Sunday, March 30, 2003

Politicians say the dumbest things

Intentional or not, officeholders' verbal gaffes can get them in a Lott of trouble

By Ray Cooklis
Cincinnati Enquirer

Open mouth, insert foot.

We almost expect it of politicians these days. Sooner or later, they're going to say something really dumb. And watching them try to extricate themselves has become a great American spectator sport.

It dominated the headlines in December, when then-Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi took the opportunity at retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday celebration to praise the South Carolinian's segregationist presidential run in 1948. This was, to borrow from current military parlance, the MOAB - Mother of All Bloopers - and by far the most visible incident in a recent rash of rash pronouncements.

This month, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, told the Toledo Blade al-Qaida terrorists and the American revolutionaries were "very similar." Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., raised the old specter of a Jewish conspiracy in explaining the U.S. push toward war in Iraq.

On the state level, Ohio Senate President Doug White, R-Manchester, used a phrase that even Webster's New World Dictionary makes a point of calling "vulgar and offensive usage." Most recently, state Rep. Timothy Grendell, R-Chesterland, who is white, joked that state Sen. Mark Mallory, D-Cincinnati, who is black, couldn't read well enough to understand a key late 19th century Supreme Court ruling on civil rights, Plessy vs. Ferguson.

Depending on your political orientation, these are the kind of remarks that either make you cringe and think "Why'd he say that?" or chuckle "Keep talking, buddy." That's because a verbal whopper, especially when handled poorly afterward, can end a political career. (See Butz, Earl, whose disgusting joke about blacks got him bounced as Gerald Ford's agriculture secretary.)

Ridicule or empathy?

Still, they need not be fatal, said Lawrence Mintz, director of the Art Gliner Center for Humor Studies at the University of Maryland, who has studied this phenomenon for years. "When a politician shows himself as imperfect or less than polished, we can read it in two ways," Mintz said. "It may turn to ridicule, and we lower our esteem of him and our confidence in his ability. But it can have the opposite effect, to soften and humanize him, giving us the feeling he's 'one of us.' ''

The trick is damage control. Usually, that means apologize - right away. " 'Oops' works when you get a fact wrong or you say something off the cuff," GOP consultant Ray Allen told the Associated Press last fall, during a spate of campaign gaffes around the country.

Grendell, for example, apologized on Ohio House floor for his remarks, and Mallory gracefully ended the controversy by accepting the apology. "I think it's time to move on," Mallory said.

Racial slurs and the like mean big trouble - but even here, the key seems to be a rapid, contrite and full apology, no excuses. When the mea culpa leaks out in qualified dribs and drabs, as in Lott's case, it winds up doing more harm than good.

Lott, after weeks of high-profile recriminations, was persuaded to step down from his leadership post. Likewise, Moran relinquished his regional whip position by "mutual agreement" with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Then there's Rep. John Cooksey, R-La., who made this intemperate remark shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks:

"If I see someone (who) comes in that's got a diaper on his head and a fan belt wrapped around the diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over." Cooksey failed to defuse the issue, and last year he lost badly in his bid for the GOP Senate nomination. He's out of Congress.

Degree of difficulty

Politicians' gaffes seem to fall into three categories:

1. Inadvertent slips of the tongue that aren't what the speaker meant to say but just sound stupid, as when Vice President Hubert Humphrey said on TV that "no sane person in the country likes the war in Vietnam, and neither does President Johnson." Also in this category might be just about anything Dan Quayle ever uttered in public, as when he said he understood "the importance of bondage between a mother and child."

Ironically, however, President Bush's mangled verbiage may aid his popularity. "We like people speaking off the cuff," Mintz said. "We almost resent it when a politician is too smooth and polished. We think he's equivocating."

2. Offensive comments made while somebody's trying to be clever or score points when they shouldn't be. Grendell, who's known for a sarcastic streak, said his comments relating to a debate on the 14th Amendment weren't racial, but they came off as very mean and personal, to say the least. Now-Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius managed to overcome her horrid campaign joke that driving in Missouri was more dangerous than being in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

3. Comments, whether made in jest or not, that reveal a pernicious underlying mentality - a person who Just Doesn't Get It. Most Americans agree Lott's remarks did exactly that. Kaptur's comment may have done that, too, in blithely assigning moral equivalency to a homicidal terrorist and a rationalist revolutionary. Moran resurrected, Richard Nixon-like, that noxious old notion of a Jewish cabal controlling the country.

