It’s hard to believe, but there are only 18 short months left until the next president of the United States is elected to office. Only 500 or so days remaining for candidates to somehow fit in corn dogs in Iowa, pandering in Florida, kowtowing in Ohio, and brown-nosing in Colorado, all the while ignoring most of the other states and collecting a billion dollars to run mudslinging television commercials on an endless loop. Oh, and let us not forget making a fool of yourself. In addition to running the longest campaigns in the history of human civilization, and spending more money than God doing it, it is a time-honored tradition in presidential campaigns to commit mind-boggling blunders, gaffes and bungles along the way.
The 2016 election promises to be no different; we have already gotten a sneak peak at idiocies to come from Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, and Carly Fiorina. There is little doubt that there are many more missteps awaiting us in the coming 18 months. In the meantime, here are eight of the most mindboggling political stumbles in presidential campaigns of the recent past.
1. You say potato, I say potatoe.
No list of presidential campaign whoppers would be complete without Dan Quayle. Quayle was a little-known frat boy senator from Indiana when George Bush the Elder tapped him to be his vice-presidential running mate in 1988. Ostensibly added as a way to inject youth and energy to the ticket, Quayle proved to be a goldmine for late-night talk show comedians and a constant pain in the neck to Bush 41. Despite being destroyed in the 1988 vice-presidential debate by Democrat Lloyd Bentsen, the Bush-Quayle ticket prevailed in 1988 by running one of the dirtiest campaigns in history and tarring the reputation of Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate.
In 1992, running for re-election, Bush again tapped Quayle as his running mate, although there was inside-the-Beltway talk of replacing him. During this campaign Quayle made maybe the funniest gaffe in presidential political history. Visiting an elementary school in New Jersey for a photo op, Quayle watched as a student proved his spelling prowess by correctly writing the word “potato” on the chalkboard. Quayle told the young man he had forgotten a letter and urged him to add an “e” to the end of the word. When the boy doubtfully complied, Quayle happily cried, “There you go!” As many a comic pointed out in the days to follow, Quayle’s spelling smarts were less than stellar. The Bush team lost its re-election bid.
2. Oops, what was that third thing again?
The 2012 Republican campaign for the presidential nomination was marked by a plethora of less-than-stellar candidates, including Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, and Michele Bachmann, collectively known as the “clown car.” Fear was rampant in the GOP that a formidable opponent to Barack Obama would not step up. A hue and cry went out to Rick Perry. Good looking, folksy, a successful governor of Texas, and a good campaigner, Perry was looked at as the GOP savior. That is, until he actually threw his hat in the ring. Perry proved himself to be unexciting, and finally, inept. Still, nothing equaled the moment in a November 2011 debate among the candidates when Perry was asked how he would trim government spending. He replied that three entire departments would be cut the moment he was sworn in. “It’s three agencies of government when I get there that are gone: commerce, education and the um, what’s the third one there? Let’s see. Oh, five: commerce, education and the um, um… The third agency of government I would do away with—the education, the uh, the commerce and let’s see….Sorry, oops.” Perry was out within two months.
Perry now says a health problem was the issue, and is talking about another run in 2016.
3. Is it hot in here?
In 1960, Richard Nixon was one of the most well-known politicians in America. He had been vice-president for eight years under Dwight Eisenhower. He had conducted communist witch hunts earlier in his career, which made him hated among liberals but respected among the conservative voting blocs. The country was fairly prosperous, and Nixon had a giant head-start in the race for the presidency. His opponent, John F. Kennedy, seemed to have little to offer, on the surface, besides his good looks and beautiful wife, Jackie. In the campaign, however, the public discovered that Jack Kennedy had a razor-sharp wit and intellect, oratorical panache and sharp political instincts. Still, Nixon was the presumptive man to beat, and the odds were in his favor to capture the presidency. That is, until the first 1960 debate between the two candidates. Anyone who listened to the debate on radio thought that Nixon had won the debate, hands down. However, for the first time, the debate was televised, and a huge audience watched. While JFK appeared vibrant and dashing, smiling, and in control, Richard Nixon was profusely sweating, constantly wiping his brow, pale and chalky looking, his eyes shifty.
What the audience didn’t know was that Nixon had recently been in the hospital for a knee operation and had contracted a staph infection. He had lost a lot of weight and was still suffering the after-effects of the infection. Nixon held his own in the following debates, but never recovered from the first one. He lost in one of the narrowest elections ever. Nixon did, however learn his lesson. When he ran again in 1968, he refused to debate the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey. That time, he won.
4a. The theoretical rape of Kitty.
