News & Politics

A Look at Presidential Contender Gaffes

The candidates may spend millions of dollars and talk intelligently about big issues. But in the end, the race for president can turn on a single gaffe.

In the year’s first debate featuring the Democratic presidential candidates, Barack Obama stumbled. It was a small misstep and probably went unnoticed by most people watching on television.

But it didn’t get past the wise guys of the political community—the reporters, pundits, bloggers, and campaign operatives. They know a gaffe when they see one and feel obliged to point it out. It is written somewhere that a party cannot nominate a candidate who commits gaffes.

The misstep came when the debate moderator, Brian Williams of NBC News, suggested hypothetical, disastrous terrorist attacks on two American cities by al-Qaeda, then asked Obama: “How would you change the US military stance overseas as a result?”

“Well,” the Illinois senator said, “the first thing we’d have to do is make sure we’ve got an effective emergency response, something that this administration failed to do when we had a hurricane in New Orleans. And I think we have to review how we operate in the event of not only a natural disaster but also a terrorist attack.

“The second thing is to make sure that we’ve got good intelligence. . . . But what we can’t do is then alienate the world community based on faulty intelligence, based on bluster and bombast.”

It was an answer not totally on point but adequate, right?


The “right” answer came from others on the panel—a firm pledge of immediate and forceful retaliation. As John Edwards put it, “The first thing I would do is to be certain I knew who was responsible, and I would act swiftly and strongly to hold them responsible for that.”

Political strategists wondered aloud whether Obama had “done a Dukakis”—given a mechanistic response evoking the reply that another Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, had uttered in 1988 when asked how he would react if his wife were raped and murdered.

Obama realized his mistake. Answering a question on energy policy, he said, “One thing I have to go back on is this issue of terrorism. We have serious enemies out there that have to be hunted down, networks that have to be dismantled.”

In the end, there was not much harm done, although some pundits, bloggers, and talking heads felt the need to seize on the Dukakis comparison. In fact, the comparison wasn’t valid. Dukakis’s dry response to an emotional question was made on a nationally televised presidential debate with an audience of tens of millions of voters who already had doubts about his technocratic personality. It was a real gaffe.

The audience for this Democratic debate was probably smaller than the crowd in an Irish bar on a Friday night in Boston.

But the alacrity with which the critics reached for the comparison 19 years later shows how important and potentially destructive a few words can be for a presidential candidate. This is an age when everything a politician says anywhere is picked over by the mainstream press, the cable-television networks, and the bloggers who have lots of time and space and no inclination to show any restraint.

It has even reached the stage at which candidates are being held accountable for what their supporters say or do. When Hollywood mogul and Obama fundraiser David Geffen blasted the Clintons last winter—calling them world-class liars, among other things—the Clinton camp demanded that Obama disavow the remarks, cut his ties to Geffen, and return any money. He did none of those things.

These episodes rarely have anything to do with what kind of a president a candidate might be. But a single stumble may cost the election. Spend hundreds of millions; talk endlessly about issues; present 12-point plans for education, the economy, and the environment. But in the end, the election of our next president can turn on a gaffe.

That may well have been the case with Dukakis in 1988. The Massachusetts governor made many mistakes in that campaign and frittered away a large lead. Early in the year, I asked him over lunch how he was going to deal with the Bush campaign’s depiction of him as less patriotic than he should have been in his reverence for the American flag—an accusation based on his veto of a bill that would have required public-school teachers to lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance.

“Oh, Jack,” he said, “people are smarter than that.”

A few months later, there was Vice President George H.W. Bush, a poll-driven candidate of the first rank, visiting a flag factory in New Jersey for a photo op that his research told him would be well received. So much for Dukakis’s belief that a campaign is purely an educational exercise.

By the time of the final debate in October, Dukakis was moving back up in the polls by excoriating Bush, always a vulnerable candidate, on the Republican use of racism with the Willie Horton television ads. In the end, Dukakis lost by less than 4 percent of the vote.

There are professionals in both parties who believe Dukakis would have won had he replied differently to the question from Bernard Shaw of CNN: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

The reply seemed to define Dukakis as the bloodless automaton: “No, I don’t, Bernard. And I think you know I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life.” Then, as the audience in Los Angeles sat in silence, Dukakis lectured on how there was no evidence the death penalty was a deterrent and how there were other methods that could be used to reduce crime and blah blah blah.

A reply that might have elected him: “That’s a grotesque question, Bernie. Like any red-blooded American man, I would be incensed and would want to take personal revenge on anyone who harmed my dear wife, Kitty. But a president of the United States cannot make public policy that way blah blah blah.”

When he walked off the stage, Dukakis told his political adviser, John Sasso, “I blew it.”

Twelve years earlier a SIM-ilar blunder in a debate probably cost President Gerald Ford reelection to the White House against his Democratic challenger, Jimmy Carter. Again, it was a gaffe that reinforced a widespread perception—that Jerry Ford was a bumbler who stumbled over steps and hit his head on car doors.

