The overwhelming idiocy of America's obsession with "gaffes"

Jeb Bush's elitism, like Mitt Romney's "47 percent" comment, isn't a mistake. What happens when we pretend it is?

Published July 13, 2015 8:50PM (EDT)

  (AP/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP/Charlie Neibergall)

I need everyone who writes and talks professionally about presidential campaigns to take a knee and listen up. We’re a few weeks out from the first debate, and we need to get something straight before this thing really gets going. There’s a word we’re using wrong, at least most of the time.


We’ll all use the word at some point during this election season--some of us many, many times--and there’s a really good chance we’ll be using it incorrectly in most instances.

My aim is not to sound nerdy or nit-picky and haughtily point out mistakes while pushing my glasses up the bridge of my nose. I’m not simply pointing out lexical sloppiness, which I’m probably guilty of more than you. No, I’m talking about how we assess what is said by this array of people vying to be our leader, and misuse of the word “gaffe” is more than just a misappellation.

Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines “gaffe”:

A blunder, an instance of clumsy stupidity, a ‘faux pas’.

Merriam-Webster gives a couple examples of the word’s proper usage:

He realized that he had committed an awful gaffe when he mispronounced her name.

She committed a huge gaffe when she started drinking from the finger bowl.

To be sure, politicians do make gaffes, minor verbal blunders, clumsy stumbles in their speech. Joe Biden is gaffe-prone: Being caught by the mic telling President Obama that the passage of the Affordable Care Act is a “big fucking deal” is a gaffe. Or when he told Missouri State Senator Chuck Graham to “stand up and let ‘em see you” during 2008 campaign event, not knowing that Graham, a paraplegic, was wheelchair-bound. That’s a gaffe.

Rick Perry--bless his heart--is guaranteed to gaffe this time around. He’ll always be remembered for his infamous “oops” moment in a 2012 Republican debate, when he couldn’t remember the third federal department he would shut down. That was a gaffe. And he went for the Guinness record in the field in New Hampshire that year when he delivered a truly bizarre 25-minute speech that felt like one long, unbroken gaffe.

Sarah Palin is a gaffe machine. All of time and space collapsed into a dense state of pure gaffe in 2008, what with the Palin Pangaea where Russia is seen from her house and America’s “neighboring country of Afghanistan” being just down the road from New Hampshire in the “Great Northwest.” Palin flubbed and told us that the White House was at 1400 Pennsylvania Avenue, that Paul Revere warned the British in 1775, and that the Founding Fathers said the “Pledge of Allegiance,” All gaffes, simple mistakes.

But most of what gets called “gaffes” are not at all gaffes. They’re expressions of beliefs and political and ideological positions that turn out to be intensely unpopular or offensive to a segment of the population, and the press, usually so careful in our language, tosses them in the same linguistic barrel as when Palin said “refudiate” or when President George W. Bush talked about “how hard it is to put food on your family.”

Take last week, when Jeb Bush offered that Americans need to work longer hours. The proposal was immediately attacked by Democrats, and Bush was forced to address the comments later that same day after the swift and substantial backlash. Bush’s rush to clarify his unpopular comments was reported on seemingly uniformly as an effort to mend his “gaffe,” as though he simply misspoke or exhibited the sort of clumsy speech his brother is known for. Major political news outlets assigned the word “gaffe” to Bush’s proposal--Politico, the Boston Herald, Business Insider, The Hill, and Vox, among others.

Bush was presenting his solution to the anemic recovery after the financial crisis of 2007-08. Bush’s remedy includes Americans working longer hours, a point he reiterated in his clarification. The word “gaffe” seems to have been so widely assigned to the initial comments simply because they offended wage-working Americans and became an early weapon for Democrats against the GOP front-runner. But it’s not a gaffe if it’s a repeated belief. And it’s not a gaffe just because a well-considered belief turns out to be an unpopular way to view Americans from someone in a position of wealthy political aristocracy.

An ascendant Senator Obama made similarly unpopular remarks on the campaign trail in 2008, when he described the electorate in small-town Pennsylvania as “clinging to guns and religion.” Obama did one worse and made his elitist-sounding comments before a crowd of elites, those assembled at a hoity-toity donor dinner in San Francisco. It was routinely called a “gaffe” in such news outlets as The Hill, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and others. But it wasn’t a gaffe. That’s how Obama sees (or saw, maybe) that section of the population in the wake of deindustrialization and globalization. He’s quite clear. The quote goes on beyond the soundbite we typically heard, and it's clear that this is something Obama had thought about at some length. It's his way of making sense of what he saw as a tendency of rural white conservatives to turn away from their economic self-interest and toward religious fundamentalism, racism, xenophobia and Second Amendment literalism. Not a gaffe.

Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” line during the next presidential election was described as a “gaffe” in seemingly every respectable publication. (The New York Times, it should be noted, tends to avoid the word for this and other non-gaffe political missteps, at least in my searching.) Again, Romney was clearly articulating a campaign strategy based on the fact that nearly 47 percent of Americans pay no federal income tax. A gaffe would’ve been him saying “37 percent” or “57 percent.” But there’s a decent chance that Romney had explained this numerical fact of the 2012 political terrain in front of other donors. (The comments were secretly taped at a donor dinner.) It’s just that he was actually caught this time.

So, repeat after me: It’s not a gaffe if you get caught voicing an unpopular opinion behind closed doors.

In each of those three cases, the remarks had elitist overtones, or were just straight-up elitist. Obama and Romney were speaking before elite donors. Both were private fundraising events closed to the press, and neither knew they were being recorded. Bush’s unpopular ideas were in a campaign speech, but Bush is seen as a political royal, so anything approaching elitism out of his lips automatically sounds Marie Antoinette-y.

What is it that we’re doing when we categorize a Bushism or Bidenism the same way as Jeb Bush’s “longer hours” comments or Obama’s thoughts about parts of rural America? It means that a politician being honest about his thoughts and beliefs and goals, when they’re found to be intensely unpopular among a large part of the electorate, is a mistake.

A presidential candidate is a brand, one whose every non-focus-grouped expression potentially threatens the packaged and veneered product. The aim is to please as many voters as possible, and if a brief revelation of honestly held beliefs or policy goals turns out to disturb or contradict the branding effort, large parts of the press are there to describe it as a rhetorical hiccup, a brain fart--a mere “gaffe.” To those reporters and commentators who understand, consciously or un-, that there’s a script to this creation of a political brand, unpopular honesty is a mistake, a flub.

The incorrect use of the word “gaffe” is sometimes only, well, a gaffe. But its shocking overuse points to a certain participation in the grand ruse by parts of the press, even if it’s unwitting. We know that the ideal candidacy in 2015 is a pleasing script read by a likeable spokesperson, and reducing truthful but unpopular deviations from the script to the level of a “gaffe” protects and preserves the political performance. When a stage actor flubs a line, it could be rightly called a “gaffe.” But what do we call the moment when the actor playing Willy Loman suddenly and inexplicably breaks script and tells us about himself, the actor? I am not really this salesman. The collective, mutual agreement between the audience and the performers--to pretend--is ruptured, and a sudden feeling of intense unease overtakes the the theater. In political theater, unexpected truthfulness, when it’s unpopular, can be called a mere “gaffe” by the press to settle the audience and let the show go on. He made a simple mistake, the press assures; he was just being himself.

By Matthew Pulver

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2016 Elections Barack Obama Jeb Bush Media Criticism Mitt Romney