I've done this topic before a while back, but I thought it might be interesting to take a trip down memory lane & ask what are the worst political gaffes in modern political history? Which mistakes have been the most memorable or most damaging? And I'm going to throw in some stuff about political TV shows too.
Now you can use any criteria for what qualifies as a "mistake" you want, but mine is any action or event done by a politician, a campaign, or political party that may have:
1. Seriously contributed to a politician or party losing an election.
2. Seriously damaged a person's ability to move upward & onward in politics.
3. Damaged the public image of a person, their political party, or ideology.
Not all gaffes & mistakes are created equal. It can be argued that some are fair, and some aren't. I believe there's a famous saying that a mistake in politics is sometimes when a politician tells the truth.
Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing," and its spiritual ancestor 'The American President,' are both great political dramas. Both of them proceed from an idealistic, Capraesque vision of American politics, where people with principles are victorious over those who spread half-truths & distortions. In Sorkin's imagined political world, all that is necessary for the best political policy to carry the day, no matter how controversial it might be, is the guts to say what you mean & mean what you say.
However, here in the real world, that's not always true. "Good" & right do not always win in the end, lies & distortions can work all too well, and "how" something is said or done can be judged to be just as important, if not more important, than what is said.
About a week ago in an Overnight News Digest diary, Trix and I discussed Armando Iannucci's sitcom "The Thick of It," and its feature film spinoff 'In the Loop,' which have a very dark, cynical view of British politics. Largely a scathing parody of New Labour's image conscious government between 1997 and 2010, "The Thick of It" has been described as the Anti-West Wing, and largely lives up (or would it be down) to that description. Almost every character is either inept or corrupt. Most of the action is centered around the Prime Minister's Director of Communications, Malcolm Tucker (with Peter Capaldi's character being based in part on Tony Blair's Director of Communications/hatchet man Alastair Campbell, who according to Whitehall insiders could be even more brutal than Tucker), with the show portraying not the politicians, but the spin doctors and the media as the most powerful forces in British politics.
To that end, both "The Thick of It" and 'In the Loop' seem to say that public policy is not born out of good ideas, but out of trying to spin the bad ideas that didn't play well.
So what does all that have to do with political mistakes? Not a whole lot really, except that mistakes & gaffes usually come from malice, stupidity, or just plain bad luck. The idealists can lose their way, and the spin doctors can make mountains out of molehills.
So, without further ado, here are some of the more memorable gaffes in recent history, starting with recent history.
► [John McCain - 2008 - "Fundamentals Of Our Economy Are Strong"]
There is an argument that given the state of the country, Bush's job approval numbers, etc., the 2008 election was destined to be a Democratic year. However, McCain kept things close in polls for most of 2008, often outperforming the Republican brand. In fact, he did have that bit after the GOP convention in which he led in most national polls. So what happened?
The turning point seems to have been the advent of the financial crisis. Below is a graph of Gallup's daily tracking poll from about March to election day.
The margin of support between each candidate stays pretty close up until the middle of September, when Obama took a lead he would never relinquish. What happened in the middle of September? The stock market & financial services industry kinda collapsed. It's also around the time people who have 401Ks and investments got statements on their dwindling nest eggs. This had the effect of putting the economy as issue number one in the election.
So, with the economy going in the shitter, John McCain decided to tell people to believe him, not their lying eyes.
This, coupled with the stunt of "suspending" his campaign & trying to postpone the first debate to fly back to Washington and deal with an economy that he had just called fundamentally sound, contributed to doubts about McCain temperament, as well as his ability to deal with a financial crisis.
And if that wasn't enough, while this was happening, voters confidence in John McCain's VP pick was dropping like a stone.
► [Sarah Palin - 2008 - Katie Couric Interview]
If you look at the 2008 exit polls, the American public was not impressed by Sarah Palin. Only 38% of voters believed she was qualified to be President of the United States. But there were a few weeks where the pick of Palin seemed to offer some wind to John McCain's sails. Palin's performance at the GOP convention & first couple of weeks on the trail seemed to bring conservatives home and give McCain the lead in most polls. However, all of it seemed to collapse after the gruesome twosome of McCain botching his response to the financial crisis, and Palin started answering questions in the media.
