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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 January, 2004, 11:44 GMT
Bigmouth strikes again
By Stephen Tomkins

The fact that a British woman may face a prison sentence in the US for joking at customs that she had bombs in her bag is bad news for us all. Civil liberties aside, if saying something stupid is a crime, an awful lot of people are in trouble.

Total Complete Stupidity Syndrome afflicts all of us now and again. The symptoms include verbal incontinence, a breakdown of the brain's defence systems and a ferocious appetite for eating words. The best we can hope for is that it strikes when we are among a supportive network of friends and family, rather than in front of a microphone, journalists or US customs officials.

Samantha Marson
I wasn't thinking, that was my problem
Samantha Marson

You might remember the Reverend Lee Rayfield, for example, who in 2002 received an amusing e-mail which offered a scientific analysis of Father Christmas. It calculated that at the speed he would need to reach in order to deliver all his presents, he would burn up in .004 seconds.

Mr Rayfield thought this would make a fun basis for his Christmas talk, but when he delivered it in the primary school carol service, it left a lot of tearful five-year-olds asking mummy where their presents were going to come from now Santa had exploded. "I am sitting here now" he told a reporter, "wondering how I managed not to realise." And haven't we all? Let him who is without gaffes cast the first stone.

Those in public life are particularly prone to spine-tingling blunders, because put a microphone in front of any of us for long enough and we'll embarrass ourselves sooner or later. Which of us, if we had to talk on air for hours a day, wouldn't lose concentration and say that the Queen Mother smells of wee, as Sara Cox did on Radio One?

Bush and Cheney share a joke
Mr Bush and Mr Cheney share a private comment
Or which of us, if invited to speak at a conference on domestic violence in a Maryland college, would be able to stop ourselves saying that we wanted "to shoot Britney Spears", as Kendel Ehrlich, the wife of Maryland's governor did in October?

That said, there are certain public figures with a unique gift for saying the stupidest thing possible. Think of Jerry Falwell, the Virginian minister and campaigner. Two days after the 11 September tragedies, he said on TV that he blamed US feminists, homosexuals and abortionists for the attack: "I point the finger in their face and say 'You helped this happen'." Later that day he apologised.

The following October he was apologising again for saying "I think Muhammad was a terrorist," on CBS. Most bizarrely of all, in February 1999, he denounced the UK's own Tinky Winky for being gay. I'm not aware that he has apologised for that one.

Taking the mic

A strain of foot-in-mouth disease that particularly afflicts politicians is the That Mic Wasn't On Was It? variety. When George W Bush pointed the journalist Adam Clymer out to Dick Cheney as a "major league asshole from the New York Times," his impromptu character reference was broadcast every 10 minutes throughout the evening on TV.

Duke of Edinburgh
The Duke puts things into perspective
Last week a Spanish politician did the same thing to Tony Blair. On live TV, not realising his mic was on, Jose Bono said "Hey, and our colleague Blair? He's a complete dickhead." It makes you wonder whether Caesar and Anthony called each other "bum face" behind closed doors. We will never know.

But it's hard to beat the style and consistency of the Duke of Edinburgh.

To a Scottish driving instructor: "How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?"

In the 1980s recession: "Everybody was saying we must have more leisure. Now they are complaining they are unemployed."

To British students in China: "If you stay here much longer you'll all be slitty-eyed."

To a Kenyan woman: "You are a woman, aren't you?"

Puts things into perspective, doesn't it? Samantha Marson, now on bail but due to appear in court in Miami, has a long way to go.

The BBC's Jeremy Cooke
"The end of a nightmare"

Vicar tells children Santa is dead
10 Dec 02  |  England


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