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14 January 2008

When the wheels fall off the wagon

Even in the era of slick presentation, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic can still ambush th

By Paul Evans

As the US primaries bandwagon rolls from state to state, little is more certain to cause contenders troubled sleep than the dread thought of blowing it in public. Try as they might to remain statesmanlike and avoid causing gross offence to the electorate, White House hopefuls cannot stop themselves from committing needless faux pas in very public arenas. And don’t we enjoy it when they do?

The 2004 Presidential campaign provided a few cringeworthy examples, but the gaffe which continues to resonate is Howard Dean’s “scream”, the echo of which continues to send a chill through Democrats everywhere. Dean’s enthusiastic oratory and ability to work the party faithful into a frenzy made him a highly popular grassroots figure. But footage of the hysterical, almost animal, whooping with which he greeted supporters at an Iowa campaign event handed a gift to his opponents and effectively sounded the death knell of his own presidential ambitions.

The current campaign is already proving a fertile source of gaffes. During the opening skirmishes of late 2006, Virginia Senator George Allen squandered what hope he had, by delivering a racist slur on camera, in what quickly became a Youtube favourite amongst internet activists. The Republican, whose visits to Iowa and New Hampshire were widely regarded as indicating presidential intent, repeatedly described a young Democrat activist of Indian descent who was filming his campaign event as “macaca”, a racial epithet meaning monkey. The jibe was ugly and voters were turned off. Three months later he had lost his seat in the Senate, and with it his shot at the top job.

Meanwhile, Democrat challenger Joe Biden launched his (now aborted) Presidential bid with a public faltering start. In an interview with the New York Observer he appeared to praise Barack Obama with bizarrely ill-advised words, hailing him as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” It wasn’t first time that Biden had hijacked his own campaign. His 1988 bid for the Democratic nomination came to a premature end when he was found to have plagiarised a campaign speech.

The man from whom that speech was “borrowed”, Neil Kinnock, knows a thing or two about public misjudgements himself. On this side of the Atlantic we’re considerably more squeamish about our politicians displaying public eccentricity, and when Kinnock emitted a series of triumphalist yells at Labour’s 1992 Sheffield Rally, he watched his party’s poll lead evaporate overnight.

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There are occasions though, when what media and opponents confidently assert to be a gaffe has little or no negative impact on the candidate. John McCain (R-Ariz) shocked press at a public meeting last April, by singing about bombing Iran to the tune of the Beach Boy’s ‘Barbara Ann’, in response to a question on foreign policy. But the public laughed along with his faux bellicose jocularity, perhaps fondly recalling Reagan’s mistakenly broadcast Cold War quip about bombing the Soviet Union, and the McCain campaign ploughed on.

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It’s not only words which matter in the reckoning, but who delivers them. An endless stream of errors and ludicrous pronouncements didn’t impede George W. Bush’s re-election, and over here Boris Johnson enjoys public indulgence for the vast bulk of his transgressions. Embracing a buffoonish persona can purchase limited immunity, because it’s pomposity and perceived superiority that really grind on the electorate.

Is it a sort of political fatalism that leads candidates to dash their own ambitions, often in the most absurd ways? No, it’s just that despite evidence to the contrary, politicians are humans who make irrational mistakes. And because the rest of us are human too, we’ll always love watching them screw up. Roll on 2008 – may it be a gaffe-packed year.