Books: A Point of View: Gaffes |
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Gaffes : on politicians' gaffes

(S03E10, broadcast 9th and 11th May 2008)

" Not the gaffer, but the gaffee"
— mind the gaffe

Step forward anyone who has never made a gaffe. But that very instruction would be a gaffe if you delivered it to an audience of people in wheelchairs. You would be in the same verbal slide-area as President Bush, who instructed a press correspondent to stop hiding behind his dark glasses, and it turned out that the correspondent was clinically blind. But really President Bush is in the same verbal slide-area as us. We all make gaffes when speaking impromptu, and the only remarkable thing is that we don’t do it more often.

The American presidential election is still six months away and judging from the current coverage you would think that the outcome was going to be decided by gaffes. In the mini-election still being fought out between the Democrat contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, most of the news between contests in the individual states is provided by whether or not either candidate has made a gaffe lately.

As they were bound to, because both the contenders are human beings, the gaffes keep coming, although with nothing like the copiousness of the press attention which is devoted to them. Admittedly some of the gaffes sound revealing. Hillary Clinton really shouldn’t have said that she once landed in Bosnia under sniper fire when she didn’t. Nor should Barack Obama have said that ten thousand people died in a Kansas tornado when the real number of deaths was ten. The most that these supposedly revealing gaffes revealed, however, was that either of these two senators can get carried away, just like you and me, although you and I will never be called upon to stay cool in the Situation Room.

Senator Clinton apologized for her gaffe later and Senator Obama corrected himself almost immediately. And really most of their gaffes are on that comparatively small scale. Obama has got himself in a real tangle with his ties to a preacher who proclaims that AIDS was an invention of the US government to victimize African-Americans. Obama’s repudiation of those ties came late, but that wasn’t a gaffe, it was a strategic error, probably arising out of loyalty. In declining order of importance, a true gaffe reveals an unfortunate underlying belief, or ignorance, or an inability to choose words. That last kind of gaffe is normally the most frequent, but even by so trivial a measure there have been remarkably few gaffes from the main players in this fearfully long run-up to the presidential election. Perhaps they have all learned a lesson from the reigning world-champion gaffe-maker, who is still in the White House.

President Bush was thinking on his feet when he composed the poetic masterpiece ‘Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.’ But President Bush already had a solid track record of talking like that before he got anywhere near the White House. Clearly those who voted for him thought it didn’t matter, because they approved of what they took to be his underlying beliefs. There are whole books of Bushisms available and I won’t indulge myself now by picking the plums. The most radiant examples have been routinely quoted in the newspapers for years on end, yet few of them are totally impenetrable. You can usually tell what he set out to mean before the English language got its remorseless hands on his throat.

If you don’t like what he set out to mean, of course, it’s easy to argue that his twisted language is the expression of a twisted soul. Either way, his gaffes long ago ceased to tell us anything we didn’t know. What they continue to do is tell us what he doesn’t know. The general impression, to put it as politely as one can, is of a lack of historical awareness that ranks President Bush several rungs below President Reagan. With the help of his busy staff, Reagan made a gaffe in Germany in 1985, when he wished a peaceful rest to the German soldiers buried at Bitburg. Despite repeated warnings, somebody had neglected to note the significance of the fact that a contingent of the buried soldiers had once belonged to the SS.

Reagan’s detractors ran a mile with the story, but in fact it was inconceivable that Reagan had a morally neutral attitude towards Nazism, and he visited the Bergen-Belsen memorial shortly afterwards, making his feelings clear. His feelings always had been clear: it was just his language that wasn’t. He subsequently made a much more important, because much more revealing, gaffe, when he assured Israeli leaders that he had never forgotten the scenes he witnessed when the extermination camps were liberated. But he forgot to say that he wasn’t there. He was in Hollywood at the time, where he must have seen the footage, but the effect of his statement was to give a false impression, like Hillary saying that she had landed under sniper fire. Those, if you like, are the gaffes that count. But Bush has made few of those. And he is not even the all-time American champion of verbal inadequacy. The standards were set for ever by a name now remembered for nothing else, T. Danforth Quayle.

Younger listeners might need telling that Dan Quayle was Vice-President of the United States during the administration of the current President Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush. George H. W. himself was no master of cogent speech. When his writers gave him a word like ‘vision’ he would go on television and start talking about ‘the vision thing’. Luckily for him, Dan Quayle took most of the heat by never wavering in his capacity to reduce the English language to a heap of twitching wreckage. Sometimes there were complete sentences. One of them was: ‘If we do not succeed then we run the risk of failure.’ Another was: ‘We’re going to have the best-educated American people in the world.’ And then there was: ‘The future will be better tomorrow.’

