With feet in their mouths Bloopers: Candidates can't keep from making statements that come back to hurt them; CAMPAIGN 1996


DURING A RECENT campaign stop in Pennsylvania, Bob Dole took aim at Bill Clinton's crime program. "He talks like Dirty Harry, but he acts like Barney Fife," the Republican challenger quipped.

A good sharp zinger, but not quite original. Almost before the laughter subsided, the Democrats were yelling "plagiarism" as they brought out a tape of Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia using the exact punch line - on George Bush in 1992.

Columnist William Safire has noted that a blooper is "an exploitative mistake" that is worse than a goof and a boo-boo, equivalent to a gaffe, but not as serious as a blunder.

While this Republican gaffe was the latest, both sides seem to exemplify Adlai Stevenson's observation: "Man does not live by words alone, despite the fact that sometimes he has to eat them."

Last year, the White House press secretary, Mike McCurry, commented on Republican efforts to reform Medicare.

"So the reason they're trying to slow the rate of increase in the program," he said, "is because eventually they'd like to see the program just die and go away." And then he blurted out: "You know that is probably what they'd like to see happen to seniors, too, if you think about it." OUCH! He quickly retracted his comment, but it spawned another round of political sniping.

Past campaigns are littered with verbal minefields, and these gaffes point up the vulnerability of candidates and their supporters.

In 1932, Herbert Hoover's vice Presidential running mate, Charles Curtis, didn't help an already faltering presidential campaign when he blurted out before a group of unemployed citizens that they were just "too damn dumb" to understand the Depression.

Running against incumbent Harry S Truman in 1948, Thomas E. Dewey committed a silly, but costly, gaffe. His campaign train, the "Victory Special," had been rolling along with great efficiency from town to town. But at one local stop in contrast to its usual smooth start, the train suddenly jerked away from the station. This prompted Dewey to exclaim, "What's the matter with that lunatic engineer?" Not surprisingly, Democratic propagandists turned this into a jeering anti-Dewey slogan overnight as messages such as "Lunatics for Truman" appeared on dusty boxcars.

Gary Hart, while campaigning for the Democratic nomination in 1984, told a meeting in Los Angeles: "My wife, Lee, campaigns in California and I campaign in New Jersey."

Lee: "I got to hold a koala bear."

Gary: "I won't tell you what I got to hold. Samples of a toxic waste dump."

Hart won in California, but lost to Walter E. Mondale in New Jersey.

In 1987, at a debate in Houston featuring a group of presidential hopefuls, then-Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee had a shaky start. In praising a fellow Tennessean, President James Knox Polk, he called him "James K. Knox." OOPS!

Minister and entrepreneur Pat Robertson was moved to restate what he meant when he warned that a slipping birth rate could lead to "racial suicide." (He said he had meant to say "national suicide.")

While vice president, George Bush was also forced to do some quick explaining when, learning that 350 Russian tanks had performed without a single mechanical breakdown, he remarked: Hey, when the mechanics who keep those tanks running run out of work in the Soviet Union, send them to Detroit because we could use that kind of ability."

Perhaps the most memorable gaffe of recent years befell Gerald R. Ford during his second debate with Jimmy Carter in 1976. Responding to a question regarding the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, Ford said there was "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe."

It was an unfortunate slip. Ford later said hidn't mean to imply that Russia was not using Eastern Europe as its own sphere of influence and making certain of this with military forces. He was pointing up that the proud and independent people of this area didn't go around stressing their bondage to the Russians. Ford subsequently acknowledged that the Soviet military was in Eastern Europe and "that is not what President Ford wants and that is not what the American people want." But it was difficult to recover from his initial words.

Jimmy Carter's interview with Playboy magazine in 1976 was surprising. He discussed a raft of issues, but the item which received the greatest attention was his statement about lust. "I've looked on a lot of women with lust," he said. "'I've committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognized I will do - and I have done it - and God forgives me for it. ..." Carter's remarks on sex, like Ford's on Eastern Europe, were headline news for some time.

In his acceptance speech, Carter's verbal slip about Hubert Horatio Humphrey raised eyebrows as he said: "that great American senator, Hubert Horatio Hornblower." This was similar to Richard Nixon's slip in 1960, when, meaning to refer to "farm surpluses," he declared: "We must get rid of the farmer."

President Ronald Reagan's penchant for offhand remarks sometimes led to gaffes. In 1980, while George Bush was in Peking on a foreign policy mission, Reagan mistakenly said he favored restoring "official" relations with Taiwan.

In another instance, Reagan managed to turn what seemed to be a slip into an advantage. When he was criticized for describing the plight of the economy as a "depression" rather than a recession, he quipped: "I'm told I can't use the word 'depression.' Well, I'll tell you the definition. A recession is when your neighbor losses his job and a depression is when you lose your job. Recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his."

By no means, however, are gaffes and goofs a recent phenomenon. During the presidential campaign of 1880, Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock of Civil War fame had a good chance against James A. Garfield. But when asked about tariffs, Hancock commented: "The tariff is a local issue." Though tariff bills are, in fact, the product of pressures by local interests, the opposition did its best to picture the old soldier as an ignorant oaf. Harper's Weekly called Hancock's statement "loose, aimless, unintelligent, absurd." And The Nation snickered, "The general's talk about the tariff is that of a man who knows nothing about it, and who apparently, until he began to talk had never thought about it." Garfield went on to a close victory, partly because of Hancock's words.

One of the heroes to emerge from the Spanish-American War was Adm. George Dewey of Manila Bay fame. ("You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.") Approached about running for the presidency in 1900, he initially expressed lack of interest. In April, however, he changed his mind and indicated in a statement he gave to a newspaperman that he would be willing to serve the American people if they wanted him.

Unfortunately for him, Dewey went on to say: "Since studying this subject I am convinced that the office of the president is not such a very difficult one to fill; his duties being mainly to execute the laws of Congress." This incredibly naive statement pricked Dewey's presidential bubble. It showed him to be a simple, competent naval officer who had no feel for politics. His race for the White House was over before it ever started.

Probably the costliest gaffe of all time occurred during the 1884 presidential campaign pitting Demo-crat Grover Cleveland against Sen. James G. Blaine. The electoral votes of New York state were pivotal - whoever won here would be the president. And in the state, the votes of Irish-Americans in New York City could well carry the day.

Shortly before the election, Blaine went to the Fifth Avenue Hotel in Manhattan to meet some Protestant ministers who supported him. The Rev. Samuel Burchard, a Presbyterian clergyman, greeted the Republican candidate on the ministers' behalf and declared: "We expect to vote for you next Tuesday. We are Republicans and don't propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the Party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion!" Either out of weariness or failure to hear, or because he did not grasp the full import of the asinine wards, Blaine did not repudiate the comment immediately.

The Democrats lost no time in taking advantage of this stupid blunder. They pounded on this insulting reference to Irish-American Catholics and their party (most ex-rebels were Democrats). The city was flooded with fliers quoting the remark, "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion," Cleveland carried New York by 1,149 votes out of more than a million cast. The state's 36 electoral votes swung the election to him.

Because the specter of verbal misspeaks will continue to plague those in public life, they would be well-served to heed the advice of historian Barbara Tuchman: "Words are seductive and dangerous material to be used with caution."

Martin D. Tullai teaches at St. Paul's School.

Pub Date: 10/06/96

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