The McCain campaign wouldn't let Palin get near a reporter's microphone for weeks after her VP selection. As the media continued to press for access, the McCain campaign ultimately decided to allow a limited number of interviews, after presumably trying to prep her & cram her head full of briefing books. The first interview was with ABC News & Charlie Gibson, where Palin didn't seem to know what the "Bush Doctrine" is, talked about energy independence when asked about her national security credentials, and sorta threatened World War III with Russia.
However, the pièce de résistance was the absolutely disastrous interview with Katie Couric for CBS News. Palin just seemed out of her league on every level. It was the basis for some of the first skits with Tina Fey, and you know it's pretty bad when "Saturday Night Live" uses the transcript of the interview... word for word.
► [George W. Bush - 2003, 2005, etc. - Pick 'Em]
Do I even need to explain these? If you look at the political strength of the Bush Presidency, it has a peak after the September 11th Attacks, where the country rallied to him in the hope he might actually be a leader, and the point where Bush's approval ratings permanently sunk below 50% was his handling of Hurricane Katrina. However, in-between those two events there was something else that happened.
|May 1st, 2003 - Bush Declares An End To Major Combat Operations In Iraq|
The Iraq War, and what was done in the run up to the Iraq War, shattered whatever solidarity existed among Democrats & Republicans in the wake of 9-11. Also, the legacy of the image above & the entire media spectacle of Bush in a flight suit landing on an aircraft carrier becomes even more chilling when you realize that we just had combat operation (which may or -may- probably not over) declared over for the second time, seven years after "Mission Accomplished."
|August 31st, 2005 - Bush Stares Out A Window As He Flies "Over" A Devastated New Orleans On His Way Back To D.C.|
The appearance of a President diddling while a major American city was under water seemed to be the straw that broke the camel's back for many voters. It didn't help that when Bush eventually began to get involved, one of his first soundbites was to tell his FEMA director, who was working at horse shows before being put in charge of emergency management, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job,"
► [Michael Howard - 1997 - "Did You Threaten To Overrule Him?"]
In that "The Thick of It" clip above, BBC's "Newsnight" anchor Jeremy Paxman makes an appearance. A good bit of Paxman's reputation as a tough interviewer started from a notorious "Newsnight" interview with Conservative MP Michael Howard.
During Howard's time as Home Secretary, a series of prison escapes occurred. An inquiry was ordered of the prison service. Paxman questions Howard, who at the time was campaigning to become the Tory leader, about a discrepancy between Howard's recollection & that of the director of the Prison Service. Paxman asks the same question not once, not twice, but 14 times in a row, and cannot get a straight answer.
► [Michael Dukakis - 1988 - Tank Ride & Debate Question]
At one point Michael Dukakis led George H. W. Bush by 17 points in 1988, but it was campaign events like these that wiped all of that lead away. Dukakis wanted to show his strength on National Security, so his campaign scheduled an event at a General Dynamics plant in Sterling Heights, Michigan. They positioned the cameras to catch Dukakis riding up in glory on a M1 Abrams Tank. Margaret Thatcher had done a similar campaign event in 1986, riding in a Challenger tank while wearing a scarf.
However instead of looking like Alexander The Great riding into battle, Dukakis looked awkward & out of place with the tank helmet. The manufactured nature of the event played into making him look small & Snoopy-ish. What was supposed to be a photo-op for the Dukakis Campaign, became a commercial for the Bush Campaign.
Going into the second debate with Vice President Bush, the national polls were still close. But the second Presidential debate of the 88 campaign is remembered for the following question.
At the time, and probably even still today, there are people who will argue the question was unfair & that it was too personal & emotional. On the other hand, the counterargument is that Bernard Shaw had basically offered up a slow moving pitch right over the plate for Dukakis to hit out of the park, but he totally screwed it up with his cool & detached answer.
► [Howard Dean - 2004 - "Byaaah!!!"]
Remember I said not all gaffes & mistakes are alike? Some are because someone said or did something incredibly stupid, and some are because they make good fodder for air.
After coming in third at the 2004 Iowa Caucus, Dean gave a speech to the crowd, where he said/"screamed":
"Not only are we going to New Hampshire, Tom Harkin, we're going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico, and we're going to California and Texas and New York ... And we're going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan. And then we're going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House! Byaaah!!!"It instantly became fodder for comedians and late night talkshows. The pundit class called it un-Presidential, and played it almost nonstop. Dean's lead in New Hampshire evaporated & was the beginnning of the end for the Dean Campaign.
