When Gerald Ford said in a television debate in 1976 that Poland was free of Soviet influence, everyone agreed it was a cringe-worthy moment. Some said the gaffe may have even cost him the election. Although Ford initially doubled down on the misstatement, he eventually tried to correct himself on the campaign trail, and in his memoir chastised himself for not acknowledging earlier what he described as the “worst mistake I ever made politically."
While gaffes and misstatements may be inevitable with all the televised blabbing presidential candidates do these days, it seems the concept of the gaffe—the flub—has all but disappeared, along with humility, self-reflection and the concept of apologizing. But no matter how rigorously they are denied, the gaffes are flying in this year’s race, and the Republicans, despite their very best efforts, have not fully cornered the market on them.
Here are some of the top campaign trail gaffes this year, most of them performed in front of a national audience of debate watchers.
1. Christie is lying down with a dead Arab king, or propping him up to stand with him, or something.
New Jersey governor Chris Christie is running on his robustness and toughness. He alone has the energy and fortitude to prosecute terrorists and keep orphan refugees and dangerous Ebola nurses out of his state. So he’s the very opposite of being dead (unlike, say Ben Carson).
So it was a little bit of a headscratcher when the governator forcefully stated he would stand with King Hussein of Jordan against all the terrible things in the world, like Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Apparently, this tough guy has a time machine at his disposal because King Hussein is very dead. Has been inconveniently so since 1999. King Abdullah II took his place, and in fact, Christie and his family were guests of King Abdullah in 2012.
It wasn’t the worst thing Christie said in a performance full of hysteria-mongering, and it might not even have been the dumbest. That distinction probably goes to his assertion that he would shoot down a Russian plane. But it was the gaffiest.
On the other hand, the guy did at least acknowledge that he misspoke.
2. Carly Fiorina salutes her generals. They say you're wrong, Carly. She says shut up and sit down.
If Carly Fiorina bore any resemblance to a sentient human being, she would have just acknowledged she made a mistake when she claimed that generals "Petraeus, McChrystal, Mattis, Keane, Flynn ... retired early because they told President Obama things that he didn’t want to hear," during the last Republican debate.
Even mainstream news organizations tried to point out that she was mistaken, and it’s fairly easy to find out what really happened. Keane retired in 2003, well before Obama took office. Petraeus was promoted by Obama to head the CIA and then forced to resign because of improprieties surrounding an extramarital affair.
But pointing out her error did not seem to make a dent in Fiorina’s ironclad insistence that facts be damned, she was sticking to her guns. Someone might have been cringing somewhere, but it wasn’t Carly.
Which raises the question, if a gaffe falls in front of a national television audience and doesn’t cause a cringe, is it still a gaffe?
3. Trump and those cheering Muslims in New Jersey.
Trump, as we all know, has made an uncountable number of outrageous statements on the campaign trail, from blatant dog-whistles about Muslims and Mexicans and crude misogyny about Fiorina’s face, Clinton’s bathroom habits and Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycles, to mimicking a physically disabled man and criticizing a war veteran for having been taken prisoner.
And he’s said remarkably stupid things, like the nonsensical gibberish he spewed at the last debate about the nuclear arsenal that would terrifyingly be under his thumb if he were elected. This incoherent string of disconnected words would, to any normal person, have been extremely embarrassing. “I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me,” he managed to say.
But since Trump is hardly alone in tossing his word salads (Jeb! we're looking at you), we’ll nominate his assertion that he watched “thousands of Muslims cheering in New Jersey” after 9/11 another demonstrably untrue statement that even the mainstream media called him out on.
Normal people, upon having it pointed out that they are seeing things that simply are not there, would feel a certain amount of sheepishness. Yepp, that’s what normally happens, in a normal world, which is not apparently the one in which the campaign is being waged.
4. Hillary’s absurd explanation of her coziness with Wall Street.
In the Democratic debate immediately following the Paris attacks, Hillary got the chance to show off some of her foreign policy cred. But to her consternation, Bernie Sanders asked her to defend her historically cozy relationship with big money and Wall Street and explain how she can be independent when they give her such big donations. Bizarrely, she decided to cast that relationship in terms of 9/11. Her reasoning, because 9/11 occurred in the Wall Street area and she was the senator from New York at the time, she worked hard with the financial sector to help them recover.
“Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan where Wall Street is. I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York. It was good for the economy. And it was a way to rebuke the terrorists who had attacked our country.”
Thud! Really, Hillary?
Just wondering. When she rehearsed that in her head, did it actually sound good?
5. Jeb Bush’s Mitt Romney 47 percent moment.
The younger Bush brother has looked like a man in a near-constant state of cringing embarrassment during the entire campaign, but if he is embarrassed, it is most assuredly not for the right reasons. When he explained at a campaign stop in September that the way he would appeal to black voters would be to tell them he would not be giving them “free stuff,” he seemed totally unaware of the echo with Mitt Romney’s infamous remark about 47 percent of Americans not pulling their weight.
Bush’s answer in full: “Our message is one of hope and aspiration. It isn’t one of division and get in line and we’ll take care of you with free stuff. Our message is one that is uplifting — that says you can achieve earned success.”
Not merely offensive. Being offensive is what the GOP candidates do on a daily basis. Just really really dumb. Ask Romney.
6. Carson’s hilarious mispronunciations.
Hearing what the good doctor has to say about the way the world works is, by turns, horrifying and hilarious. Not only does this man of science not appear to acknowledge science—denying not only climate change, but evolution!!!—sometimes he just plain defies logic, as with his famous example of how he knows homosexuality is learned behavior. (For those who missed it, he said that prison rape turns people gay, so… it must not be biological.) This and his suggestion that mass shooting victims ought to not just sit there and be shot were low-lights to be sure.
So, how do you pick a gaffe from a man who insists pyramids are for storing grain? Let’s just say the doctor has some pretty funny mispronunciations. There was the whole hummus for Hamas thing, which Stephen Colbert had awonderful time mocking. Carson also tongue-wrestled with the name of the Republican National Committee Chair, initially coming out with something that resembled “Rinse Pubis.”
That could catch on.
7. Marco Rubio’s odd choice of drinking partners.
GOP golden boy Marco Rubio is so good at speaking off the cuff, just chatting with voters. Asked who he would most like to have a beer with on the campaign trail in New Hampshire this fall, Rubio said, Malala Yousafzai.
Great answer! If not for the fact that she is underage and Muslim.
Not the end of the world, of course, just a little cultural cluelessness in the mix with his arch-conservative, bellicose, rabid anti-abortion brew of politics.
8. Ted Cruz’s Rick Perry moment.
Ted Cruz is smarter than Rick Perry. Then again, a rock is smarter than Rick Perry.
Still, Cruz stumbled into the same Texas Tea Party trap of trying to list the agencies he would like to cut in lieu of shutting the whole government down. While Perry struggled to list, oops, all three he had painstakingly tried to memorize, Cruz ambitiously went for five, and thought he made it sound like five when he simply repeated the Department of Commerce twice. He then acted as though he had completely nailed the answer.
The intended target was the Department of Education.
9. Lincoln Chafee says he voted for something in the Senate, because gee whiz, he had no idea what he was doing!
Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee’s time on the national debate stage was brief but bizarre. It’s hard to do damage to a candidacy that is already not remotely registering with voters, until Chafee fumbled so badly with the question of why he voted in favor of deregulating banks in 1999.
"Glass-Steagall was my very first vote," Chafee said, managing to look almost as child-like as he sounded. "I'd just arrived, my dad had died in office."
Mean old Anderson Cooper asked incredulously why he’d vote for a bill he did not seem to understand.
"I think you're being a little rough," Chafee replied, still smiling his deer-in-headlights smile.
Really weird. Almost as weird as when Virginia senator Jim Webb alluded to and appeared to flash back a little to the Vietnamese soldier he killed.
Both have dropped out of the race now, shockingly, leaving nothing but these hilarious, soon-to-be-banished-to-the-history-dust-heap memories.