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Page last updated at 16:55 GMT, Friday, 9 May 2008 17:55 UK

Not the gaffer, but the gaffee

George Bush

By Clive James

Forget about the gaffe, it's the media mindset that makes so much of gaffes that is the real issue, says Clive James.

Step forward anyone who has never made a gaffe. But that very instruction would be a gaffe if you delivered it to an audience of people in wheelchairs.

You would be in the same verbal slide-area as President Bush, who instructed a press correspondent to stop hiding behind his dark glasses, and it turned out that the correspondent was legally blind. But really President Bush is in the same verbal slide-area as us. We all make gaffes when speaking impromptu, and the only remarkable thing is that we don't do it more often.

The American presidential election is still six months away and judging from the current coverage you would think that the outcome was going to be decided by gaffes. In the mini-election still being fought out between the Democrat contenders, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, most of the news between contests in the individual states is provided by whether or not either candidate has made a gaffe lately.

Clive James
Dan Quayle took most of the heat by never wavering in his capacity to reduce the English language to a heap of twitching wreckage

As they were bound to, because both the contenders are human beings, the gaffes keep coming, although with nothing like the copiousness of the press attention which is devoted to them. Admittedly some of the gaffes sound revealing.

Hilary Clinton really shouldn't have said that she once landed in Bosnia under sniper fire when she didn't. Nor should Barack Obama have said that 10,000 people died in a Kansas tornado when the real number of deaths was ten. The most that these supposedly revealing gaffes revealed, however, was that either of these two senators can get carried away, just like you and me, although you and I will never be called upon to stay cool in the Situation Room.

Senator Clinton apologised for her gaffe later and Senator Obama corrected himself almost immediately. And really most of their gaffes are on that comparatively small scale.

Reigning world champion

Obama has got himself in a real tangle with his ties to a preacher who proclaims that Aids was an invention of the US government to victimise African-Americans. Obama's repudiation of those ties came late, but that wasn't a gaffe, it was a strategic error, probably arising out of loyalty. In declining order of importance, a true gaffe reveals an unfortunate underlying belief, or ignorance, or an inability to choose words.

That last kind of gaffe is normally the most frequent, but even by so trivial a measure there have been remarkably few gaffes from the main players in this fearfully long run-up to the presidential election. Perhaps they have all learned a lesson from the reigning world champion gaffe-maker, who is still in the White House.

Hillary Clinton
Clinton "misspoke" when she said she had been under sniper fire

President Bush was thinking on his feet when he composed the poetic masterpiece "families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream".

But President Bush already had a solid track record of talking like that before he got anywhere near the White House. Clearly those who voted for him thought it didn't matter, because they approved of what they took to be his underlying beliefs. There are whole books of Bushisms available and I won't indulge myself now by picking the plums.

The most radiant examples have been routinely quoted in the newspapers for years on end, yet few of them are totally impenetrable. You can usually tell what he set out to mean before the English language got its remorseless hands on his throat.

If you don't like what he set out to mean, of course, it's easy to argue that his twisted language is the expression of a twisted soul. Either way, his gaffes long ago ceased to tell us anything we didn't know. What they continue to do is tell us what he doesn't know.

Repeated warnings

The general impression, to put it as politely as one can, is of a lack of historical awareness that ranks President Bush several rungs below President Reagan. With the help of his busy staff, Reagan made a gaffe in Germany in 1985, when he wished a peaceful rest to the German soldiers buried at Bitburg.

Despite repeated warnings, somebody had neglected to note the significance of the fact that a contingent of the buried soldiers had once belonged to the SS.

Barack Obama
Obama said 10,000 people had died in a Kansas tornado

Reagan's detractors ran a mile with the story, but in fact it was inconceivable that Reagan had a morally neutral attitude towards Nazism, and he visited the Bergen-Belsen memorial shortly afterwards, making his feelings clear.

His feelings always had been clear - it was just his language that wasn't. He subsequently made a much more important, because much more revealing, gaffe, when he assured Israeli leaders that he had never forgotten the scenes he witnessed when the extermination camps were liberated.

