Gaffes, and why they’re interesting

Unsurprisingly, news outlets love to catch politicians making gaffes.  Some of them are funny, some of them are Freudian, some of them open the candidate up to vicious partisan attacks, and all of them remind us that people engaged in public speaking make mistakes.  In the past two days, there have been two “gaffe” stories, though, that make me think about gaffes and what they reveal both about the politician and the media.  (Incidentally, this is rather a meandering post, without any tightly drawn conclusion.  Please feel free to suggest conclusions.)

The first gaffe that hit the press in the last couple of days was the story about President Bush’s slip-up in welcoming Queen Elizabeth.  Here’s how the Washington Post describes it:

President Bush welcomed the queen with a royal faux pas about her age, suggesting she had witnessed American independence in 1776. Expressing admiration for her long friendship with the United States, Bush noted that Elizabeth had dined with 10 presidents and had “helped our nation celebrate its bicentennial in 17 . . .” He quickly caught and corrected his mistake, “in 1976.”

Now, to my mind, what President Bush did is the oral equivalent of a typo.  There’s no doubt but that he meant to say 1976 all along, and that his tongue got muddled.  I guess the closest analogy might be a spoonerism.  These types of mistakes are manifestly not a sign that the speaker is suffering from a failure of understanding.  My assurance on this point might arise because I’m particularly prone to this kind of problem, not just switching sounds, but also inadvertently substituting words that have the same sounds.  For example, instead of offering you a cup of “tea,” I might offer you a cup of “cheese,” since both words have that long “e” sound.  I’ve always assumed it’s a slight cognitive disconnect associated with my being left handed.

There’s no doubt that President Bush makes these kinds of “word soup” mistakes all the time.  Sadly for him, the media is a word-driven entity, and its members are going to be especially harsh on those who seem to fail in that area.  This is one of the reasons, I think, that the press is so resolutely certain that Bush is stupid, despite all hard evidence to the contrary.  A word-focused press will more readily follow a glib idiot or slick salesman than back a profound thinker with a slow tongue.  (You can only imagine the disdain they would have had for Moses.)

As I’m sure all of you have realized by now, Dan Quayle falls into the same category as Bush, although his verbal incompetence makes Bush look like an amateur.  No matter how bright and competent Quayle was (and is), the media would never forgive him, nor cease trying to make him look like a buffoon, when he kept handing them such amusing fodder.

In addition to the above type of speech failures, which I don’t believe involve the absence of intelligence, there are the gaffes that represent genuine thinking errors.  Obama seems to have committed one such gaffe with respect to events in Kansas:

Barack Obama, caught up in the fervor of a campaign speech Tuesday, drastically overstated the Kansas tornadoes death toll, saying 10,000 had died. The death toll was 12.

“In case you missed it, this week, there was a tragedy in Kansas. Ten thousand people died—an entire town destroyed,” the Democratic presidential candidate said in a speech to 500 people packed into a sweltering Richmond art studio for a fundraiser.

Obama mentioned the disaster in Greensburg, Kan., in saying he had been told by the office of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius that the state’s National Guard had been depleted by its commitment to the Iraq War.

“Turns out that the National Guard in Kansas only had 40 percent of its equipment and they are having to slow down the recovery process in Kansas,” Obama said, his shirt sleeves rolled up and his head glistening with sweat.

As the Illinois senator concluded his remarks a few minutes later, he appeared to realize his gaffe.

“There are going to be times when I get tired,” he said. “There are going to be times when I get weary. There are going to be times when I make mistakes.”

Obama spokesman Bill Burton said later that the senator meant to say “at least 10,” instead of 10,000.

It’s true that Obama did try to say that “10,000” was an oral typo for “at least 10,” but that doesn’t fly.  To those of us struggling with word soup, spoonerisms, or other malapropisms, his mistake simply doesn’t fall into that category.  Try as he will, there’s not a sufficient relationship between the two phrases to explain or justify any confusion.  I certainly do accept that he made the mistake through fatigue, and I suspect he got the 10,000 number because he was conflating events in Kansas with the mercifully erroneous predictions after Hurricane Katrina to the effect that 10,000 had died.  That is, because he was thinking of wind related natural disaster, the number 10,000 popped to the forefront of his tired brain.

Jimmy Carter also got harassed a lot by the media for his gaffes, but they weren’t mistakes at all.  Instead, one was a fairly revealing statement, showing him to be someone who didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, while the other showed a Chief Executive who ran a careless White House.  The first mis-speak was Carter’s memorable speech about lusting in his heart after women, which was way more than voters in the mid-1970s wanted to know.  (Now, of course, thanks to Clinton, voters get to know way, way more than anyone should have to know about Presidential lusts.)  Showing the tenor of the times, as well as the ongoing Watergate fallout, Carter still got elected President.

In the second category, one finds the equally memorable moment when the official White House translator, during Carter’s visit to Poland, managed to mangle entirely the speech Carter gave to the assembled Communist dignitaries.  Carter’s intended banal platitudes turned into a torrid speech about sexually lusting after the Polish people, followed by his promise never to return to America.  I still have vivid memories of the absolutely shocked looks that crossed those pooh-bahs’ faces as they listened to sentiments from the US President.

The last category of misspeaks is the John Kerry category, where you say precisely what’s on your mind and then, when you get castigated for it, trying to pass it off as an error.  This is cowardly, and completely consistent with the man’s character. A subset of this category might be the Hillary Clinton problem, not of misspeaking, but of mis-accenting.  At least, unlike Kerry, she doesn’t deny it (how could she), but tries to defend it (which she can’t).

An aside here regarding Hillary’s southern-style speech.  Many have accused her of pandering, which is probably true.  I suspect, though, that her changing inflections also reflect the chameleon-like quality that either hides Hillary’s true self or, more significantly, hides Hillary’s absence of a true self.  I’ll now return you to your regularly scheduled programming….

I’m grateful that people don’t examine my speeches with the intensity given to politicians’ speeches.  On the other hand, these men (and women) have voluntarily thrust themselves into the public arena (a word I originally wrote as “agenda”) so they’re really not in a position to complain when their every statement is given intense scrutiny.  And, being subject to that scrutiny, it’s interesting to see how their verbal mistakes often reveal a great deal both about them and about the media’s own biases as it covers politicians.

7 Responses

  1. I’ll also point-out that when the self-professed nuclear scientist was POTUS in the late 1970s he repeatedly referred to “nucular” — and I do mean REPEATEDLY. I don’t recall any media focus on that — but I was duly shocked.

  2. […] Bookworm Room […]

  3. You wouldn’t expect Bush to utter a gaffe as he prides himself in keeping his mind uncluttered but hey it happens to the best of us.
    So let’s all relax and bid Liz a bon voyage farewell by “raising our glasses to the Queer old Dean”

  4. Bush attended Harvard & Yale.He’s gotta be a “fart smeller!”
    . . er I mean “smart feller”!
    Yes ,yes the same goes for Oxford man Clinton but since this is a family show . . . what can you say ?

  5. […] him in their weekend round-up of quotable quotes.  The opening moment is George Bush’s true gaffe, when he misspoke “1976″ as “1776″ in alluding to a trip the Queen had […]

  6. […] including him in their weekend round-up of quotable quotes. The opening moment is George Bush’s true gaffe, when he misspoke “1976″ as “1776″ in alluding to a trip the Queen had earlier made to […]

  7. […] Bookworm Room, “Gaffes, and Why They’re Interesting” […]

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