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Give pols a pass for verbal miscues

My elementary school principal was fond of reminding his students that the last perfect person walked this Earth 2,000 years ago. (Note to the litigious types over at the ACLU: It was permissible to provide such insight in light of the school's affiliation with the Lutheran Church.) The reminder was typically offered whenever a misbehaving student admitted to a youthful indiscretion. Our wonderful Mr. Zielski simply wished to teach his kids that the human condition means mistakes will be made along the way, and owning up to them will earn forgiveness here and in the hereafter.

If only today's media pundits applied the same perspective to the sometimes inarticulate pronouncements and just plain mistakes made by national politicians.

My wish is narrowly drawn: It does not extend to statements meant for and delivered to their intended audience, but which I oppose. President Barack Obama's propensity for apologizing to the world for past U.S. policy decisions, for example.

Nor does my point extend to statements wherein the declarant was placed on the defensive due to his failure to communicate in an effective manner.

To wit, then-Gov. Michael Dukakis' un-empathetic debate response to the question of whether he would support the death penalty (despite his personal opposition) if his wife was raped and murdered.

Or Sen. John Kerry explaining his position on a funding bill for U.S. troops in Iraq by declaring, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." (As a former member of Congress, I know what the senator meant to say but failed to articulate.)

More recently, former Gov. Mitt Romney's intended point that a social safety net exists for the very poor (but no other socioeconomic class) was cited by his opponents as an uncaring dismissal of the underclass from a wealthy man.

The foregoing incidents fall into the "didn't really mean how it was interpreted" category. Each resulted in substantive media scorn. Each had the respective presidential candidate scrambling to explain himself for weeks.

Statements intended to deceive are not pertinent, either. The infamous Clinton denial, "I did not have sex with that woman," comes to mind. Similarly, then-Sen. Gary Hart's denial of an extramarital affair and doubling down dare to the press ("Follow me around … I'm serious … If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead.") effectively ended his presidential campaign. The bottom line: These false declarations were received exactly as intended.

Rather, my point pertains to readily apparent misstatements made by serious, smart people in the intense glare of a high-stakes political campaign.

President Gerald Ford's assurance that Poland was not under Soviet domination (during a 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter) may be the most damaging example. The misguided observation became instant fodder for Chevy Chase and"Saturday Night Live" — not a good result for a politician intent on showing the country he could lead during the dark days of the Cold War.

Other examples race to mind: President Obama's reference to our "57 states"; Sen. John McCain's recollection of attending a conference with "President Putin of Germany"; Vice President Joe Biden calling for wheelchair-bound Democratic state Sen. Chuck Graham to "stand up, let the people see you" during a campaign stop; Texas Gov. Rick Perry's statement that the American Revolution was fought in the "16th Century"; and then-Gov. Sarah Palin's reference to our North Korean "allies." I could go on, but you get the point.

These pronouncements were clearly incorrect. All were made by intelligent people. Each was corrected almost immediately. But each was used as alleged "proof" that the opposition may lack the necessary brains to do the job.

A thought for all of us sentenced to a 24/7 news cycle wherein every comment, statement or aside is endlessly vetted: Give 'em a break. Presidential campaigns are political pressure cookers. Politicians are human beings. They can get tired, cranky and careless. They remind us that nobody is perfect. As much as we might like to revel in the difficulties of our political opponents, obvious misstatements should not become prime campaign fodder. Our unsettled economy and numerous military engagements around the world provide us plenty of real issues to debate. Given the high stakes involved, we can do better than this.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the Maryland chairman of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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