reasoned thought for an age of uncertainty
Gaffes are certainly nothing new to politics, and they have sunk many a campaign before. Rick Perry now joins the stage with the worst in a long list of political gaffes, featuring many would-be candidates among his colleagues. Though Perry’s gaffe has its own tragic flavor to it, because the Texan came out swinging like Texans do, full of bravado: “And I will tell you, it’s three agencies of governments when I get there that are gone: Commerce, Education, and the uh, uh…what’s the third one there…”
Well the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Perry (and the Republican Party) at least had the fortune of having his gaffe occur in a friendly environment, rather than in an actual showdown with Obama. There are many other candidates, however, who have not been so lucky (and some who survived nonetheless). Below are the worst of their political gaffes–they will make you cringe, laugh, and then cringe again when you realize the positions of incredible power to which these people aspired, and sometimes succeeded.
1. Dan Quayle – A “Potatoe”
In a stunning display of foolishness, just months before the 1992 presidential election, Vice President Dan Quayle gave a spelling instruction to an elementary school student in New Jersey to “add one little thing at the end” after the child had correctly spelled the word “potato.” Well, if there is one thing worse than political gaffes, it is a basic grammar gaffe. In the months that followed, it is no wonder that Americans found it hard to support the Bush-Quayle ticket, and in the 1992 election, both were let go-e.
2. Sarah Palin – The Newspaper Aficionado
When Katie Couric cornered Sarah Palin during the 2008 election campaign by asking her what newspapers she reads (“specifically”), Palin hemmed and hawed, and like a high-schooler caught on an exam question with no knowledge to guide her, threw whatever b.s. she could come up with to get around the question. But by then, of course, the damage had been done and it was painfully clear to American voters that Palin was woefully uninformed and under-qualified for a VP candidate. (It also did not help that, in another interview, Palin claimed that the VP was “in charge of the U.S. Senate” and “can really get in there with the senators and make a lot of good policy changes.”) Like Perry’s brain freeze, Palin’s stumble demonstrates that, as fodder for political gaffes, what you don’t know is much more dangerous than what you do.
3. Gerald Ford – No Soviet Domination
During a 1976 presidential debate with candidate Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford made the stunning announcement that there was in fact no Soviet domination of eastern Europe, and that countries like Yugoslavia, Romania and Poland (which were well-entrenched in the Soviet empire) were in fact independent states with their own governments. Short of a Jedi mind trick on the American public, it is hard to know what Ford was up to. But Ford was not known for being a smart man, and President Lyndon Johnson once quipped about the man, “Gerry Ford is so dumb he can’t fart and chew gum at the same time.”
4. George W. Bush – No Script, No Answer
When a reporter asked Bush an unscripted question in a scripted press conference in 2004, Bush stumbled to answer, hemming and hawing, and stating pathetically, “I wish you’d have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it…You know, I just — I’m sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn’t yet.” So what was the question that sent Bush for such a whirl? ”What would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have learned from it?” Ouch. Talk about a man utterly incapable of understanding the gravity of his actions.
5. Jan Brewer – Opening Statement and Beheaded Bodies in the Desert
During the Arizona 2010 Governor election, incumbent Governor Jan Brewer kicked off the only debate against Democratic challenger Terry Goddard with a monumental brain freeze. Her inability to thank her sponsors and introduce herself left her looking like a feeble-minded old lady who’d lost her way. That was only further punctuated by her meltdown in front of the press during the post-debate interview when asked why she refused to recant a previous statement (which was apparently made up) that law enforcement in Arizona had found beheaded bodies in the desert (Brewer had implied this was the work of Mexican gangs). Brewer ultimately stormed out of the press room without answering the question. But the biggest gaffe of all came in November: Brewer won the election with 54% of the vote.
So what is it that ties all these political gaffes together? In three of the cases above plus Perry’s, the candidates simply did not have the intellectual wherewithal to give a straight answer and survive the scrutiny of a public election. In each of Quayle’s and Ford’s gaffes, the candidates thought they had the correct answer, only to run up against that bitter foe of politicians: cold hard facts. But there is another interesting thread here as well. Rick Perry and George W. Bush are obviously both Texans. So how about the other four? Jan Brewer is the Arizona Governor, Sarah Palin bought a home in Scottsdale, and while Dan Quayle represented the State of Indiana in Congress, he too grew up in Arizona and lives there today. So of the six political gaffes, five of the candidates own homes (and three held office) in either Arizona or Texas–a sad commentary on the state of education in the southwest.