When Debuts Flop: Katie Britt Is the Latest in a Long Line of Botched Opening Acts

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Senator Katie Britt, Republican of Alabama, had not finished delivering her breathless, overly dramatized and fact-challenged response to President Biden’s State of the Union address last week when the ridicule and criticism began pouring in from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Her delivery from an oddly empty kitchen was stilted and awkwardly strident. She spoke in apocalyptic terms. And, as a freelance journalist soon discovered, she used a misleading account of sex trafficking to criticize border policies, falsely implying that it had taken place in the United States under Mr. Biden. In fact, it happened many years ago in Mexico during the administration of President George W. Bush.

“We wouldn’t be OK with this happening in a third world country,” Ms. Britt said from her kitchen table in Montgomery, Ala. “This is the United States of America.”

Now, the senator’s nationally televised speech — given before she had even delivered her first speech on the Senate floor — is etched in the public consciousness as a defining moment of her early days on the national political stage. It will no doubt shadow her budding Senate career as the single thing most Americans know about her.

But Ms. Britt is not the first female freshman Republican senator from the South who, eager to make a splash right out of the gate, staged a high-profile introductory event that went awry, putting an indelible stamp on her career.

Her story recalls that of Senator Paula Hawkins of Florida, a member of the 1980 class that swept Republicans into the Senate majority on Ronald Reagan’s coattails. Trying to quickly establish her conservative bona fides, Ms. Hawkins arranged a lunch in 1981 to promote her first big legislative initiative: a criminal crackdown on food stamp fraud.

In an epic case of setting the wrong tone, her menu of New York strip steaks, asparagus and fresh strawberries served in an ornate Senate dining room clashed horribly with her message of jailing those “truly greedy” Americans who abused food stamps. She took a media drubbing for what came to be known as the “Steak and Jail” luncheon — named for the then-popular Steak and Ale restaurant chain. It became part of Senate lore and was mentioned prominently in stories when Ms. Hawkins died in 2009.

Ms. Britt has now followed in Ms. Hawkins’s footsteps as a conservative female senator from the South in more ways than one. She is experiencing a similar moment as her tone of voice, choice of venue and the substance of her speech fuel continuing criticism.

Her claims came under intense scrutiny and quickly unraveled, drawing widespread criticism and even a dressing down from the victim whose suffering Ms. Britt had recounted.

After the independent journalist Jonathan M. Katz discovered and publicized Ms. Britt’s misleading remarks on TikTok, Karla Jacinto, the victim, accused the senator of exploiting her story.

“I think she should first take into account what really happens before telling a story of that magnitude,” Ms. Jacinto told CNN in an interview.

Ms. Britt has pushed back against the criticism, saying she did not directly state that the incident happened while Mr. Biden was president or in the United States. Her fellow Republicans have rallied around her.

“We were proud of Senator Britt,” Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader who helped select her for the speech, told reporters. “I have zero criticism of her performance. I thought it was really outstanding.”

Ms. Britt has fended off reporters on Capitol Hill in recent days but did give an extensive interview about the speech and its aftermath to one of her colleagues, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, on his podcast. Though she did not directly address the part of the speech that has drawn the most scrutiny, she and Mr. Cruz were both defiant, saying that the extensive coverage showed that the news media was out to censor her.

“They want to silence a conservative woman for speaking out on this topic,” Ms. Britt told her colleague. “They don’t want to bring light and help the women who are actually being trafficked.”

“They view you as an enormous threat,” Mr. Cruz replied. He added that a young Republican mother of school-age children presented a stark contrast with Mr. Biden and caricatures of Republicans.

Ms. Britt said she had never given a speech directly to a camera, as she did in her State of the Union rebuttal, suggesting that might have accounted for some of her over-the-top delivery.

“My crime was putting too much passion, too much heart and soul behind the issues I genuinely care about,” she said. “They slaughtered me across the airways.”

Ms. Britt also said she was thrilled to have been memorably parodied on “Saturday Night Live” by the actress Scarlett Johansson, one of the stars of the “Avengers” movie franchise.

“I actually was pretty pumped about that,” Ms. Britt told Mr. Cruz.

The question is what impact, if any, the speech will have on her Senate career and reputation — and her chances of ascending in Republican politics. Others have survived and even profited from similar experiences.

Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, went viral after he had to awkwardly reach for a bottle of water while giving the party’s response to the State of the Union in 2013. He turned that around by selling personalized bottles of water, raising tens of thousands of dollars. Representative Joe Wilson, Republican of South Carolina, was formally reprimanded by the House in 2009 for yelling “you lie” at President Barack Obama during a special health care address to Congress, but he also raised money off the episode.

On Capitol Hill, Ms. Britt was not seen entering the Senate as a MAGA firebrand. A protégé of former Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the longtime spending deal-maker she served as his chief of staff, Ms. Britt was billed as a conservative but likely pragmatic successor to her mentor. Democrats who have dealt with Ms. Britt have been reluctant to pile on, saying they believe she was given poor advice by her staff in crafting the speech.

And while Ms. Britt’s veracity is being widely challenged, the speech, the backlash and her harsh criticism of Mr. Biden are likely to make her a star in many Republican circles. A fund-raising email for the Trump campaign was sent out in her name this week, noting that she and Mr. Biden “outlined two very different visions for America.” She is also quickly becoming one of the party’s chief voices on border issues.

As for Ms. Hawkins, she did not shy from conservative outspokenness during her time in the Senate, despite the luncheon gaffe. She was defeated after a single term, however, losing to Bob Graham, a Democrat and a popular governor.

Ms. Hawkins did eventually recognize the error of her ways when it came to her big debut.

“It was the wrong setting to make such an announcement,” she conceded.


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