Replying to a question about policy toward the Soviet Union and the terms of the Helsinki Agreement, Ford defended the pact and said: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” When his questioner, Max Frankel of the New York Times, asked a clarifying question to give Ford a chance to recover, the Republican president dug himself in deeper by saying, “I don’t believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union.”

In the Ford holding room there was stunned silence. Finally, Stuart Spencer, the campaign’s chief political strategist, turned to Brent Scowcroft, Ford’s national-security adviser, and asked, “Don’t the Soviets have troops in Poland?”

“Four divisions,” the ashen-faced Scowcroft replied.

The press room was alive with the electric energy that seems to develop when a hundred reporters have “a good story” handed to them. The President had committed a world-class mistake; the Carter supporters were overjoyed. Among those who had been around the trail a few times, the expectation was that Ford quickly would offer an explanation of what he had been trying to say and stop the bleeding.

It was two days before Ford’s advisers could persuade him to correct what he had said in that debate, a period in which the whole campaign focus was on the gaffe. Ford could have explained that he was trying to say that ordinary citizens he had encountered in Poland had not accepted Soviet domination. But he didn’t.

It is impossible to say whether this mistake cost Ford the election. He had begun the campaign on the defensive because of the pardon he had given Richard Nixon for the Watergate crimes. And he was facing in Carter the kind of candidate whose pledge “I’ll never lie to you’’ seemed attractive to the voters distressed by Watergate.

Nonetheless, many voters also feel they are taking a risk with challengers they don’t know very well. Ford had gained steadily until his debate performance raised the issue of basic competence. Carter won with only 50.08 percent of the vote.

Four years later, defending the White House, it was Carter’s turn to commit a gaffe. In his sole debate with Ronald Reagan, Carter cited his 12-year-old daughter, Amy, as evidence of the national concern with nuclear proliferation. He had some notion that this might humanize the issue, and he was still competing with a Republican who some thought might be a risk on national security—or, as Reagan put it to me that June, “I have to convince people I’m not some combination of Ebenezer Scrooge and the Mad Bomber.”

That Carter had made a serious mistake became apparent in the 36 hours after the debate when I encountered voters in both Philadelphia and Tampa making the same jokes about Amy and the bomb.

As a practical matter, the big mistake most often afflicts candidates in contests for the party nomination rather than during the general election campaign. There are more of them in the field, they are at least marginally less scripted, and most players are less experienced in anticipating the hazards of a campaign for president.

In Virginia last year we saw a remarkable twofer: With his “macaca” attack on a young constituent working for his opponent, George Allen scuttled in a single gaffe both his campaign for reelection to the Senate and his plans to compete for the presidency.

The vintage case of a candidate compromising a run for president involved then-governor George Romney of Michigan, father of Mitt Romney.

Laying the foundation in 1967 for a 1968 campaign for the Republican nomination, Romney made a series of trips around the country accompanied by an entourage of political reporters who rated him a strong prospect to defeat the tarnished Richard M. Nixon, who had lost the White House to John F. Kennedy in 1960 and the California governorship to Pat Brown in 1962.

In February 1967, Romney embarked on what his staff called his “western trip” and reporters called his “Mormon tour”—a week in Alaska, Utah, Idaho, New Mexico, and Arizona, states with the largest presence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From the outset, the trip was a rolling controversy—but not about religion. The only time Mormonism came up was at a Sunday-morning Anchorage stake meeting, a meeting of Latter-day Saint congregations. Several reporters, a little hung over from enjoying the entertainment of one Cha Cha O’Brien late into the previous night, sat through a sermon of 80 minutes or so by Lenore Romney, the candidate’s fire-and-brimstone wife. By the time she finished, the reporters were ready to confess to being sinners if she would just stop talking.

The problem for Romney was his insistence on attacking President Lyndon Johnson’s conduct of the war in Vietnam without offering his own alternative—a breach of political etiquette the press corps would not swallow.

The issue dominated the Mormon tour and a subsequent week in major cities—the “urban tour.” Rather than concentrating on Romney’s prescriptions for cities in trouble, the press focused on how he kept refusing—or was unable—to describe how he would end the war in Vietnam. The image of a governor over his head in dealing with a war was devastating.

The coup de grâce came in August 1967. He told a TV interviewer in Detroit that when he visited Vietnam he had been “brainwashed” by military officers and Johnson-administration officials. When a New York Times reporter found that one, Romney was cooked.

He tried early in the New Hampshire primary campaign to solve the problem by outlining a detailed plan for ending the war—a scheme not essentially different from the one Nixon adopted after his election. But it was too late to save Romney.

The gaffe was fatal politically, but that outcome wasn’t necessarily fair. What Romney was trying to convey was his belief that those military officials in Vietnam had tried to con him but had not succeeded. But the term “brainwash” had a special meaning growing out of the Korean War; it suggested that Romney had been naively persuaded.

Many of those accused of gaffes have ridden out the controversies because they and their supporters were able to demonstrate quickly that no judgments could be made about how they might perform as president on the basis of a few words.

