A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth. According to Google, this observation was first made in the London Guardian in 1992. By me. Which is pretty cool—my little bit of immortality—except that I also wrote it back in 1984. (A great one: presidential candidate Gary Hart told a California rally that he’d rather be in California than New Jersey. Rival Walter Mondale rose to the defense of New Jersey and this actually became a big issue for a week or so.) Not only does the 1984 example make me a self-plagiarist, but the fact that Google missed this previous citation raises the disturbing possibility that it also missed someone else saying the same thing even earlier.
And not only that: I put it badly. A gaffe is not necessarily when a politician tells the truth. It’s when a politician says what’s really on his or her mind, which may or may not be the truth. A typical gaffe is an insult to some portion of the electorate, which an opponent can indignantly exploit, misinterpret, or, if necessary, invent. The reduction ad absurdum example would be the McCain campaign’s attempt to make an issue of Barack Obama using the phrase “Lipstick on a pig,” in reference to some McCain policy proposals. The McCain campaign declared that this was an insult aimed at Sarah Palin and, by extension, all women, even though Obama had not mentioned or referred to Palin. Furthermore, it took all of five minutes for a video clip to pop up on the Internet of McCain using the same expression.
A gaffe is not necessarily when a politician tells the truth. It’s when a politician says what’s really on his or her mind, which may or may not be the truth.
The process has hardened into routine, or even ritual. A candidate commits a gaffe—or rivals find some remark that can be misinterpreted, taken out of context, exaggerated, or otherwise morphed into a gaffe. Then the rival or rivals react with umbrage. Gaffe etiquette requires that even though opponents are thrilled by the opportunity the gaffe has created, they cannot give the slightest hint of that. Outrage and indignation are essential. And extra points are available if you can suppress your delight enough to actually express “sadness” or “disappointment” that your opponent has said whatever it is you accuse him or her of saying. You lose points for any suggestion of gloating.
The rules also say that any potentially gaffable remark may be taken at face value, or it may be misinterpreted at will by opponents and the press. Two questions that are not permitted are: (1) How likely is it that the candidate actually believes whatever it is the gaffe supposedly exposes him or her as believing; and (2) why would the candidate say such a thing, whether he or she believes it or not? Is it likely that Barack Obama (or even John Murtha) really has contempt for the people of small towns in Western Pennsylvania? And what is in it for him to say so, whether he believes it or not? There are only two possible explanations. Either the remark is being misinterpreted by opponents, or it is what used to be called a Freudian slip, unintentionally revealing an attitude or prejudice that the candidate was trying to suppress. It seems unlikely to me that a person as thoroughly trained and habituated to sticking to talking points as the modern presidential candidate would let the mask slip to reveal obnoxious views as often as needed to account for all the gaffe-umbrage episodes have occurred in this campaign.
The latest gaffe fuss is an especially odd one. Joe Biden told a crowd in Seattle that, “It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama.” He said the test would be “generated”—i.e., the world’s bad guys will purposely come up with a crisis because Obama is young and untested. McCain now says that Biden has “guaranteed” an international crisis if Obama is elected, and “we don’t want a president who invites testing from the world at a time when our economy is in crisis and Americans are already fighting in two wars.”
Problems here: (1) Joe Biden is not in a position to “guarantee” a world crisis. (2) Joe Biden doesn’t even want a world crisis. He just worries there might be one. (3) Unlike the typical gaffe, where the interest is in what the gaffer believes, the important question here is whether there actually will be a world crisis, not in whether Joe Biden believes there will be a world crisis. (4) Do McCain and Palin believe that the election of Barack Obama will bring on a world crisis? That’s interesting. Why haven’t they said so before now?
An answer to Question (4) might be that they feared being accused of demagoguery if they were to suggest such a thing. This shows a puzzling delicacy, if they really believe that a vote for Obama is a vote for a world crisis within six months. That is especially true when you consider how fearlessly the Republican candidates have faced accusations of demagoguery about matters that seem less pressing than avoiding a world crisis within six months.
(5) Is McCain saying that right now, given the economy and two other wars, the United States is unprepared to handle whatever crisis the bad guys might concoct? Wow. This sure seems like more of an invitation for a crisis than anything Joe Biden said.
Finally, and most important, (6) Is McCain saying that we should let foreign bad guys—Al Qaeda, Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, etc.—tell us whom to vote for? And is he saying that their message is, Vote for John McCain? That is certainly what it sounds like. “If Senator Obama is elected, we will have an international crisis” purposely generated to test him, and if Senator McCain is elected, we won’t. Vote for McCain and the world’s nasties will call off their crisis. Voting for McCain, therefore, is giving in to terrorism. According to McCain—who favors it.
Now that, I’d say, is a gaffe.