► [George H. W. Bush - 1988 - Read My Lips]
This is one of those cases where something that helps to get you elected comes back to bite you. At the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans, George Herbert Walker Bush vowed that he wouldn't raise taxes by telling the public:
"And I'm the one who will not raise taxes. My opponent now says he'll raise them as a last resort, or a third resort. But when a politician talks like that, you know that's one resort he'll be checking into. My opponent, my opponent won't rule out raising taxes. But I will. And The Congress will push me to raise taxes and I'll say no. And they'll push, and I'll say no, and they'll push again, and I'll say, to them, `Read my lips: no new taxes."Bush broke the promise with the 1990 Budget, and this became a club that Clinton used to beat the ever lovin' shit out of him with in the 92 election.
► [Walter Mondale - 1984 - I Will Raise Taxes]
There was probably no speech that Walter Mondale could have given at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco that would have won him the election. However, he probably wouldn't have lost 49 states & damaged the image of the Democratic Party for years to come, if not for his acceptance speech. Trying to show his honesty compared to Ronald Reagan, Mondale decided to say.....
"Let's tell the truth. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did."While what he said may have been true, the speech fed the image of "Tax & Spend Liberals" that has been a talking point of Republicans ever since.
► [Dan Quayle - 1988 - "Senator, You Are No Jack Kennedy"]
This is probably the clearest example of a politician being severely damaged from a blunder. Quayle would never really be taken seriously again after his encounter with Lloyd Bentsen in the 1988 VP Debate. Quayle already had "stature" problems to begin with. When he was questioned about it during the debate, he walked into a devastating verbal rejoinder.
What arguably makes the whole thing worse is Quayle's reaction. He has a sort of deer in the headlights kind of look during the whole "pwning" that Bentsen puts on him. Bush & Quayle would go on to win, but Quayle's political career was severely damaged. His gaffes as Vice President, arguing about "Murphy Brown" or misspelling Potato(e), all fed into the image that he was a walking joke. There are some Republicans who believe that if Bush had replaced Quayle with another, more viable VP in the 92 election, he may have had a better shot at winning.
► [Edmund Muskie - 1972 - Crying]
Here's one of those things where I wonder about how it might play today as opposed to the 1970s. Edmund Muskie was a Senator from Maine who was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 1972. However, this would all collapse after an incident where he cried in response to attacks on him & his wife by the Manchester Union-Leader.
Prior to the New Hampshire primary, the so-called Canuck Letter was published in conservative New Hampshire newspaper, the Manchester Union-Leader. The letter claimed that Muskie had made disparaging remarks about French-Canadians - a remark likely to injure Muskie's support among the French-Canadian population in northern New England. Subsequently, the paper published an attack on the character of Muskie's wife Jane, reporting that she drank and used off-color language during the campaign.Muskie decided to give an emotional speech outside the Union-Leader's offices defending himself and his wife.
"By attacking me, by attacking my wife, he has proved himself to be a gutless coward. And maybe I said all I should on it. It's fortunate for him he's not on this platform beside me. A good woman--"He appeared to cry during this (although Muskie claimed that it was from melted snowflakes), and the image of him became that of weakness. Muskie's candidacy collapsed.
Something similar happened in 2008, when Hillary Clinton choked up during a public event the day before the New Hampshire primary (which she won). However, the extent to which the event contributed to her victory is open to debate.
► [Republican National Convention - 1992 - Culture War]
The purpose of a political convention is to reach out to people with a message in order to garner support. On some levels, it's to project an ideology & values that people will be comfortable & proud to be part of. However, the 1992 Republican National Convention was a harbinger of things to come.
The 92 GOP Convention is most remembered for the "Culture War" speech given by Pat Buchanan, which Molly Ivins said "probably sounded better in the original German."
