Politics in America rife with slurs and gaffes
December 22, 2002
WASHINGTON — Loose lips have sunk or threatened many a political career before Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott’s self-inflicted woes.
Racial slurs cost Ford administration Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz and Reagan Interior Secretary James Watt their jobs. Vice Presidents Spiro Agnew and Dan Quayle had to apologize for ethnic affronts. So did presidential contenders Jesse Jackson and Ross Perot.
Presidents Bush — both father and son — blurted out things they regretted. Both former President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore had to recant statements.
Outgoing Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill was shown the door in part because of incendiary ad-libs that rocked financial markets and antagonized Wall Street.
Speaking without thinking is a common malady for those in public life. In some cases, as with Lott’s comments suggesting sympathy with one-time segregationist policies, the damage can be severe.
“When politicians blurt out, they’re really saying something about themselves,” said Wayne Fields, an expert on political rhetoric at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s not that they are saying something they don’t believe. They are probably saying something they do believe — but that they normally restrain.”
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In some instances, the utterances — such as Hillary Clinton’s March 1991 lament, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies” — turn out to be more politically embarrassing than career-threatening.
When he became Ronald Reagan’s running mate in 1980, George H.W. Bush had to renounce calling Reagan’s tax-cutting proposals “voodoo economics.” As president, his pledge — “Read my lips: no new taxes” — backfired when he backed a tax increase in 1990.
Gore in 2000 had to retract a claim that his mother-in-law paid more for arthritis medicine than it cost to treat his dog with the same drug. That was the case, too, with suggestions he helped invent the Internet and served with wife, Tipper, as the model for the book and movie “Love Story.”
Clinton lied to a grand jury and the country about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky, conduct that led to impeachment by the House. He was acquitted in a Senate trial. But history will remember his assertion, “I did not have sex with that woman.”
Are public figures more prone to gaffes?
“It’s easy to make reasonable excuses for them: They’re human, they get tired and distracted, and like the rest of us make mistakes,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “But, beyond that, they’re in a cocoon, surrounded by supporters and aides who tell them how great they are, and they start to believe it.”
Often, an open microphone is nearby — as Bush found at a September 2000 campaign rally in Naperville, Ill., when he used an obscenity to describe a reporter for the New York Times. Running mate Dick Cheney seconded Bush’s comments. Both Bush and Cheney thought their remarks were off-mike. They weren’t.
Racial and ethnic slurs have spelled trouble for many politicians.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., used a racial epithet — “white nigger” — in a March 2001 television interview. “The phrase dates back to my boyhood and has no place in today’s society,” he said later.
Jesse Jackson angered many Jewish voters with his 1984 characterization of New York as “Hymietown.”
Watt resigned his Interior Department post in 1983 after boasting, “I have a black … a woman, two Jews and a cripple” on an advisory panel. Butz was forced out as agriculture secretary after an obscene joke that characterized blacks’ preferences in shoes, sex and bathrooms.
Agnew apologized for calling Polish-Americans “polacks” and a Japanese-American reporter a “fat Jap.” Quayle drew criticism for telling American Samoans, “You all look like happy campers to me.”
Ross Perot provoked complaints in 1992 by referring to his audience at an NAACP convention as “you people.” He later said he was unaware his language was offensive.
In 1995, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, called openly gay Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., “Barney Fag.” Armey later said he had misspoken.
James Thurber, a political scientist at American University, said Lott’s comments are particularly damaging because “they show consistency with his attitudes about race.”
Foot-in-mouth disease is not an American-only phenomenon.
Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s communications director, Francoise Ducros, resigned last month after calling Bush “a moron.” And Germany’s justice minister, Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, was sent packing for likening Bush to Hitler.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.