A Guide to the Gaffe

Gaffes seem to be gushing as much as Gulf Coast oil. John Boehner’s antsy metaphor and Joe Barton’s apology to BP were heartfelt PR disasters. After his interview, General McChrystal was on his own, like a rolling stone. Last month, it was Carly Fiorina caught on camera mocking her general-election opponent Barbara Boxer for hair that was “soooo yesterday.” At first I thought it trivial, then the trivial went viral.

Then there are accusations of sexual misconduct, which have the power to destroy candidates (think Mark Souder) and help them (Nikki Haley of South Carolina).

I have personal experience with gaffe-dom, tossing out a post-9/11 comment that played into the narrative that I was arrogant.

In a world of YouTube, where everyone’s a video camera, publicized moments of misstatement and accusation presumably will only increase. But why do some public people in these cross hairs self-immolate while others endure and prevail? Maybe it’s because they ignore a few simple rules.

Rule No. 1: Does the gaffe fit into a prior negative narrative? When Jimmy Carter chatted about “ethnic purity” in the white suburbs in his 1976 presidential campaign, and Senator Harry Reid opined on President Obama’s “lack of a negro dialect,” each statement seemed to be an out-of-character brain burp. It also helped that, respectively, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. and Mr. Obama exonerated the gaffer.

But when a comment seems to reinforce an ingrained perception, then a public weary of rehearsed lines and carefully crafted ads may seize on it as a betrayal of true character. When President Ford announced in his presidential debate that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” in 1976, it was damaging since he hadn’t been regarded previously as an Einstein. When Senator George Allen of Virginia mocked a student of Indian descent as “Macaca” in 2006-and Senator Trent Lott  previously had lionized Strom Thurmond’s segregationist campaign of 1948-both sounded racist. That Mr. Allen had Confederate flags and an actual noose on his office walls-and that Mr. Lott’s history included too many links to white supremacist groups-meant that their political lives were ruined.

I have personal experience with gaffe-dom. During my 2001 race for City Hall after 9/11, I was asked by a radio interviewer how I would have responded to the calamity if I had been mayor rather than Rudy Giuliani. The right answer was either “I don’t answer hypotheticals” or “He did great.” Period. But when I engaged the question and replied that ideally I could have done as well, “perhaps even better,” it was a dopey answer that played into the narrative that I was “arrogant.” (Moi? I’m better than that!)

Rule No. 2: Does your base stick with you? When Bill Clinton was caught “having sex” with Monica Lewinsky, he was so popular with the Democratic base-especially elected black Democrats-that they stuck by him when the G.O.P. overplayed its hand with impeachment. Today, he’s one of the most respected men in the world. But when my friends Gary Hart in 1984 and Eliot Spitzer in 2006 were publicly exposed, they lacked Mr. Clinton’s deep base of party affection and public support.

Rule No. 3: Can you do a convincing mea culpa? Think Barney Frank 15 years ago when a male prostitute was selling his wares from the basement of Mr. Franks’ basement-or Richard Blumenthal in his Connecticut Senate race this year saying he had served “in” Vietnam, not “during” Vietnam. Each apologized and each had such deep support among liberals and veterans (see Rule No. 2), respectively, that they moved on and up. (Nor did it hurt that Barney was so brainy and funny.)

Rule No. 4: Are you a hypocrite? While no one exactly runs on an anti-family platform, it’s especially damaging when, as with Representative Mark Souder two months back, you’ve been a big family-values Republican preaching morality to others. Forced to admit to an affair with a female staffer-and with whom he had made an abstinence-only TV tape -he didn’t just decline to run but immediately resigned from the House.

In my view, it’s fundamentally stupid to judge a person’s entire public life by a private indiscretion-or a slip of the tongue that doesn’t reflect a character flaw. But tell that to the tabloid media or cable talk shows that need to fill space and airtime. It’s no doubt unfair to punish tired candidates for a single mistake. But those are also the rules when driving on a highway-or being England’s goalie in the World Cup.

So let’s focus more on Fiorina’s bad views on immigration than her bad hair day. Does anyone really prefer faithful presidents like Nixon and Bush over F.D.R., Ike, J.F.K. and Clinton? As Lincoln said of Grant when the general was accused of drinking too much, “all our generals should have a bottle of whatever he’s drinking.”

Those who are unforgiving about innocent mistakes or private misconduct should recall a story attributed to the late congressman Emanuel Celler of Brooklyn. A constituent inspected a chicken at her butcher shop. She picked up one wing, and groaned … then a leg and said, “Feh!” Behind the counter, an exasperated butcher said, “Ma’am, may I ask you a question?” “Yes,” she said. “Could you pass such an inspection?”

 

Mark Green, the former NYC Public Advocate, is the creator and host of a new nationally syndicated radio show, Both Sides Now with Huffington & Matalin.