In all those cases, you could tell roughly what he must have meant. But he went beyond that, and especially when talking about America’s future in space. Something about space excited Dan Quayle. ‘It’s time,’ he said, ‘for the human race to enter the solar system.’ There were scientists listening and they couldn’t figure it out. It was still some kind of sentence, though. Quayle was at his most creative when he got beyond the structure of a single sentence and embarked on a free-form excursion that sometimes ended where it started but facing in the wrong direction. As I hold on to my temples with both hands, let me quote you an example. ‘My friends, no matter how rough the road may be, we can and we will never, never, surrender to what is right.’

And yet, and yet. Even with Quayle at his John Coltrane-like heights of dissonant improvisation, you could hazard a guess as to what he roughly might have meant. What we were listening to, with emotions ranging from disgust to sheer delight, was the sound of democracy. If you have a choice between speakers, some of them will speak better than others, but it isn’t always the elegant speaker who has the competence for office, and quite often the best-qualified candidate is at a loss for words. If verbal bumbling seems to be more prevalent all the time, it is mainly because the newspapers now miss nothing. Until the end of World War II, when tape recorders arrived, reporters would neaten up what they heard when they wrote it down in shorthand. But President Eisenhower was already a victim of press precision when he was not yet even a candidate. He was still commander of Allied Forces in Europe when he addressed his troops thus: ‘Do not needlessly endanger your lives until I give you the signal.’

With his verbal handicap already widely recognized, he went on to become a President whose fitness for office was never in real doubt. Inevitably he was mocked for some of his decisions, but nobody thought that his tangled syntax proved him a fool. And indeed all the evidence suggests that Churchillian phrase-making has never been an advantage in American politics. JFK was meant to be the exception, but I never much liked a too well-balanced rhetorical exhortation like ‘Ask not what your country can do for you: ask what you can do for your country.’ It sounded manufactured, and in fact it was, by a speechwriter.

Borrowed or not, JFK’s eloquence didn’t stop him foolishly invading Cuba, or ignoring the CIA’s advice and putting US military personnel on the ground in Vietnam. I preferred the bumblers. When Nixon temporarily forgot his own wife’s name and said ‘America can’t stand pat’, at least it was a human moment, proved by the depth to which he blushed as soon as he said it. If Nixon had really been the perfectly calculating Machiavellian, he would have made no gaffes at all.

The threat now isn’t from the public figure who makes gaffes, but from the pumped-up media coverage that gives the gaffes disproportionate attention, or even manufactures the gaffe. President Bush’s real achievement in the gaffe area is so mountainous that you would think it unnecessary to add anything artificial, but it happened when he appeared to say that he thought Nelson Mandela was dead. That wasn’t what he meant. He only meant that there were no Nelson Mandela figures left alive in Iraq because Saddam Hussein had killed them all.

What Senator Obama really thinks about race relations in America can be deduced from a thoughtful speech which can be read in its entirety on the web, which is already proving a valuable supplement to the press. When we can read the whole speech we will be less likely to be swayed by the soundbite. That even goes for President Bush, who wasn’t being entirely foolish, just sounding like it as usual, when he said, ‘You never know what your history is going to be like until long after you’re gone.’


I might have gone a bit easy on Hillary Clinton, whose gaffe about landing under sniper fire really amounted to a lie. She should have caught herself in the process of editing the truth to boost the effect. It’s something that almost everybody does, at least on a small scale, and if only to make themselves momentarily less boring. Tony Blair, before he became Prime Minister of Britain, told stories of how he had been some kind of irrepressible runaway rebel in his childhood. Later on he was stuck with the stories, and had to pay the price in embarrassment when reporters checked timetables and found out that he hadn’t run anywhere. Luckily he was not the kind of man who could be much slowed down by embarrassment. Nor was Ronald Reagan, whose mind worked like the successive drafts of a movie script, always looking for the most dramatic presentation of a scene. But he was rarely trying to inflate his own importance: he was just trying to be entertaining. There is a clear difference between that mild degree of elaborating the truth and the utterly fantastic self-promotion gone in for by the supposedly distinguished British current-affairs anchorman — dead now, for a mercy — who claimed to have flown in the Battle of Britain, when he would have had to do so in short trousers. Most of us get over the Billy Liar kind of lying when we are caught at it once too often in the school playground, but there is always the danger of a relapse, and there are people who base their lives on promoting a fiction. The old man with the chest full of unearned medals is a familiar figure at the memorial service. He might even, if put to the test, have proved quite brave in real life, but for some reason real life was never good enough. Hemingway, who was at least as brave as any lion but could never stop proving it, wore military decorations to which he was not entitled. He was not as canny as William Faulkner, who, when people assumed that he had flown in combat, kept modestly silent, instead of vocally proclaiming the truth, which was that he had not. Those who improve on the truth are always role-players, and are therefore most at home in showbusiness, a field in which scarcely anyone on the creative side is genuine for long. But role-playing in politics is as dangerous as role-playing in a hospital, where the doctor who claims to have a degree in anaesthesiology had really better have one.