Has a stench of phoniness invaded your nostrils? Do the cliches from our public servants seem extra thick? Campaign season is upon us, so it’s time to cast a cynical eye upon the men and women who are seeking our support. Right now, politicians are combing through the cities, districts, states they hope to represent next term, using exaggerated accents and downhome lingo to win the hearts and minds of prospective voters. Although most seem extra smarmy, their dedication is admirable. They spend every waking hour shaking hands, delivering speeches and making decisions that could make or break their political careers. But the flurry of constant activity can bring forth some costly errors, as evidenced by Phil Davison’s recent rant. Here are 10 historically infamous campaign blunders that have proven that politicians are in fact human.
- Allen’s “macaca” moment
Coming into the 2006 political campaign season, George Allen was heavily favored to reclaim his US Senate seat in Virginia and he was considered a hot prospect to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 – until he unleashed a seldom-used slur during a campaign stop in Breaks, Virginia. Allen referred to an Indian-American as “macaca” as he was filming the event. The slur’s definition varies, but can be described as a racial epithet pertaining to South Asian people. Despite the unclear meaning, the context in which Allen used the term didn’t help his claim that it was an innocent comment:
“This fellow here over here with the yellow shirt – Macaca – or whatever his name is. He’s with my opponent. Let’s give a welcome to Macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.”
Allen eventually lost the race to Democrat Jim Webb by less than four-tenths of a percentage point.
- Jackson’s apparent prejudice
Jesse Jackson’s 1984 candidacy in the Democratic presidential primary was considered a longshot during the onset of the campaign, but he surprised many pundits by winning five primaries and caucuses. His legitimacy was short-lived, however, as he used the pejorative term “Hymies” in reference to Jews and called New York “Hymietown” while speaking to Washington Post reporter Milton Coleman. Once pundits caught wind of his blunder, he denied having said it, claiming that the Jews were conspiring against him.
- Hart’s untamed heart
Gary Hart narrowly lost the 1984 Democratic primary race to Walter Mondale and became the party’s frontrunner to reclaim the presidency in 1988. But before the primary season started, Hart had to fight off rumors that he was having an extramarital affair, going so far as to challenge the press to follow him around. On the same day he issued the challenge, the Miami Herald reported the scandal – after following him – and model Donna Rice was thrust into the national spotlight. It was later discovered that Hart had spent the night with Rice on a yacht aptly named Monkey Business. He withdrew from the race a week after the story broke.
- Perot goes MIA
Ross Perot was the ultimate underdog in 1992 as the third party candidate, but he garnered an astounding amount of support as he portrayed himself as the ultimate Washington outsider. During the summer, he actually led the race, as his message resonated with Americans who were tired of establishment politicians. But in mid-July, he suddenly decided to drop out, causing many of his supporters to feel betrayed and costing him much of their support. Perot later claimed that he made the decision because the Bush campaign threatened to release digitally altered photographs of his daughter, who was about to get married. Two weeks later, he was back in the race, but the campaign was foundering.
- Perot’s vice admiral
“Who am I? Why am I here?” Vice Admiral James Stockdale’s opening line to the 1992 vice presidential debate was well-received, but his subsequent performance left people wondering if the questions were sincere. Phil Hartman made matters worse with his spot-on parody on Saturday Night Live, immortalizing Stockdale as an all-time bad choice for a vice presidential candidate. The Perot/Stockdale ticket eventually lost the election, but they did earn 19 percent of the vote – and unprecedented amount for a third party. Stockdale is remembered today as a man who was thrust into unenviable circumstances. He had no formal preparation and he wasn’t notified of his participation until a week before the debate.
- Dean scream
Howard Dean is another Democratic primary frontrunner who sealed his fate with his own reckless abandon. Although it wasn’t quite as bad as, say, cheating on his wife with a model aboard luxury yacht, the Dean scream did give voters the perception that he wasn’t presidential. The red-faced rant came after a third-place finish in the 2004 Iowa Caucus as he was attempting to garner enthusiasm from his supporters during a post-caucus rally. The words leading to the scream will forever live in campaign blunder infamy:
“Not only are we going to New Hampshire, Tom Harkin, we’re going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico, and we’re going to California and Texas and New York … And we’re going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan, and then we’re going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House! Yeah!!!“
- McCain and “The Agents of Intolerance”
True mavericks never pull punches. But John McCain’s straight talk during the 2000 Republican primary caused him to further lose the support of Evangelicals, whom his primary foe, George W. Bush, was heavily courting. McCain labeled evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance” before the Virginia primary, which came several days after a crucial loss in the South Carolina primary. Along with a brutal set of attack ads from organizations that supported the Bush campaign, the remarks helped fuel Bush’s momentum, and he went on to win Virginia and nine states on Super Tuesday en route to the Republican nomination.
- Dukakis becomes a toy soldier
In the 1988 presidential race, Michael Dukakis put himself in the line of fire by posing in an Abrams tank while sporting a helmet and a not-so-reassuring grin. The objective was to prove to the electorate that he wasn’t weak on defense, as his opponent George HW Bush – a pilot during World War II – had depicted him. The video became the subject of Bush attack ads, which helped level the Dukakis campaign once and for all. Today, the image is remembered as a massive public relations disaster that no current or future campaigns hope to duplicate.
- Romney’s brainwashing
Four decades before his son made a run for the Republican nomination, George Romney attempted to do the same. Going into the 1968 Republican primary, he was considered the frontrunner to challenge Lyndon Johnson, who was responsible for the escalation of the Vietnam War. Romney previously supported the war, but adopted a more critical view of it as the public became more cynical. Much too his dismay, an offhand remark he had made to a Detroit television host was picked up by the national media, causing his poll numbers to plummet and candidacy to die. Romney said, “When I came back from Vietnam, I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get.” Amid the outcry of criticism from fellow politicians were Vermont Governor Philip H. Hoff’s comments, which encapsulated the view of many voters: “Either he’s a most naive man or he lacks judgment.”
- Dewey’s do-nothing campaign
It was Thomas Dewey’s presidential race to lose in 1948, and he certainly did his part to ensure Harry Truman had a fighting chance. Because of the three-way split in the Democratic Party, Dewey believed the campaign simply had to avoid making mistakes in order to win, so the candidate relied on vague and non-committal statements. On the other hand, Truman’s campaign operated aggressively, calling out Dewey on his refusal to speak with substance. Dewey and the media remained oblivious as Truman gained support. In fact, many pollsters stopped polling weeks before the election. The result of Dewey’s do-nothing campaign was a stunning victory for Truman and a well-known erroneous headline in the Chicago Daily Tribune, reading “Dewey defeats Truman.”