by Ed Gross
We’ve all been hearing a lot recently about gaffes committed by Republican presidential
candidates. If I say that gaffe is the wrong word to describe most of them, you’ll say
I’m just a fussy former English major. Okay, you got me. Yet, in this case there’s a
very important distinction I’d like to make. A gaffe, according to the dictionary is “a
social blunder, especially a tactless remark” or, secondarily, “a noticeable mistake.”
Actual gaffes are committed regularly in politics and certainly aren’t limited to one
political party or the other. Joe Biden, for one, is deservedly famous for them. For
example, calling out to Missouri State Senator Chuck Graham, who is in a wheelchair,
he said, “Stand up, Chuck, let ’em see ya.” Some of Michele Bachmann’s reputation for
gaffes is equally well deserved. This summer, she wished Elvis Presley a happy birthday
on the anniversary of his death. Celebrating Concord, New Hampshire for “the shot heard
round the world” in Concord, Mass. qualifies as a gaffe, and a particularly embarrassing
one at that.
What’s bothering me about the misapplication of the word gaffe is something I call
journalistic squeamishness. It’s the unwillingness of reporters – and, surprisingly,
pundits and columnists, too – to call bad behavior by its rightful name. I noticed
this first during the Bush administration when even the New York Times called
torture “enhanced interrogation techniques.” That’s not just a euphemism to avoid the
socially unacceptable. That’s a distortion. It should be obvious that what was torture
when done to our soldiers in World War II and Vietnam must by definition be torture
when done in our name in Iraq and Guantanamo.
A politician who deliberately presents something as factual that is simply not true is, as
any good parent would tell their child, lying. Calling it a gaffe, implies a lack of intent.
No one, after all, blunders on purpose. Now, as an Ethical Culturist, I can be sympathetic
to lies told to protect feelings or avoid conflict on the one hand while condemning
egregious lies on the other. Here are a few from Representative Bachmann that I’m afraid
have been made more acceptable, or at least excusable, for having been dismissed in the
media as gaffes.
On the Constitution: “We also know the very founders that wrote those documents
worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.” (italics mine) Paying
tribute to Calvin Coolidge, she claimed his conservative economic policies led America
into the prosperity of the Roaring ’20s. Really? To whose policies would she attribute
the crash and the depression? Speaking of which, she also said the depression was made
much worse by FDR and the Hoot-Smalley tariffs (actually Smoot Hawley, so that part’s
just a gaffe) although they were proposed by two Republicans and signed into law by
President Coolidge before FDR took office!
Okay, so maybe you don’t think Ms. Bachmann a serious candidate anyway. Fine. But
how about Texas Governor Rick Perry? Upon entering the race, he immediately led in the
polls, so he’s necessarily being treated seriously. Recently, he called global warming “a
scientific theory that has not been proven and from my perspective is more and more
being put into question.” That’s no gaffe, that’s a lie. As was his statement that Texas
has the legal right to secede from the United States. I don’t know how to characterize his
comment that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke might be guilty of “treasonous”
behavior for how he is handling economic policy, but it’s wrong and vicious and
certainly not unintentional.
Being President of the United States is a ridiculously difficult job. I would never pretend
to know who’s qualified based on what candidates say while campaigning. I do, however,
think that by spewing a series of blatant lies a candidate disqualifies him or herself. We
need the news media to have the stomach to make that obvious by calling a lie a lie.
Otherwise, we’ll end up with another “gaffe-prone” president, like another ex-Texas
governor I could name.