Partisan element

Political foot-in-mouth disease is truly a bipartisan ailment, but the consequences sometimes don't appear to fall equally. "Why do we accept it in some cases and not others?" Mintz asked, noting that civil rights leader Jesse Jackson's 1984 characterization of New York City as "Hymietown" didn't devastate his career. "I just wonder what the role of the press is here."

Does the media play favorites or target conservatives? It does make you wonder.

Powerful veteran Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., a Ku Klux Klan member in his youth, gave a bizarre TV interview about race relations peppered with the "n-word" a couple of years ago. Nothing happened. (Maybe Byrd's interminable Senate floor lectures on Roman military history have dulled his critics' senses.)

Yet Lott's comment, even though the "problems" he alluded to arguably could have included high taxes, crime and erosion of states' powers, led the news for weeks.

And little notice was paid when media darling Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., referred to Asians as "gooks" during the 2000 primaries.

Jackson, a former Democratic presidential hopeful, has gotten free rein to equate conservatism with racism.

In a 1994 speech, he said, "If this were Germany, we would call it fascism. If this were South Africa, we would call it racism. Here we call it conservatism." He went on to compare the Christian Coalition to Southern slaveowners and the Nazi SS.

But criticism was muted against Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C., who came up with this gem in 1993 while reminiscing about African diplomats attending international trade conferences: "Rather than eating each other, they'd just come up (to Switzerland) and get a good square meal in Geneva."

And when Hollings ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, he called supporters of then-Sen. Alan Cranston of California, a rival for the nomination, "a bunch of wetbacks."

To be fair, partisans often police their own. It was conservatives, including talk radio hosts and bloggers, who blew the whistle on Lott while the mainstream media blinked and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle gave his GOP counterpart a pass. When he heard about Kaptur's comment, former Clinton adviser and current CNN Crossfire co-host Paul Begala took to the air to call it "absolutely disgraceful... I just can't defend it. I never will." A half-dozen Democratic House members have written to Pelosi demanding that Moran not run for re-election in 2004.

Good. Both parties should realize that verbal missteps are bound to happen, and they'd better deal with it. "There are hundreds of congressmen who can't give a good speech, and thousands of state legislators who lost every debate they were ever in,'' consultant Allen told the AP.

To gaffe, he noted, is human. And as certain as baby-kissing and rubber-chicken dinners on the stump, we can be sure a high-profile politician, somewhere, sometime, will trip on his tongue. It is what they do.

Or, as President Dwight Eisenhower once said, "Things are more like they are now than they ever were before."

Other famous flubs

• "I'm not against the blacks, and a lot of the good blacks will attest to that."
Former Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham

"I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.

• "That depends on what the definition of 'is' is."
President Bill Clinton in his deposition on the Monica Lewinsky case

• "This is a great day for France!"
President Richard Nixon at French President Charles de Gaulle's funeral

• "The president has kept all the promises he intended to keep."
George Stephanopolous, aide to Bill Clinton

• "For seven and a half years, I've worked alongside President Reagan. We've had triumphs. Made some mistakes. We've had some sex ... uh ... setbacks."
Then-Vice President George Bush, while campaigning to succeed Reagan

• "One word sums up probably the responsibility of any vice president, and that one word is "to be prepared."
Dan Quayle, vice president under George Bush

• "I'm not going to have some reporters pawing through our papers. We are the president."
Then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton on release of subpoenaed documents

• "Capital punishment is our society's recognition of the sanctity of human life."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah

• "I'm President of the United States, and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli."
President George Bush

• "I have learned from the mistakes I may or may not have made. When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible."
President George W. Bush

• "If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq we would not be doing this. The leaders of the Jewish community are influential enough that they could change the direction of where this is going, and I think they should."
Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va.

• "(Sen. Mark Mallory is) the only reason I might support the OhioReads program."
Ohio Rep. Tim Grendell, R-Chesterland

• "One could say that Osama bin Laden and these non-nation-state fighters with religious purpose are very similar to those kind of atypical revolutionaries that helped cast off the British Crown."
Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio

• "We need to Jew them down."
Ohio Sen. Doug White, R-Manchester


Ray Cooklis is an editorial writer for The Enquirer. E-mail him at rcooklis@enquirer.com

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