But he forgot to say that he wasn't there. He was in Hollywood at the time, where he must have seen the footage, but the effect of his statement was to give a false impression, like Hillary saying that she had landed under sniper fire.

Those, if you like, are the gaffes that count. But Bush has made few of those. And he is not even the all-time American champion of verbal inadequacy. The standards were set forever by a name now remembered for nothing else, J Danforth Quayle.

English mangled

Younger listeners might need telling that Dan Quayle was vice president of the US during the administration of the current President Bush's father, George HW Bush. George HW himself was no master of cogent speech. When his writers gave him a word like "vision" he would go on television and start talking about "the vision thing".

Luckily for him, Dan Quayle took most of the heat by never wavering in his capacity to reduce the English language to a heap of twitching wreckage. Sometimes there were complete sentences. One of them was: "If we do not succeed then we run the risk of failure."

Do not needlessly endanger your lives until I give you the signal
Dwight Eisenhower

Another was: "We're going to have the best-educated American people in the world." And then there was: "The future will be better tomorrow."

In all those cases, you could tell roughly what he must have meant. But he went beyond that, and especially when talking about America's future in space. Something about space excited Dan Quayle. "It's time," he said, "for the human race to enter the solar system."

There were scientists listening and they couldn't figure it out. It was still some kind of sentence though. Quayle was at his most creative when he got beyond the structure of a single sentence and embarked on a free-form excursion that sometimes ended where it started but facing in the wrong direction.

As I hold on to my temples with both hands, let me quote you an example. "My friends, no matter how rough the road may be, we can and we will never, never, surrender to what is right."

Speaker choice

And yet, and yet. Even with Quayle at his John Coltrane-like heights of dissonant improvisation, you could hazard a guess as to what he roughly might have meant. What we were listening to, with emotions ranging from disgust to sheer delight, was the sound of democracy.

If you have a choice between speakers, some of them will speak better than others, but it isn't always the elegant speaker who has the competence for office, and quite often the best qualified candidate is at a loss for words.

If verbal bumbling seems to be more prevalent all the time, it is mainly because the newspapers now miss nothing. Until the end of WWII, when tape recorders arrived, reporters would neaten up what they heard when they wrote it down in shorthand.

But President Eisenhower was already a victim of press precision when he was not yet even a candidate. He was still commander of Allied Forces in Europe when he addressed his troops thus: "Do not needlessly endanger your lives until I give you the signal."

With his verbal handicap already widely recognised, he went on to become a president whose fitness for office was never in real doubt. Inevitably he was mocked for some of his decisions, but nobody thought that his tangled syntax proved him a fool.

And indeed all the evidence suggests that Churchillian phrase-making has never been an advantage in American politics. JFK was meant to be the exception, but I never much liked a too well-balanced rhetorical exhortation like "ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country". It sounded manufactured, and in fact it was, by a speechwriter.

Nixon mistake

Borrowed or not, JFK's eloquence didn't stop him foolishly invading Cuba, or ignoring the CIA's advice and putting US military personnel on the ground in Vietnam. I preferred the bumblers.

When Nixon mistakenly injected his own wife's name into a debate and said "America can't stand pat", at least it was a human moment. If Nixon had really been the perfectly calculating Machiavellian, he would have made no gaffes at all.

The threat now isn't from the public figure who makes gaffes, but from the pumped-up media coverage that gives the gaffes disproportionate attention, or even manufactures the gaffe.

President Bush's real achievement in the gaffe area is so mountainous that you would think it unnecessary to add anything artificial, but it happened when he appeared to say that he thought Nelson Mandela was dead. That wasn't what he meant. He only meant that there were no Nelson Mandela figures left alive in Iraq because Saddam Hussein had killed them all.

What Senator Obama really thinks about race relations in America can be deduced from a thoughtful speech which can be read in its entirety on the web, which is already proving a valuable supplement to the press. When we can read the whole speech we will be less likely to be swayed by the soundbite.

That even goes for President Bush, who wasn't being entirely foolish, just sounding like it as usual, when he said "you never know what your history is going to be like until long after you're gone".

Below is a selection of your comments.

