably cement the terms "Rich Iott" and "Nazi" in the minds of voters. Military veterans and adherents of the various forms of Judaism will be the groups most likely to turn away from Iott, of course, but the word "Nazi" does not play well with very many voters. Just turning away a few thousand voters offended by pictures of Iott in a Nazi uniform is highly significant in an off-year election in which the total vote will probably be 220,000 or so.

What is going to hurt Iott more from this is the slowing of the money spigot in the remaining weeks. The last-minute cash that would normally be thrown at what seemed to be a fairly close race is going to drop off to a trickle, as no one likes to toss money into what is perceived to be a doomed campaign. Let's face it: for the next 3-7 days there will be thousands of news stories and blog posts with images of Rich Iott in a Nazi uniform, and only the most true-believing of Iott supporters are going to cough up cash as this story continues to circulate.

Prior to the Nazi photos I saw this race as something like a 53-47 Kaptur lead, but after the next week those numbers are going to move decidedly in Kaptur's favor, and I suspect Kaptur will wind up in the high fifties after Nazi-gate. Unless the Iott campaign has its own nuclear option, like a picture of Kaptur in a BDSM outfit or one of Kaptur tossing puppies off a bridge, Rich Iott is doomed. And the PMA scandal seems to have zero traction in this race, so Iott is wasting his time trying to beat this dead horse to pull the campaign plow.

Things look pretty grim for Rich Iott based on the New York Times and their FiveThirtyEight Forecast for Ohio's 9th congressional district. They are predicting a 61-36 victory for Kaptur (margin of error at the moment is 8.9 percent) and they give Kaptur a 99.7 percent chance of victory.

Pictured: Rich Iott in a Nazi Waffen SS uniform at an undated Wiking ceremony; photo courtesy of The Atlantic

Imagine if Iott had collected and released a bunch of images from his re-enactment events and included the so-called Nazi image in its proper context: as part of a larger interest in military history. Then pundits who took the Nazi image out of context would look like people deliberately twisting an innocent image for political gain, and this "story" would have little effect (I do not believe for a single second that Rich Iott is a Nazi sympathizer or fetishist).

Instead, we have Iott scrambling to explain why he is in a Waffen-SS uniform, and this will dog him for at least a few days. Moreover, the repeated airing of these images will stick to Iott in subtle-but-substantial ways among undecided voters.

In my opinion this is a significant PR problem for Iott, and unfortunately it was handled stupidly. This is yet another race that should have been focused on issues, but instead will be derailed by poor planning and irrelevant Internet history.

Moral to the story: if a politician has anything that could be twisted and used as political hay, it is best to get it out in the open and "own" the material. Getting it sprung into the campaign by a political opponent almost always guarantees that the candidate will be on the defensive addressing the charge, and this is a waste of both financial and political capital. Also, just deleting material from a website doesn't make it disappear, as tools like the Wayback Machine theoretically keep Internet material alive forever.

In the case of Rich Iott, the Internet images he thought had been erased are going to sink his campaign.


Molly said...

Sorry Mike, but I don't think this is about spin or the luck of finding a few photos. I agree with the value of re-enactments. I've taken my kids to any number of events in this area over the years and would guess they got as much out of that as any Ohio history class they've taken. I also understand this is a major undertaking for a lot of the people involved and they take it all very seriously. That said, there are obviously a limitless number of historical options to choose from. CHOOSING to play Nazi at all is just....wrong. I don't care if you pretty it up as "father/son" bonding or not. I have no idea whether that effects his ability to do his job as an elected official, and since I don't live in 9th district I'm not able to vote for or against him anyhow, but it speaks to the kind of person he is. "Sympathizer" or not, I don't see how anyone could put on a Nazi uniform for fun, much less dress their kid up too, and try to pass it off as no big deal.

historymike said...

I agree that there are many people who would see Rich Iott wearing a Nazi uniform as offensive, Molly. However, I think he handled this in a colossally foolish way, and that had he "packaged" his re-enactment hobby in the context of the other soldier characters he claims to have played, this would not be a political albatross.

Unfortunately for Mr. Iott, this is going to tank any chances he had of unseating Kaptur, and what was shaping up to be a fairly close race is now going to be a blowout.

Molly said...

I agree it could have been handled better but I don't think even putting it out there himself was going to change the basic fact of the matter. If you want to run for political office it's probably best not to be caught with prostitutes, with young men or women sitting on your lap, or wearing a Nazi uniform.

Corey said...


