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Sometimes the gaffe police go to far [Commentary]

A wit once observed that a bachelor is a man who never makes the same mistake once. That would be good advice for politicians who are prone to repeating ill-chosen words or behavior that tags them forever thereafter as dumb, careless or mean-spirited.

For such unfortunates, the perception of a habitual flaw or shortcoming becomes an irresistible lure for heaping ridicule or abuse, particularly from a political press corps looking for a shorthand way to make the point.

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Perhaps the best example was the calamitous statement in a 1967 Detroit interview by the late Gov. George Romney of Michigan, father of Mitt. As a candidate for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination, he said he had gotten a "brainwashing" from American generals during a wartime visit to Vietnam.

Romney was then struggling to find a clear position on the war, amid an impression that he wasn't too bright or decisive. The "brainwashing" seemed to confirm the rap against him, and it spread like wildfire through the political community.

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A Democratic presidential candidate that year, Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, acidly quipped of Romney's remark: "I would have thought a light rinse would have done it." The hapless Romney never recovered and soon dropped his presidential bid, leaving Richard Nixon an open route to the nomination.

In the same election cycle, Robert Kennedy found it difficult to shake the reputation for gruffness he earned while managing his brother John's successful 1960 presidential campaign, which had won him the label "ruthless." When in 1968 he jumped into the Democratic race on the heels of McCarthy's strong showing in the New Hampshire primary, it was widely taken as confirming that complaint against him.

One of the best-known examples of a major political figure tarnished by an apparent pattern of unflattering comment is Dan Quayle. As the 1988 Republican vice-presidential nominee, he committed such a series of gaffes that he became the butt of ridicule for long after his single term as the senior George Bush's standby.

A similar cloud of popular perception hangs over Vice President Joe Biden, whose reputation as a serial gaffe machine -- talking too much and in too undisciplined a manner -- continues to dog him. Just last week, the press corps' gaffe police were on his case for an alleged triple-header of misspeak in Iowa.

In one speech, he drew a rebuke from the Anti-Defamation Leaguefor referring to unscrupulous bankers as "Shylocks," a reference to the Jewish character in Shakespeare. (The ADL has long campaigned against the Shylock stereotype, which it believes is anti-Semitic and has been injurious to Jews; Mr. Biden immediately and, it would appear, sincerely acknowledged his "poor choice of words.") He also described Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore, as "the wisest man in the Orient," using a geographical designation many Asians find offensive.

Asked about the comment of Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that changed circumstances in Iraq might later dictate the use of American "boots on the ground," Mr. Biden said: "We'll determine that based on how the effort goes," which seemed to contradict President Obama, who has ruled out that option.

Finally, Mr. Biden also raised hackles for favorably including former Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon, a moderate Republican with an immoderate interest in women, among members of the opposition party given to working across the aisle.

In light of these faux pas, a frivolous Washington Post weekly feature called "Worst Week in Washington" awarded the accolade to Biden.

The gaffe police have a legitimate role in uncovering serious misstatements of elected officials at all levels. But they can take their job to ludicrous and petty levels, particularly in this day of media aggregators that endlessly repeat what appears in print or is said over the airwaves.

Among the perils of the blogosphere, social media and more "gotcha" driven outlets in traditional news media is that they trivialize public service and portray its practitioners as a bunch of clowns and buffoons. For every Woodward and Bernstein there is a Drudge and a Limbaugh masquerading as a responsible member of the once-hallowed Fourth Estate delivering news that's fit to print.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net

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