Clive no doubt had looked up "stand pat" before using it as an example of how Richard Nixon missed being a flawless public speaker by injecting his wife's name into a statement. Merriam Webster indicates that the phrase dates to around 1904 and means "to be stubbornly conservative" and "resists change". I doubt that Mrs Nixon would have been offended though it may have become a dinner table joke.
Kevin Sherlock, Houston USA

I can't help but think that we take our politicians too seriously on this side of the pond and to take the advice of a Dan Quayle about the virtues of running the risk of failure if we don't succeed had me in stitches of laughter. And this coming a vice president who spelt potato with an e.
David Brian Hamer, Wakefield, England

Is it not necessary also to distinguish between a gaffe and a lie? In politics, not all lies are gaffes, although to tell a lie which can be proved to be such is a gaffe (the Clinton and, arguably, Reagan examples). Nevertheless, I'm glad to see someone attacking this issue. Too often, any gaffe is taken to signify secret beliefs on the part of the speaker, and only their political backers step forward to deny this. Perhaps the media should be more objective.
Chris, Cambridge, UK

Prince Phillip is another victim of the media's gaffe beat-up. I spoke to someone who was with the Prince when he was talking with some Australian Aboriginal men that the media claimed he had offended. In actual fact, they had roared with laughter and joined in the joke. In countries where elections are not marked by violence they are marked by hollow slickness: never mind what the policies are, does the candidate have good teeth, a pleasant voice and a photogenic family?
Lyn Wright, Tasmania, Australia

Gaffes do not hurt, they make you laugh at the person and judge his speech upon your attitude toward him. Their effect on others across the oceans, especially if they come from US President, is that we feel pity for the American people whom we like and also fear if these gaffes come true, as the one Bush said lately about the crusades war which he waived all over the Islamic countries. You just need to look at the map with a balanced and fair judgement and then you will see that it is not gaffes but amateur politicians who play with words and with people without considering religion or wise policy.
Magda a Rahman, Cairo, Egypt

Clive has a point. Sometimes the folks that appear foolish through a gaffe-prone style are the best folks to lead at a time of crisis. For example, the Northern Rock episode could have been played out in a much more lively way, if only G. Brown and A. Darling had sought the advice of finance guru D Quayle: "Bank failures are caused by depositors who don't deposit enough money to cover losses due to mismanagement."
G Butchart, Blairgowrie, Scotland

Clive James left out two of my personal favourites. The first, from George W Bush, "most of our imports come from abroad." The second was Dan Quayle's unsuccessful attempt at quoting the long-standing slogan of the United Negro College Fund, which is - A mind is a terrible thing to waste. However, when Quayle was addressing a UNCF banquet, it came out as "a mind is a terrible thing to lose."
Lyda, Washington, DC, US

Thank heavens for someone being given the opportunity to be realistic about the human fallibility amongst politicians and the media pressure to exaggerate the importance of the mistakes adversely. This article should be read, noted & acted upon by all the media. But my suspicion is that Mr James' much needed common sense will be ignored because it is the hype that makes the headlines.
Brian Mead, Barnet, Hertfordhire

It's not the one or two gaffes that count, it's the repeated stupid gaffes that count. And Bush is the undisputed leader of them all. Yes, that includes the simpleton named Ronnie Raygun. And your assertion that maybe Obama and Clinton learned something from Bush has to be the all-time greatest leap of faith ever. Neither one is anywhere near the class of imbecile that Bush inhabits nor could they learn anything from a man with nothing to teach. Bush's big problem is that he's too stupid to even know history, let alone quote it properly.
Walter Tobias, Chicago, IL

Dear England, you are making fools of yourselves with jealousy of American life. George Bush is a great man. Loved by MILLIONS. I would suggest that you look at your PM instead of writing of American leadership. You have made yourself look so small... so very small. The planes leaving from Manchester and London to America are full of people on holiday. This is a great country, with a great President. Do we write of you? No. We are above that.
Colleen Benedict, New York

I was in the audience when you delivered some of the above thoughts on the Bush discontinuity between addled brain and under-rehearsed mouth when you appeared at the Perth Concert Hall. Very funny then and very funny now.
Duncan Fraser, Perth, Australia


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