About halfway through the first 2012 presidential debate, Republican challenger Mitt Romney started something: "I'm sorry, Jim, I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS," he told debate moderator Jim Lehrer, the executive editor of PBS NewsHour. "I'm going to stop other things. I like PBS, I love Big Bird. Actually I like you, too. But... I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for [it]." Almost immediately the "Twittersphere exploded" with Big Bird love, says Erika Eichelberger at Mother Jones. Between the hashtag #SaveBigBird and several new parody Big Bird Twitter accounts, Sesame Street's big yellow icon generated 17,000 tweets per minute. It wasn't the only new meme born during the debate, however. Here's a look at some of the cultural moments spawned by the Obama-Romney standoff:
1. Unemployed Big Bird
"This may go down in history as the Big Bird debate," says Nina Strochlic at The Daily Beast. As far as the Twitter consensus went, threatening to fire Big Bird to recoup the 0.00014 percent of the federal budget that goes to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was mean, and bad politics. "Obama killed Osama Bin Laden. Romney wants to kill Big Bird. I think that says enough," tweeted @BigBirdRomney. "If Romney had grown up with me, he wouldn't have his numbers all screwed up," added @BIGBIRD, capping off his tweet with a frowny-face emoticon. @FiredBigBird was on a roll, posting a photo of Big Bird holding a sign that read "Will Work for Food," and taunting Romney: "If you think [you] REALLY won this debate just know I have nearly 27,000 followers and we all remember your 47% remarks."
People who tweet under their real names got in on the act, too. ABC News' Rick Klein played it straight, tweeting "per Sesame Street, Big Bird has no comment b/c he is 6 and does not understand why he's in the news. I'm actually not making this up." New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof pondered darkly: "I wonder if Mitt and Ann Romney are going to celebrate tonight by eating, say, Big Bird."
2. Silent Jim Lehrer
If Romney got in hot water for what he said, moderator Jim Lehrer earned a "collective head slap" from the web for what he didn't say: Namely, much of anything, says Slate's Josh Voorhees. With tweets like "..." and "...but so...excuse me..." and "...alright..." and "...goodnight," parody Tweeter @SilentJimLehrer earned 9,000 followers within minutes after the debate ended. Lehrer did let the sparring debaters — especially Romney — control the debate, adds Voorhees, but while "it clearly wasn't one for his highlight reel," Lehrer did a better job than his critics remember.
3. Loud Chris Matthews
If Silent Jim Lehrer was "the best emerging meme of the first presidential debate," the "best post-debate meme [is] Chris Matthews’ meltdown" on MSNBC, says HyperVocal Politics. In fact, Loud Chris Matthews — "What was Romney doing? HE WAS WINNING!" — is the perfect counterpoint to Lehrer's understated Twitter avatar. Watch Matthews lose it:
Before the debate, Romney's personal aide D.G. Jackson tweeted a photo of the Romney family playing the game Jenga backstage. Twitter immediately caught on, sometimes not very kindly. "Romney preps for the #DenverDebate w/ a little Jenga. Insert joke about something wooden collapsing under pressure here," tweeted Newsweek's Andrew Romano. "Romney's Jenga obsession is a great metaphor for redistributing upwards until everything comes tumbling down," added Talking Points Memo's Brian Beutler. "Amazing how much hate and derision a game of Jenga can generate," groused Michelle Malkin's Twitter-monitoring site Twitchy. But it wasn't all snark: The Huffington Post's Sam Stein declared Jenga the night's "biggest winner," along with The Cheesecake Factory, which provided Romney's pre-debate meal.