Buchanan stated in his speech:
"The agenda Clinton & Clinton would impose on America -- abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat -- that's change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America wants. It is not the kind of change America needs. And it is not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation that we still call God's country."Then you had the Vice President's wife, Marilyn Quayle, saying this:
"Not everyone believes that the family is so oppressive that women can only thrive apart from it... I sometimes think liberals... are angry and disappointed because most women do not wish to be liberated from their essential natures as women. Most of us love being mothers and wives, which gives us a richness that few men or women get from professional accomplishment alone... Nor has it made for a better society to liberate men from their obligations as husbands and fathers."And then the RNC Chairman, Rich Bond, told reporters that in comparison to Democrats:
"We are America. They are not America."
► [John Kerry - 2004 - "I Actually Did Vote For The $87 Billion Before I Voted Against It"]
If you're explaining, you're losing. In the early part of 2004, the Senate debated a $87 billion dollar supplemental for operations in Iraq & Afghanistan. The Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry, had voted for a Democratic alternative that would have paid for the supplemental by reducing some of George W. Bush's tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans. When that measure failed, Kerry voted against final passage of the supplemental. He was then attacked by the Bush Campaign for "not supporting the troops."
While trying to defend himself from the attack, Kerry said:
The Bush campaign & RNC used this comment over & over again, and in doing so created an image of Kerry as a flip-flopper.
► [Gary Hart - 1987 - Monkey Business]
Running for President and having "extracaricular" activities don't usually mix... well... sometimes. One such tale is that of Gary Hart's 1988 Presidential Run.
Hart officially declared his candidacy on April 13, 1987. Rumors began circulating nearly immediately that Hart was having an extramarital affair. In an interview that appeared in the New York Times on May 3, 1987, Hart responded to the rumors by daring the press corps: "Follow me around. I don't care. I'm serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'll be very bored." The Miami Herald had been investigating Hart's rumored womanizing for weeks before the "dare" appeared in the New York Times. Two reporters from the Miami Herald had staked out his residence and observed an attractive young woman coming out of Hart's Washington, D.C., townhouse on the evening of May 2. The Herald published the story on Sunday, May 3, the same day Hart's dare appeared in print, and the scandal spread rapidly through the national media. Hart and his allies attacked the Herald for rushing the story into print, claiming that it had unfairly judged the situation without finding out the true facts. Hart claimed that the reporters had not watched both entrances to his home and could not have seen when the young woman entered and left the building. The Miami Herald reporter had flown to Washington, D.C. on the same flight as the woman, identified as Donna Rice. Hart was dogged with questions regarding his views on marital infidelity.
In public, his wife, Lee, supported him, claiming the relationship with the young woman was innocent. A poll of voters in New Hampshire for the New Hampshire Primary showed that Hart's support had dropped in half, from 32% to 17%, placing him suddenly ten points behind Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis.
On May 5, the Herald received a further tip that Hart had spent a night in Bimini on a yacht called the Monkey Business with a woman who was not his wife. The Herald obtained photographs of Hart aboard the Monkey Business with then-29-year-old model Donna Rice, sitting in over-50 year-old Hart's lap. The photographs were subsequently published in the National Enquirer. On May 8, 1987, a week after the Donna Rice story broke, Hart dropped out of the race. At a press conference, he lashed out at the media, saying "I said that I bend, but I don't break, and believe me, I'm not broken."
► [Bob Dole & Gerald Ford - 1976 - Debate Problems]
In the 1976 Presidential Election, both Bob Dole & Gerald Ford had flubs in the Presidential & Vice Presidential debates that, given the closeness, might have cost the ticket the election.
Bob Dole is probably known now more as the nice old man that sold Viagra in commercials. However, part of Bob Dole's past reputation as a hatchet man comes from his performance in the Vice Presidential debate of 76. When asked about the pardon of President Nixon & it's use as an issue, Dole responded with one of the most bitter answers ever spoken in a Presidential level debate.
However, Dole's remark isn't the one that's remembered from 76. Gerald Ford had been lampooned on Saturday Night Live as an idiot by Chevy Chase, and the perception of him as a mental lightweight was pervasive. So when he was questioned about the Soviet's sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, Ford responded by saying:
The thousands of Soviet troops in Poland and East Germany didn't count I guess. The response, as well as Ford's failure to clean it up following the debate, fed into the image of Ford as a guy who didn't know what he was doing. Both of the gaffes by Ford & Dole may have been the margin in their close defeat in 76.