Ten Best: Political Gaffes

by Amy Kingsley

Macaca moment

Give campaigns and political journalists six weeks between major Democratic contests and they’ll find a way to fill it, usually with lots of mud and memos of dubious import. This is also prime time for campaigns to implode – see Sen. Hillary Clinton’s tall Bosnia tales and Sen. Barack Obama’s late condescension toward working class voters. If they don’t watch themselves, either one could end up like Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia, who tanked in 2006 after camera-wielding volunteers for his opponent caught him flinging the slur “macaca” at someone of South Asian extraction.

Gary Hart

If you are, in fact, doing something wrong, don’t dare the press to “put a tail” on you. That’s just what Democratic presidential nominee Gary Hart did in 1987, just weeks after he announced his candidacy. The boredom Hart promised never materialized. Instead reporters from The Miami Herald got a front-row seat to Hart’s marital infidelities on the SS Monkey Business. He dropped out of the race a week later, finishing his flame-out with a spectacularly pissy speech to the assembled news media.


I should read more Canadian newspapers. They have this political party up there that is always bringing the funny. The Reform Party, a populist conservative bloc, held a convention in 2000 and voted to dissolve and form a new party, the Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance. Members of the media helpfully pointed out that if they appended the word “party” to the end, the acronym would be CCRAP. By the end of the convention, the party had changed its name to the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance.

“Read my lips…”

When George HW Bush uttered the phrase “read my lips, no new taxes” at the Republican National Convention in 1988, he effectively signed his own political death warrant. Two years later, he raised taxes, and conservatives rained criticism down upon his silver head. Pat Buchanan, who ran against him in the 1992 primary, hammered him with it, as did Bill Clinton later in the general election.

Admiral James Stockdale

There are a lot of reasons Vice Admiral James Stockdale flopped at the 1992 vice presidential debate. He didn’t turn his hearing aid on, for one. The decorated war hero never recovered from his abysmal showing, which he notoriously opened with the rhetorical questions, “Who am I? Why am I here?” It’s possible that Stockdale’s reputation as a doddering old man was an unfair one, but he didn’t do much to dispel it during his first appearance on national television.


Let’s say you don’t get along so great with a certain segment of the population. You could mend fences or work toward some kind of mutual understanding. Or you could do what Democratic presidential contender Jesse Jackson did in 1984 vis a vis the Jews, when he torched all possible bridges by befriending noted anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, referring to Jews as “Hymies” and New York as “Hymietown,” then denying the remarks and blaming the entire episode on – you guessed it – the Jews.

The Dean Scream

Four years ago, Democrat Howard Dean tried to revive his faltering campaign by screaming red-faced at a crowd of his supporters. It backfired. Lesson to today’s candidates: Keep your voice down.

Slick Willy

Bill Clinton took his verbal facility a step too far when he dodged a question about Monica Lewinsky with this classic: “It depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.” Even his biggest sympathizers didn’t buy that one. It all came out in the wash, so to speak, mostly because a certain stain on a blue dress never did. Clinton kept his job after all, and secured a nickname that will follow him into the history books.

Thurmond speech

Republican Sen. Trent Lott was one of the most powerful members of the legislative branch in 2002 when he said, at a 100th birthday party for Strom Thurmond, “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 the years, either.” Strom ran as a Dixiecrat, on an anti-Civil Rights, pro-segregation platform. Lott resigned his leadership position posthaste.

Two Bushisms

There’s so much to choose from, but I had to whittle it down to two that really demonstrate the extent of President Bush’s detachment from reality. The first was “Mission Accomplished,” when the costumed president alighted on a battleship to tell the world the war in Iraq had ended during what would turn out to be it’s infancy. Also: “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”