Political Gaffes and Things


Richard W. Crockett


I confess that I resent the idea that if I were to visit the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan that I might be called anti-Semitic, as was Mitt Romney, because the founder of the Ford Motor Company who has been dead for many years now wrote anti-Semitic trash. That is very close to saying that anyone who lives in St. Louis is anti-Semitic because the anti-Semite who flirted with Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany and had nice things to say about “Chancellor Hitler,” flew across the Atlantic Ocean in an airplane called the Spirit of St. Louis. We are speaking here of Henry Ford and Charles A. Lindberg. Maybe we should tear the Ford museum down, not buy Fords and run the Spirit of St. Louis through the aluminum shredder. Also, we could rename St. Louis. But I don’t buy it. How far are we to go back in history to free ourselves of tainted ancestry? Most descendants of European ancestry, the largest group in America, must admit that they may have had ancestors who were dubbed “barbarians,” unless, of course, they were Romans.


Still, Republican candidate for the Presidency, Mitt Romney, ignored the power of symbolism in politics and invited a charge of anti-Semitism by announcing his run for the Presidency at the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Why would he make his announcement there and why is this choice symbolically important? The Ex-Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney sought to re-establish his connection to the state where he grew up, coming from a “car” family and having grown up in Michigan. Romney’s father, George Romney, was the CEO of American Motors, and later Governor of Michigan. (He also ran for president and committed a political gaffe of his own by the candid remark that when he went to Viet Nam and was given the tour, that he was “brainwashed.”) In making this choice for his announcement, young Romney ignored a well-established fact that Henry Ford had a notorious reputation for his anti-Semitic views. Ford published a four-volume anti-Semitic work, The International Jew, in the 1920’s, for which he later publicly apologized. Whether Ford ever really changed his views is not clear to me. In any case this is all symbolically important, keeping in mind that political symbols are condensed forms of ideology whose ideological meaning is in the mind of the observing public. The speech at the Ford Museum acts as a social cue, and this social cue evokes a political “myth,” a set of beliefs, which is in the public mind. Romney’s handlers needed to ask themselves, “What meaning might the public attach to announcing a run for the presidency in front of the Ford Museum, especially when the public is encouraged by one’s political opponents to make the most disagreeable interpretation?”


As far as I know Mitt Romney is about as anti-Semitic as Santa Clause—the fact that Kris Kringle is a German doesn’t make him anti-Semitic. I am not aware that anti-Semitism could be attributable to Romney by his religious connections to Mormonism.  Some of the things that I have heard Mormons say make me think they may believe they are “children of Israel.” However, I don’t think one could understand that a candidate who is also a Mormon is anti-Semitic from his theology. None of this makes a difference at the crass political level. What is crassly relevant politically speaking is less likely to be a candidate’s actual beliefs than what his beliefs may be made to appear to be.


If you want to be anti-Romney, perhaps a worse charge against Romney could be that he is a “flip flopper” on gay marriage and abortion. Of course a “flip flopper” appears unsteady and unable to make decisions, as John Kerry learned. The public ideal is that a politician should never change his mind for expedience, but he should change his mind only when it is clear that he is wrong. Of course, what is right and what is wrong for the politician is determined by the weight of public opinion, and therefore expedience. Most of the Democrats and a good number of Republicans can be accused of changing their minds concerning the war in Iraq. The problem is, the spilled blood of right and wrong runs together with that of the blood of expedience when it comes to the war in Iraq.


Another case of being conscious of political symbols is that of Barak Obama. Now, whether one is a Democrat or a Republican, one has to admit that this guy is an extraordinary political phenomenon. Obama announced his run for the Presidency in Springfield, Illinois in front of the old capitol building where he made references to the first Republican president and national icon, Abraham Lincoln, and where Obama specifically referenced Lincoln’s “house divided” speech. Obama wanted to associate himself with Lincoln’s sentiments and bring and end to political division and rancor. Lincoln warned that, a “house divided against itself cannot stand.” This sentiment accords with Obama’s attempt at mobilizing a spirit of reconciliation in America. Accordingly, his announcement for the Presidency in Springfield, Illinois was more successful than that of Romney in Dearborn, Michigan. The symbolism of place and sentiment worked together more positively.


On the other hand, Obama hit his own political snag last week, which he felt required an apology. And he apologized. Obama made comments to voters in Iowa. In words that to some of us may seem like an unfortunate truth and that to others may seem like an insult, Obama commented that the war “should never have been authorized, and should have never been waged, and on which we’ve now spent $400,000,000, and have seen over 3,000 lives of the bravest young Americans wasted.”  The controversial word is, “wasted.”


So, did Obama put his foot in his mouth, or did he launch the debate on perfectly legitimate and truthful grounds? I believe he did the latter, but he was attacked by some and supported by others. I agree with Obama’s comment, for we have gotten very little out of this war beyond the death of soldiers and marines.  The case against Obama’s comment depends more upon our personal stake in the war than anything else. For example, if a person was a flag-waving pseudo-patriot who mistakenly encouraged a loved one to go fight for “America’s freedom,” and the loved one was killed, our emotional investment as well as our feelings of guilt might cause us to resent Obama’s statement. If on the other hand we had opposed the war from the beginning, we may feel vindicated by the remark. In either case the cruel truth is that over 3,000 Americans have died as a result of this misadventure. While he has apologized to anyone he may have offended, Obama does not need to backtrack very far given the sentiment of the country against the war at this point.


A third political gaffe this last week involved the comment of Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware. In an attempt to compliment an opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Barak Obama, Biden managed to blow it by saying “I mean, you got the first sort of mainstream African-American who’s articulate and bright and clean and a nice looking guy. I mean that’s a storybook man.” Does Biden seem to be complimenting the man while slurring the race? Not cool. This is an example of institutionalized racism. The insult occurs in the judgment of low expectations implied by the language. It is as if we don’t expect to see any of the mentioned positive attributes-- articulateness and brightness and cleanliness and being nice looking--appear in a black American. Well, this is a tough case of “foot-in-mouth disease.” But is Biden a racist? He is probably no more so than many middle class white men in his age group in America today. Not a practicing racist. Simply, he may be guilty of carrying the baggage of institutional racism, to the extent that the culture has a patronizing view of or low expectations for American blacks. He could have attempted justifying this view by citing that America’s inner city schools are still largely segregated and under funded, which delivers most of the under funding to black Americans and therefore provides the conditions for serious disadvantage in the quest for success. It could be argued that his surprise at the emergence of a strong and successful black leader is grounded in the knowledge of the difficult circumstances many blacks face; that their struggle is not because of a racial defect of character, but due to conditions beyond their control. This is a common liberal view historically. Biden may share unconsciously in that with many white, middle class Americans. He is delighted to see Barak Obama in public life and wants to look favorably upon him. And I suspect that if Obama wins the Democratic nomination, Biden would enthusiastically vote for him.  It is perhaps the greatest hazard for liberals, especially white liberals. We can shoot ourselves in the foot with a well-meaning bullet.


The most serious thing that a critic can say of these men is that they have shown bad judgment, or have been thoughtless in a remark which threatens to create a public perception that they are not qualified to be President of the United States. We do, after all expect our President to be flawless in speech and political judgment. If that claim can be made to stick, the gaffe is quite serious. Comedian and commentator Bill Maher has devised a “New Rule.” It is that “there is more to being smart than just not misspeaking.” He goes on, “for this election we need to pick the smartest candidate, not the dullest one, who simply never had a verbal gaffe and said a wrong word or phrase. We’re a super power, not a drinking game. It has to be about leadership not just hitting your buzzer first and remembering to phrase your answer in the form of a question.”