Hard pill to swallow: The truth behind the gaffe

by Beacon Staff • April 16, 2008

Liberal pundit Michael Kinsley once remarked that a political gaffe is what happens when a politician tells the truth. This campaign season, there has been no better example of this than the uproar caused by Sen. Barack Obama's now-infamous remarks concerning rural, working Americans.

At a fundraiser in San Francisco two weeks ago, Obama was explaining his uphill struggle to win over lower and middle class voters, the type that might be turned off by his background and even his race.

The senator stated: "It's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations [with the economy]."

It is difficult to predict the comment's long-ranging effects. His opposition has already begun lambasting the statements. Always one to divert attention from her faltering campaign, Sen. Hillary Clinton immediately commenced referencing the incident at every opportunity.

The mockery is unfortunate. Though the remarks may have been bad politics, they were refreshingly honest and sophisticated-evidence of the Kinsley theory that gaffes and honesty are often one and the same.

They also serve to remind us that, in politics, what kind of gaffe you make is directly related to what kind of person you are. Much like a dog often resembles his owner, you can tell what kind of public servant someone is by the way in which they screw up.

During the 1988 race for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Joe Biden was forced to throw in the towel after it was discovered that he plagiarized passages from speeches by British politician Neil Kinnock.

He lifted bits and pieces of Kinnock's life story, with Biden claiming that he was the first in his family to attend college. That was true of the Brit, but not the senator from Delaware.

The incident was not surprising, as Biden is known in Congress as a bit of a loudmouth. It's no shock that he would run out of words to talk about himself, and have to use somebody else's instead.

Sen. George Allen of Virginia also fell victim to his own tongue. A rising star, a powerful and popular politician who appealed to conservatives and moderates alike, he was rumored to be a favorite to receive this year's GOP presidential nomination.

That all changed during the 2006 midterms, when he called an opponent's campaign worker a "macaca"-a racial slur-and then attempted to claim he had no idea what the insult meant, or even that it was an insult at all.

Those who knew Allen must have figured the gaffe a long time in the making, as there was always talk of Allen's racial insensitivity and creepy Confederate flag fetish. Former Sen. Allen was a classless man, and he made a characteristically classless gaffe.

This current campaign has been no different. Clinton is pouncing on Obama's statement because she herself was recently caught in a verbal trip-up. A few weeks ago, she claimed to have come under sniper fire during a 1996 trip to Bosnia, which turned out to be totally false.

As a woman running for president, Clinton has stressed her grit and experience. Yet the former first family is well known for its rocky relationship with truth, so it makes sense that what amounts to her biggest gaffe consisted of a brazen lie meant to further a calculated image.

In terms of his current troubles, Sen. Obama's political sin was that he told the truth. It is well documented (as well as completely obvious) that anti-immigration sentiment rises when the economy is bad for lower-income Americans and that religion is one place where people turn for solace.

It's no secret either that many of these voters are bitter over outsourcing and globalization. Clinton is now gambling that they are so worked up as to not see the truth in the senator's observations.

"Bittergate" may keep Pennsylvania out of Obama's hands. It may even cost him the Democratic nomination. But voters who constantly demand truth from politicians should recognize it when they see it.

Obama's gaffe was talking to adults like adults instead of feeding them soundbytes.

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Patrick Boyle is a senior organizational and political communication major and managing editor of The Beacon.