• Marc Johnson

Foot In Mouth Disease


My old boss, Cece Andrus, was about as good at speaking off the cuff as any politician I’ve ever seen. He had a plain spoken, even blunt style, softened with a great sense of humor. He rarely misspoke – read on – and lived with the knowledge that, as he has often said, “you can go from hero to zero (snap your fingers) just like that in politics.”

I thought of that old truism – and winced – watching Texas Congressman Joe Barton yesterday slip the biggest size 10 foot in his mouth as I’ve seen in a while. Unless you’ve been exclusively watching World Cup replays, you can’t have missed Barton’s “apology” to BP for undergoing “a shakedown” at the Obama White House. While the rest of the world – well maybe not British Prime Minister David Cameron – was gorging on the ritual of a Congressional hearing – main course, oil company executive under TV lights – Barton managed to steal the show with his defense of the guys scrambling to contain the biggest environmental mess in American history. Talk about off message. Even the BP executive receiving the apology looked uncomfortable.

Barton later, not once but twice, apologized for his “misconstrued misconstruction.” Huh?

I’ve been struck by the incredible spate of similar gaffes recently. It is almost impossible to keep track of all of them. This is clearly a bipartisan phenomenon and, maybe we should be happy about this, not confined exclusively to elected officials or candidates.

Helen Thomas, the venerable, grouchy White House gadfly, resigned for popping off about getting all the Jews out of Palestine. Helen got little sympathy from the boys and girls on the presidential beat, some of whom were jockeying for her front row seat in the White House briefing room. You knew it was truly bad for her when, hold on, Ralph Nader rose to defend her. With friends like that…

BP’s chairman stood this week before cameras outside the White House and talked about his regard for the “small people” of the Gulf. In fairness to the Swedish head of BP’s Board, what he really meant may have been lost in translation. Still, a gaffe in the Swedish vernacular is still a misconstrue in my book.

Rand Paul the Kentucky Senate candidate offered up a series of gaffes immediately after his recent primary win and now says he feels Barton’s pain. It takes a gaffer to know one. Richard Blumenthal, the Democratic senate candidate in Connecticut, is still in trouble for misstating his military record. To gaffe again once exposed seems doubly daffy.

The unbelievable story out of South Carolina gets better by the day. The surprise winner in the Democratic Senate primary there, Alvin Greene, is so unaware of what the job – and a campaign – entails that he asked Time magazine “if the candidate gets paid” for the interview he finally granted? Huh?

One of the great political websites – Political Wire – features the gaffe Top 10 list so far this cycle and, yes, Idaho’s Vaughn Ward gets spot number 4 for his “Puerto Rico is a country” slip up during the recent primary.

All this, and I could go on and on, may seem like the political equivalent of the BP gusher; a vast increase in gaffiness that just can’t be brought under control. My guess is that its not a real increase at all. Politicians and others in the public eye have been saying stupid things since the days of Caesar.

What is different – expanding the range and speed of gaffes and misconstrues, to paraphrase Joe Barton – is the Internet and YouTube. The off the wall comment now takes on an instantaneous life of its own and thanks to 24-hour news it gets repeated and repeated. Think of it as gaffing at the speed of light. And, thanks to Google, the gaffes never, ever go away.

Consider a rare Andrus, er, gaffe.

Shortly after his close 1986 comeback election victory, Andrus was asked on a TV talk show about the grief he’d taken from the National Rifle Association during the campaign. The NRA’s endorsement of his opponent – and frankly smear of him – particularly rankled the hunting and fishing governor because his lawyerly opponent was not a “hook and bullet” guy in the Idaho tradition. So, Andrus said of the NRA when asked, “oh, you mean the gun nuts of the world…”

We’re talking instant front page. Andrus also promised “retribution” for the “political distortions” he had been victim of. “Nuts” with that “retribution,” I remember it well. Proof perhaps that even the best trip up from time-to-time.

Just remember when you hear or read the next gaffe, it is said in Washington, DC that the real definition of a gaffe is “when a politician speaks the truth.”

Which is another way of saying that rarely does the “misconstrue,” apology notwithstanding, veer far from what is really on the gaffer’s mind. You can look it up.

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson