The Pulse: Some political gaffes really say something

On the campaign trail, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.),in Myrtle Beach, S.C., has had a flair for the faux pas.
On the campaign trail, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.),in Myrtle Beach, S.C., has had a flair for the faux pas. (WILLIS GLASSGOW / Associated Press)
Posted: August 26, 2011

While in China last week, Vice President Biden mistakenly said we own 85 percent of U.S. Treasury securities, while the number is actually 54 percent. But who am I to criticize?

Sitting in front of a live microphone can be dangerous. I know because I do it for 20 hours each week for my nationally syndicated Michael Smerconish Program. And over the span of the last decade, plenty of dumb things have rolled off my lips.

Such as when I was interviewing famed Irish tenor Ronan Tynan, the man whose rendition of "Amazing Grace" could make an atheist cry. His beautiful singing graced many 9/11 hero funerals and became a fixture at important Yankees games. Well, he also happens to be a double amputee, which unfortunately prompted me to ask him: "You've overcome tremendous adversity in your own life. Would you walk us through that?" Ugh.

Then there was the time Rep. Barney Frank (D., Mass.) visited my studio. After avoiding the elephant in the room for much of the interview, I finally said: "I want to ask you about the gay thing. Does it become a pain in your butt after a while that . . . people feel the need to say you were the first openly gay member of Congress?" Oh no.

Like a champ, he responded without missing a beat: "I guess I shouldn't answer that too literally."

So I'm naturally sympathetic to politicians who find themselves similarly embarrassed when they say something stupid. They've all done it. It's the one thing that unites Republicans and Democrats.

My ill-fated Ronan Tynan faux pas was similar to one offered by the king of modern political gaffes, Joe Biden. At a Missouri rally in 2008, Biden asked then-State Sen. Chuck Graham to "stand up" and "let 'em see you," not realizing that Graham is a wheelchair-using paraplegic.

No stranger to mangled public pronouncements, President George W. Bush once made the case for tort reform by lamenting that "too many OB-GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all over this country." Huh? Even Bush's more eloquent successor, Barack Obama, once spoke of having visited "57 states" with "one left to go" during his campaign for president.

The question is, when do the inevitable verbal miscues cross the line from harmless to something worthy of monitoring? Among the 2012 presidential field, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.) has distinguished herself. Among the notables thus far:

During a visit to New Hampshire, she mistakenly declared that the Revolutionary War had begun in the Granite State's town of Concord (as opposed to Concord, Mass.).

In Iowa, she mixed up the birthplace of film legend John Wayne with that of serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

In South Carolina, she exhorted a throng of supporters to celebrate Elvis' birthday on the anniversary of the King's death.

Last week, she lamented the rise of the Soviet Union, despite its collapse in 1991.

It's true that Bachmann isn't the only candidate capable of offering silly public statements that require embarrassing "clarifications" later. And frankly, the mere frequency or volume of misstatements shouldn't call into serious question anybody's fitness to serve as commander in chief. What should be concerning, however, is the nature of Bachmann's blunders. Unlike my Barney Frank gaffe, Biden's "stand up" salute, or Bush's love connection, Bachmann consistently errs in her presentation of simple facts. Hers are usually mistakes, not a function of misspeaking. And there is a difference.

Should the faux pas parade continue throughout the rest of the campaign, it would be fair for primary voters to wonder whether the risk of having an especially gaffe-prone president would outweigh the entertainment value of her "unique" recollection of history.

Or as George W. Bush would say, it would be understandable if these regular inaccuracies come to "resignate with the people" enough to affect their decisions in the voting booth.

Contact Michael Smerconish


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