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  1. Florida Politics

Carlton: A little less swagger, Mr. Mayor?

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn fires a .50 caliber machine gun from a rigid hull inflatable boat during the International Special Operations Capabilities Demonstration at the Tampa Convention Center Wednesday, June 25, 2016. JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn fires a .50 caliber machine gun from a rigid hull inflatable boat during the International Special Operations Capabilities Demonstration at the Tampa Convention Center Wednesday, June 25, 2016. JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Published May 24, 2017

In the dispute-gone-national over a bad joke uttered by Tampa's mayor, it is instructive to recall the nickname bestowed upon him by the local military.

"Swagger" was the fighter pilot call sign given Bob Buckhorn by folks at MacDill Air Force Base, on a patch for his flight suit, even — and yes, he had a flight suit. Clearly, it is a name he enjoys.

In fact, swagger has been front and center in his years as mayor. "Tampa's got its swagger back," Buckhorn declared early on, and swagger remains evident as he pushes his city forward in the final years of his second term.

Sometimes a strong quality that serves a person well can also be the very thing that sends him stumbling.

Buckhorn made big news — and not the kind he likes —for joking at a military conference last week about how he once pointed twin machine guns at local reporters during a hostage rescue demonstration. (The mayor does like his photo ops.) He told the appreciative crowd that he had never seen "grown men cry like little girls" — apparently only the male reporters got scared — and that when the gun went off, the media hit the deck.

"Great payback," said a mayor who knew his audience that day. "I love it."

For the record, he was firing blanks, and there were no reported sightings of media members weeping or going horizontal.

Now there are just some people who are never going to fully appreciate how hilarious a pointing-weapons-at-human-beings joke can be.

BACKSTORY: Bob Buckhorn apologizes amid uproar over his joke about pointing machine gun at journalists

You'll have to pardon some reporters for failing to appreciate the punch line, too. Being labeled the enemy of your fellow Americans by no less than the president of the United States can do that to a person.

So you had a joke in bad taste — one Buckhorn has made before — exacerbated by worse timing.

As the Times' Howard Altman reported, some journalists cried foul — in particular, those who have actually been in danger themselves covering violent conflicts and wars, who have seen colleagues and loved ones injured or killed. Can you blame them? Every year, reporters die reporting.

And the idea that anyone who protested was being a big baby? Imagine a joke about aiming a big gun at a group of, say, teachers — at police officers, even, who have been under fire themselves. A passel of mayors, perhaps. No, still not funny.

Possibly the last person on earth diehard Democrat Buckhorn would want to be mentioned in the same breath with is President Donald Trump, he who decreed the media the enemy. But Trump just had his own moment with reporters as the spit take, appreciating a joke from his Homeland Security secretary about how a saber he'd just been presented could be used on the press.

Here's the thing: Except for a few feisty moments, Buckhorn has built a good relationship with local media and generated a lot of positive press for his city. He's the son of a reporter himself. But he seemed to be caught flat-footed by his own tone-deafness on this.

At first it looked like the mayor might put up his dukes, a thing he has been known to do in the face of criticism. He initially called the negative reaction "silly," then seemed to find his feet. Through a spokeswoman, he said his humorous intent clearly did not translate on Twitter and "in light of the current rhetoric at the national level aimed at the media, inadvertently served to reinforce some of those sentiments."

And it ended with an apology, as it should, minus the swagger.

Contact Sue Carlton at carlton@tampabay.com.

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