April/May 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 2
When does a single gaffe sink a campaign?
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.
Intelligent, shrewd, talented, and urbane, Blaine was an early leader of the Republican party and served as speaker of the House, senator, and Secretary of State during his long career. He was also a polarizing figure, regarded as morally suspect by many voters, even within his own party, for his involvement in a series of stock scandals.
After finally securing the Republican nomination on his third attempt, in 1884, Blaine found himself running neck and neck in a close, vicious race with Grover Cleveland. Stumping furiously through New York, a crucial state in the race, he arrived hoarse and nearly spent in New York City on the evening of October 28. The following morning he received a delegation of several hundred Republican clergymen, come to pledge their fealty. These included Pastor Samuel D. Burchard of the Murray Hill Presbyterian Church, who would enter one of the great alliterative phrases of all time into the American political lexicon.
“We are Republicans,” declared Burchard, “and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.”
This was an obvious slur upon the loyalty of Irish-American immigrants and their sometimes ambivalent support for the Union cause in the Civil War, and it should have rung political alarm bells for an old campaigner like James G. Blaine. At the time there were no fewer than 275,000 Irish-born Americans in New York City alone, and Blaine was hoping to capture many of their votes, thanks to the fact that his own mother had been an Irish Catholic.
Yet Blaine merely thanked the assembled ministers and passed up any opportunity to refute the slight, something most chroniclers of the incident attribute to his having been either distracted during Burchard’s remarks or exhausted by having given more than 400 campaign talks in six weeks.
The Democrats were listening, though. Apparently grasping the innate danger of ever assembling several hundred politically minded clerics in the same room, they had had a stenographer on hand. By the next day handbills containing the damning remarks were going out around the country, and “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion!” had become a Democratic rallying cry.
Blaine disavowed Burchard’s remarks two days later, but it was too late. The election proved to be one of the closest in American history, with Cleveland winning by less than 25,000 votes, out of some 10 million cast. In the electoral college, the deciding state was …New York, which went for Cleveland by a grand total of 1,149 votes, a race so close that it was days before the count was finally certified.
Nearly all historians of the election have attributed the loss in good part to “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” So did Blaine, who after the election lamented the fact that “the Lord sent upon us an ass in the shape of a preacher.” Clearly, Burchard’s gaffe had sunk his candidate. Or had it? Closer examination of the record casts considerable doubt upon Blaine’s assertion —and his credibility.
For one thing, Burchard’s remark was not even original. Eight years earlier, after the tumultuous 1876 election, the Republican House minority leader, James Garfield, had lamented “the combined power of rebellion, Catholicism, and whisky.” In the post-Civil War “bloody shirt” era of American politics, such aspersions—and much, much worse—were quite common, and they did not prevent Garfield from carrying New York State and being elected President in 1880.
Nor was Blaine really justified in blaming poor Burchard —or, for that matter, God. For all that he was supposedly distracted during Burchard’s remarks, Blaine’s answering speech to his adoring reverends included the following passage: “You can no more separate a party from its history than you can separate a man from his character, and when the great make-up of public opinion is ready it takes into account the origin, the progress, the measures, the character of the party and the character of its public men,” words that sound very much like a thinly coded rehash of just what Burchard was saying. Could it be that Blaine was not guilty so much of silence as of trying to be all things to all people?
There were many other possible factors in his defeat. The Prohibition and Greenback parties, playing a role Ralph Nader performed in a later era, took a combined 3.24 percent of the popular vote nationally, with the majority of that total probably coming from the Republican side. And October 29 had been a bad day all around for Blaine. That same evening he attended a sumptuous banquet at New York’s Delmonico restaurant, in the company of a host of leading bankers, robber barons, and Wall Street connivers. The festivities were not widely appreciated in a city still recovering from a recession. They were savagely satirized in a New York World cartoon the next day as the “Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings”—a reference to the book of Daniel, complete with the handwriting on the wall: “Mené, Mené, Tekel, Upharsin” (“God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it…Thou art weighed in the balances and art found wanting …,” as Daniel interpreted it in the Bible.)
Yet it also remains entirely unclear whether or not anything Blaine did actually cost him votes in New York City. New York, then as now, was a Democratic town, one that not even Lincoln had carried, and Blaine’s performance was the best by any Republican presidential candidate in the city in the previous 12 years. Where the last two GOP nominees had lost New York by roughly two to one, Blaine lost by less than three to two. He drew record votes for a Republican in the poorest and most Irish wards of the city, while losing Burchard’s own bailiwick, staunchly Republican Murray Hill.
What did it all mean? The Tammany Hall sachem “Honest John” Kelly had a long-standing feud over patronage with Grover Cleveland and seems to have pulled the old Tammany trick of damning the national ticket with faint majorities. At the same time, rebellious middle- and upper-class Republicans, repulsed by Blaine’s financial scandals, bolted the party in large numbers. Or, as Allan Nevins, Cleveland’s leading biographer, put it, “the central explanation of [his] defeat was simply that Blaine was morally suspect.”
A national election, then as now, is so large and determined by so many disparate factors that it is nearly impossible to single out one. Observers in 1972, for instance, attributed Muskie’s loss in the primaries as much to his vague message, his soporific speaking style, and Democraticparty divisions as to any tears in New Hampshire. Gerald Ford had to contend not just with the Iron Curtain but with the wake of Watergate, a stagnant economy, and the gaffes of his vice-presidential candidate, Bob Dole, who in a truly bizarre debate of his own laid the casualties from all the American wars in the twentieth century at the feet of the Democrats. And would we still be talking about Al Gore’s rolling eyes and patronizing sighs if a few chads in Florida had fallen the other way?
The lesson to be learned from all this is that we should resist the tendency of the American media to superimpose a narrative on every event they cover, from the World Series to the presidential primaries. To force, that is, their own handwriting upon every wall.
Dr. Dean’s histrionics seemed less indicative of pathological anger than of just how silly any adult can look trying to cheer up a group of disappointed children. But the fact remains that before Dean delivered so much as a yelp, he had already suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of the people of Iowa, trudging out on a cold winter’s night to meet their neighbors in schools and churches and living rooms. That is the real story here. It is called democracy.