The Shriek Heard Round The World

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Probably every American with access to a television, a radio, or a computer has heard the notorious howl with which Howard Dean ended his concession speech after the Democratic caucuses in Iowa. Dr. Dean’s weird outburst was immediately labeled a gaffe, comparable to the classic political gaffes of the past. And it was indeed comparable, being sudden, lingering—and completely ambiguous in terms of its actual consequences.

Just what is a gaffe? It can be a gesture as much as a spoken word. Al Gore’s alleged eye rolling during his first 2000 debate comes to mind, or George H. W. Bush’s checking his watch during his last 1992 debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. Or it can be a photo op gone badly awry; see Michael Dukakis and tank. The use of outlandish words doesn’t help, as the Republican hopeful George Romney found out in the 1968 primary campaign, when he casually remarked that he had been “brainwashed” about Vietnam.

Gaffes are not always fatal, although most of the ones we remember are. George W. Bush managed to survive his notorious campaign stop at Bob Jones University. Richard Nixon came back from what seemed to be a career-ending press conference in 1962 when, after losing the race for governor of California, he told the media, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.…”

Jimmy Carter survived an interview during his 1976 run for the White House in which he defended the “ethnic purity” of neighborhoods—and another, in Playboy magazine, in which he admitted, “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times,” and said he couldn’t condemn a theoretical “guy [who] screws a whole bunch of women.”

Carter had the good fortune that year to be running against perhaps the most gaffe-prone President in American history, Gerald R. Ford. During their second debate Ford got tangled up answering a question on the recent Helsinki Accords and found himself insisting that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” adding, “I don’t believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union.” According to Ford’s chief speechwriter, he had meant “the soul and spirit of the Polish nation,” as opposed to the physical Poland, dominated then by four Soviet divisions, but the President only made things worse by stubbornly talking of the “allegation of domination” before finally acknowledging the gaffe four days later. The best way to bury a gaffe, it seems, is to own up to it quickly.

A gaffe is often in the eye of the beholder. In February 1972 Edmund Muskie was clinging to a precarious lead in New Hampshire’s Democratic primary when he decided to denounce William Loeb, the fanatical right-wing publisher of the Manchester Union Leader . Loeb had infuriated Muskie by printing a letter to the editor claiming that the candidate laughed at derogatory jokes about “Canucks” and by building a nasty front-page editorial out of press reports of Jane Muskie’s occasional use of strong language.

Muskie responded by pulling a flatbed truck up in front of the Union Leader ’s offices and calling Loeb a “liar” and a “gutless coward.” Then something happened. Muskie’s voice broke. Was it a sob? Were there tears? Was that wetness on his cheek? Nobody was quite sure. Muskie had been speaking bareheaded, after all, in the middle of a snowstorm.

“I was just goddamned mad and choked up over my anger,” the candidate claimed later, but he admitted, “It changed people’s minds about me, of what kind of a guy I was. They were looking for a strong, steady man, and here I was weak.”

And there is the crux of the matter. The consensus is that a gaffe is a gaffe if it seems to confirm a perceived weakness. Muskie was known to have a hot temper. Standing in the falling snow, choking on either tears or bile, he hardly seemed up to that elusive word presidential . Similarly, Gore’s eye rolling appeared to confirm that he was arrogant or condescending, Bush’s watch-watching that he was aloof, Dukakis’s tanking that he was weak on defense and foreign policy, Ford’s misstatement that he was bumbling or naive in dealing with the Soviets.

Of course, in the age of the pack media, these perceptions can often be highly subjective and unfair in the first place. Temper or no, Muskie compiled an outstanding record as a governor, senator, and later Secretary of State, and as the Watergate investigations later revealed, the “Canuck letter” had come from inside the Nixon campaign, allegedly penned by the President’s deputy communications director, Ken Clawson. Jerry Ford was probably the best athlete ever to occupy the White House, and a series of unfortunate public falls and mishaps made him a national laughingstock. Gore never made the most presumptuous claims attributed to him, such as that he had “invented the Internet” or “discovered Love Canal,” and a recent New York Times article downgraded his snooty eye rolling into the gaffe of having “sighed patronizingly several times” during his debate with George W. Bush.

Sighing or eye rolling, which was it? Unfair? Sure, but then a gaffe can consist of doing nothing at all. Gen. Wesley Clark was chided for not saying anything when George W. Bush was accused of desertion in his presence. A similar gaffe of omission has long been said to have ended the presidential hopes of one of the most popular and controversial politicians of the nineteenth century, the “plumed knight” of Maine, James G. Blaine.