WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney’s remark that he’s not worried about the very poor, the latest gaffe in a campaign rich with blunders, joins a long list of wait-let-me-explain episodes in presidential election history.
It’s been a banner year for campaign misfires: Rick Perry had his “oops” moment when he forgot one of the three government departments he wanted to eliminate. Herman Cain only made things worse after he fumbled a question about Libya when he explained that he had “all this stuff twirling around in my head.” Michelle Bachmann launched her campaign with a cringe-worthy misfire, declaring that both she and actor John Wayne had lived in Waterloo, Iowa, when it was actually serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr. who’d lived there.
Will any of those sour notes still be ringing in the ears beyond November’s ballots and confetti?
There’s stiff competition in the pantheon of campaign misfires: Think of Howard Dean’s primal scream in Iowa during the 2004 primary. Vice President Al Gore’s overwrought sighs when debating George W. Bush in 2000. Vice President Dan Quayle’s botched spelling of potato in 1992. And, way back at the dawn of televised presidential debates, Richard Nixon’s profuse sweating on stage with cool-as-a-cucumber rival John Kennedy in 1960.
Some others with proven staying power:
THE OTHER ROMNEY. Mitt Romney knows only too well how devastating a single gaffe can be. Forty-five years ago, his father, George Romney, ended his presidential campaign after negative fallout from his answer to a question about why he had once supported the Vietnam War. In a 1967 TV interview, Romney referred back to his 1965 visit to the country and stated, “When I came back from Vietnam, I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get.” He said he’d since done a lot more study of the matter and no longer believed the war was necessary.
Romney’s poll numbers sank amid a swirl of ridicule and questions about whether he was naive. “Can’t you just see him coming back from a conference with [Soviet official Alexei] Kosygin yelling that he had been brainwashed by a Russian?” Democratic Party Chairman John Bailey asked. Romney’s wife, Lenore, allowed that her husband’s words were “extremely unfortunate” and insisted that he was too strong a man to be brainwashed. But the damage had been done.
DEBATE DOMINATION. President Gerald Ford didn’t dominate when he falsely declared in a 1976 debate that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” including Poland. Time magazine called it “the blooper heard round the world.” Democrat Jimmy Carter, Ford’s rival, said the president had “disgraced our country.” Ford only made things worse by refusing for days to retract the statement and offering clarifications that didn’t really clarify things.
At one bizarre campaign appearance, the president spoke to reporters on a press bus via walkie-talkie and referred to himself in the third person, saying: “President Ford does not believe that the Polish people over the long run — whether they are in Poland or whether they are Polish-Americans here — will ever condone domination by a foreign force.” The incident is recounted in Alan Schroeder’s book about presidential debates, “Forty Years of High-Risk TV.” Ford eventually apologized and said he recognized that the Soviets did dominate Poland and had military divisions stationed there.
CARTER CONSULTS. In the 1980 campaign, it was Carter who fumbled a Cold War question during a presidential debate when he cited his 13-year-old daughter, Amy, on the subject of nuclear war. “I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day, before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was,” Carter said. “She said she thought nuclear weaponry — and the control of nuclear arms. This is a formidable force.” The debate audience snickered. Carter’s rival, Republican Ronald Reagan, served up a perfect rejoinder at a campaign rally, telling the crowd: “I remember when Patty and Ron were little kids, we used to talk about nuclear power,” Schroeder recounted. Carter allowed in his memoir that “It was obvious that I had not expressed myself well.”
DUKAKIS’ TWO-FER: Michael Dukakis’ run against President George H.W. Bush in 1988 yielded two lulus. His emotionally detached answer to a debate question about whether he would favor the death penalty if his wife, Kitty, were raped and murdered was a classic case of being too cool under pressure. “I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life,” he calmly replied. “I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.” Kitty Dukakis later wrote in her memoir, “That chilling incident at the second debate was the nail in the coffin. … Michael made a mistake; he answered a question he should have hurled right back into the face of his questioner.”
And then there was that unfortunate photo of a helmeted Dukakis taking a spin in a tank — the ultimate in What Not To Wear for candidates.
TIME OUT: The most telling moment in a three-way debate between Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992, wasn’t conveyed in words. It was Bush’s glance at his watch. The president already was battling perceptions that he was out of touch and out of ideas in a time of economic distress. When the TV cameras caught him stealing a glance at his watch, it reinforced the impression that Bush wasn’t up for the job. It didn’t help, either, that when a young woman asked Bush how the national debt had affected him personally, he said he didn’t really get the question.
MR. MISUNDERESTIMATED. George W. Bush served up enough malapropisms as candidate and president that it’s hard to single out just one. But voters elected him twice, validating his theory that people “misunderestimated” him. That gave people eight years of mangled language and puzzling Bushisms to ponder. Among them: “I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.” “Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?” and “We look forward to hearing your vision, so we can more better do our job.”
THE LITTLE PEOPLE: Condescension is one of the worst traps for a presidential candidate and Barack Obama stepped squarely into it in April 2008. Speaking to well-heeled donors at a private fundraiser in the liberal bastion of San Francisco, no less, Obama said voters in struggling small towns of Pennsylvania and the Midwest “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
When news of his comment leaked out, Obama got a boatload of grief from Hillary Rodham Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination, as well as presumptive Republican nominee John McCain. ‘ ‘Elitist and out of touch,” snapped Clinton, whose supporters handed out “I’m not bitter” stickers. Much like Romney now, Obama defended the thought he was trying to convey before conceding he had chosen his words poorly.
It wasn’t the first time the political sin of talking down to people had created problems for Obama’s campaign. Earlier, he’d told Clinton during a debate, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” And Michelle Obama set off her own tempest by declaring that the public’s hunger for change powering her husband’s presidential bid made her proud of her country “for the first time.”
AP writer Cal Woodward in Washington contributed to this report.