Jimmy Carter weathered two such episodes in the 1976 campaign. When he defended people seeking “ethnic purity” in their neighborhoods, there was a day or two of handwringing among liberals who suspected that all Southern politicians were closet racists and now this cracker from Georgia had exposed himself. But Carter was stoutly defended by prominent black leaders—most notably Andrew Young and Martin Luther King Sr., or, as he was called, “Daddy King.”

I was working for the late Washington Star when the story broke and, with an hour or so until deadline, I was unable to gauge its impact. So I called Mayor Coleman Young of Detroit, and he came to the telephone with these words: “Ethnic purity is as American as Mom’s apple pie.”

There were another few days of clucking when Carter was quoted in an interview with Playboy as admitting there were times he had “lust in my heart” for women other than Rosalynn. That one died when voters apparently decided not to punish him for telling the truth.

Candidates should be extremely cautious in displaying a sense of humor. If he or she tells a joke with a point, there is almost certain to be some minority group offended. If you tell a story about a left-handed red-haired shortstop, it will turn out there is an organization of them with an executive director and an office in DC’s National Press Building.

In 1984, the outcome of the contest for the Democratic nomination was affected by just such an innocent attempt to get a laugh.

As that campaign approached its end, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart were running neck and neck with two critical primaries in June—in California and New Jersey—remaining. Hart was ahead in California, which meant Mondale could not afford to lose New Jersey.

Ten days before the primary I had dinner with Bob Beckel and Paul Tully—the two heavyweight operatives overseeing Mondale’s New Jersey campaign—and found them talking in the past tense, always an indicator of a candidate in trouble. Hart had struck a nerve with a TV advertising campaign devised by Ray Strother that played on his appeal to high-tech entrepreneurs who were transforming the Jersey economy.

That same weekend, Hart ended several days in the state, then flew to Los Angeles and joined his wife, Lee, at a fundraising cocktail party at the beautiful home in Bel Air of a real-estate developer. The party was held on an impressive patio with a stunning view over the Hollywood hills. Obviously buoyant, Hart told the guests how he and Lee operated.

“The deal is we campaign separately,” he said. “That’s the bad news. The good news for her is she campaigns in California and I campaign in New Jersey.”

As the guests laughed, Lee interjected that she had been allowed to hold a koala bear. And Hart added. “I won’t tell you what I got to hold—samples from a toxic dump.”

At face value, it was a little joke. For those who knew Gary Hart, the news was that he could manage to be a little funny. But back in New Jersey, the “Jersey joke” exploded with the political equivalent of nuclear force. The story was at the top of page one of the Newark Star-Ledger, the state’s leading newspaper, for two days, and local voices were being raised in anger. Hart had touched a sensitive nerve—defensiveness about the state’s reputation as a center of pollution.

“It saved us,” Mondale operative Tully said. “We were going down the drain.”

It would be a stretch to suggest this was a gaffe that changed the course of the republic. Ronald Reagan would have been heavily favored against Hart as he was against Mondale. But four years later, Hart, had he been the 1984 nominee, might have felt less inclined to sail off to Bimini on the Monkey Business with a blonde bombshell named Donna Rice in his lap. Talk about gaffes!

There are several variables in measuring the candlepower of a gaffe. Is it venal or benign? What in the world was Al Gore doing with all that sighing when he debated George W. Bush in the 2000 campaign?

Pictures can be devastating. Who allowed John Kerry to get himself photographed windsurfing in a flowered swimsuit? Anyone in the real world in that operation?

Does the gaffe change the political equation? When Jesse Jackson was caught talking about “Hymietown” in 1984, it may have served to further alienate Jewish voters, but he was never a serious contender anyway. Spiro Agnew’s blunders in 1968 didn’t help his ticket, but polls show we vote for a president, not a running mate—which may come as news to Dick Cheney.

The one politician of the last three generations who seemed immune to the big gaffe was Ronald Reagan. He sailed blithely through one misstep after another. When reporters would criticize him for getting simple facts wrong, voters would write or telephone to tell us to stop nitpicking. It was just Reagan being Reagan.

The one occasion when Reagan wandered into trouble was during the 1984 campaign against Mondale. In their first debate, the incumbent president seemed uncharacteristically flustered. At several points Reagan’s use of the language was awkward enough to raise questions about whether, at 73, he might be slipping. For the three weeks between the first and second debates, the political conversation centered on whether Reagan was “losing it.”

Preparing for the debate, Henry Trewhitt of the Baltimore Sun came up with a question that was properly respectful of the President and pertinent to the topic, foreign affairs and national-security policy:

“You already are the oldest president in history, and some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall, yet, that President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?”

A small smile crossed Reagan’s face. “Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt,” he replied. “And I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

The audience in the debate hall erupted in laughter, and even Mondale offered a small smile of concession. Reagan had no need to handle questions about Iran-Contra or the runaway federal deficit or what he might do in a second term.

That was the kind of news clip that would keep appearing for the rest of the campaign. It wasn’t a gaffe. It was a home run.


Jack W. Germond has been a political reporter for more than 50 years. He last article for The Washingtonian was Don't Be Fooled, about how to be a smarter voter.