As a Reenactor myself (WWII Dog Company 5th Ranger Battalion) I think that there is nothing wrong with choosing to portray a Nazi in reenactments. After all - us US and English boys have to have someone to shoot at. D-Day and Battle of the Bulge reenactments are not the same when the enemy is not there.

It's the same as the folks that participate in Civil War reenactments as Confederates; or the folks who do British interpretations for the War of 1812 and the Revolutionary Wars.

The most important part of history is understanding history - and one cannot fully do that with one side of the story.

And for the Record - A Nazi was a member of a political party (belonging to the National Socialist German Workers' Party, or Nazi for better terms)not a member of the Third Reich's Armed Forces. There were Nazi's within it's ranks but most of those boys were just like our GI's in Europe. They got drafted, or volunteered, to fight in a war for their country and to serve with honor and pride for their homeland.

Plus it gives the public some great insight into this "Despicable" enemy we faced. Propaganda told the public that ALL Germans were Baby Eating, Jack-boot wearing Rapists who only sought to destroy the world as we know it. In reality - most of them had families they missed and wrote to, sons and daughters they loved, and wanted a peace that involved them being alive so they could see their loved ones again. Most of the US WWII vets understand this and take interest in the German side of Reenacting because 60+ years ago the folks in those uniforms would have shot them - not tell them what everything was, thank them for their service and give them a firm handshake.

And Most folks don't don the uniform for the hell of it or for fun. we seek to educate - the fun of a reenactment (When you mare coming off of a 60 year old Higgins Boat or Riding on the back of a Sherman Tank you are having a lot of fun let em tell you!) is only a plus.

So it is no big deal. He's not a "skin-head" and certainly not a "Nazi" (being the party no longer exists in the original state).

Corey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Molly said...

Corey, I understand your point of view but I stand by my original point. You all choose your piece of history and you're never going to win points from the general public by choosing to be a Nazi. I also don't care that Nazis were "just regular folk" anymore than I care that Hitler loved his dog. It's meaningless to the bigger picture.

Quimbob said...

great post

Sensorg said...

While I intellectualy understand the need and educational value of re-enactments, I find their choice of picking this particular SS division disturbing.

This SS division was noted for quite a few war crimes, including the massacre and torture of Jews and in the earlier campaigns Josef Mengele was their combat medic.

The fact that someone would want to and relish dressing us as these evil men is just gross.

SensorG said...

Also - you think the money is going to dry up from this. I think it will flow in. This is going to provide a lot of street credit on right.

Not because he dressed up like a Nazi, but because he's getting so much negative attention from the media.

If the "media is against you" then by default "you must be alright".

I say there is 50% chance that he finds himself on Sean Hannity this week, which will mean $50-100K.

Anonymous said...

I can't blame a reenactor for choosing to play a Nazi in a WWII reenactment--they had far nicer looking uniforms, I think, than any other country in the conflict.

Mad Jack said...

Some years ago I was at an antique show in Florida, where I had a chance to buy a used double barrel 12 gauge open hammer shotgun with the short 18 and 1/2 inch barrels. I'd been looking for a shotgun in this configuration, and at $300 the gun was priced to sell. The trouble was it had an ornate bass plate on the stock - Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Now, even though this was a perfectly serviceable weapon, I didn't add it to my gun collection. I just didn't want it in my gun safe, knowing how it had been used.

I don't believe Rich Iott is a Nazi, and while I don't see the value in reenactments I certainly see the fun. That said, were I involved in a reenactment I wouldn't wear the Nazi uniform, and I wouldn't wear it for the same reasons that I didn't buy that shotgun.

Rich Iott handled this one wrong. What I'm really wondering is why the GOP didn't know about this and handle it at the start of the race.

Anonymous said...

Everybody knows that if you're going to run for office and you're into living history, you may only depict soldiers from E Co. 506 PIR. And you'll get the most votes if you're at least 50 years old, 120 pounds overweight and you're trying to pass yourself off as a 20 year-old PFC in an elite unit.

microdot said...

Rich I(di)ott is not a real Nazi, but he plays one on TV....
I agree that historical re enactments are quite an interesting spectacle and a real passion for a lot of people. I agree that most of the German soldiers were drafted canon fodder. What choice did they have, but the SS was an elite branch of the German military and this particular group, the 5th panzer division with its history in Eastern Europe is pretty odious.
This is not a pick up sports game, lets give Iott the benefit of his ability to make a concious decision as to what team he chose to play on.
That coupled with is statements about his admiration for a relatively small country able to conquer most of Europe and fight the world for 5 years just proves his inability to actually see him self as others might see him and judge his ability to make rational, sane decisions as a legislator...
We've already seen what he did to FoodTown....

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