Despite the hosannas from GOP worshippers, when the Ronald Reagan presidency limped to its conclusion, Reagan was not the sainted man present-day Republicans paint him as. His administration was plagued by second-term scandal and the election of his successor, Vice-President George Herbert Walker Bush was by no means assured. In fact, headed into the election, Democrat Michael Dukakis was leading Bush in most polls by 20 points. It seemed assured that Dukakis could start composing his inaugural address. Then, the October 1988 debate happened. Debate moderator, CNN newsman Bernard Shaw took the opportunity to ask what many analysts have labeled a “gotcha” question: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Where the audience was waiting for an impassioned response, Dukakis instead gave a clinical one that made the country think he had ice water in his veins: “No, I don’t, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life,” he said, in a bloodless monotone. It was technically the right answer. But it did seem to hurt him.
Viewers who watched him display no visible emotional reaction to the theoretical rape and murder of his loved one almost immediately wrote him off. His poll numbers dropped overnight and he never recovered. Bush trampled him in the general election.
4b. G.I. Joe Dukakis
Not to be outdone by himself, Michael Dukakis made a worse misstep in the 1988 campaign. Painted by Bush 41 (soon-to-be) as soft on defense, Dukakis decided to show the world what a tough commander-in-chief he would be. Appearing for a photo op at a General Dynamics facility in Michigan, the short-of-stature governor was filmed riding around in an M1A1 battle tank, in a helmet that looked too small for his large head, waving and pointing at onlookers. Dukakis reminded people not of a general but a little boy playing soldier. It was immediately apparent to many of Dukakis’ handlers that this was a bad idea, but louder voices prevailed. The Bush campaign made quick use of the footage in a TV commercial highlighting Dukakis’ record against defense spending as film of him waving and smiling in the tank rolled in the background. It was the final nail in the coffin for the Dukakis campaign.
5. The sigh heard ‘round the world.
The year 2000 was supposed to be the year Al Gore, who paid his dues as Vice-President to Bill Clinton for eight years, ascended to the job he had been trying to win ever since 1988, when he first ran for (and lost) the Democratic presidential nomination. Coming off eight years of prosperity and relative peace, it should have been a piece of cake. Unfortunately for Gore, he had two things going against him. One was Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal, and Gore’s subsequent decision to distance himself from his boss. Most agree it was a tactical mistake. Despite Clinton’s problems, he remained popular throughout the country and his absence hurt the Gore campaign.
The second problem Gore had was worse: his personality. Perceived as wooden and arrogant, Gore struggled to present himself as someone other than the smartest kid in the class. Running against the folksy George W. Bush, Gore, in comparison, was never the guy you wanted to share a beer with, and alas, Americans cared about that. It was in the presidential debates that year that Gore sealed his fate. Despite his obvious smarts compared to Bush, Gore could not stop himself from sighing and rolling his eyes and interrupting every Bush debate answer. It happened so often that Saturday Night Live parodied it during the campaign.
Other comedians jumped aboard the Gore ridicule train, and his unappealing brand was reinforced. Gore then inexplicably tried to intimidate Bush during one of the debates, walking up to him and invading his space as Bush tried to answer a question. Perhaps Gore felt it would show him as tough, but it only made him seem like a bully. It was enough to sway some voters in an incredibly close election and throw the decision into the Supreme Court’s conservative hands, which awarded the presidency to Bush 43.
6. Communists? What communists?
Gerald Ford was the nation’s first and only unelected president (unless you want to count George W. Bush), having attained the office through Richard Nixon’s resignation after the Watergate scandal. In fact, Ford was also an unelected vice-president, after being chosen for the office by Nixon after Spiro Agnew also resigned in disgrace following a bribery scandal. These facts made for an unusual 1976 campaign for the presidency, as both candidates, Ford and Jimmy Carter, were essentially introducing themselves to the public for the first time. Carter was a virtually unknown former governor of Georgia who presented himself as a religious, honest, down-to-earth peanut farmer who would cleanse the nation of the stain of Watergate. Ford tried hard to overcome Nixon’s legacy of scandal and pushed his experience in Washington and his knowledge of the presidency from having served out Nixon’s second term. Ford’s challenge was also to overcome the perception that he was dumb and clumsy, an image that was reinforced when he tripped on camera, which Chevy Chase parodied on Saturday Night Live.
It was in this context that Ford committed the blunder that would cost him the election that year. In his second debate with Carter, Ford, attempting to look tough, proclaimed, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.” It was an incredible statement to make, since Eastern Europe was a virtual Soviet playground, and even the debate moderator was stunned at the error, asking Ford to restate it to make sure he understood what he had heard. Ford’s statement only reinforced the public perception that he was not smart enough to be president, and they voted their sentiment, placing Carter in the office.
7. Sarah Palin, news junkie.
The 2008 presidential election pitted John McCain, elderly senator and former war hero from Arizona, against Barack Obama, the first African American ever to gain the presidential nomination from a major political party. Obama was an acclaimed orator and was perceived to be the frontrunner for the office, after having dispatched his main rival, Hillary Clinton, in the Democratic primaries. McCain was seen as old and angry, having lost the luster of his maverick reputation in the Republican primaries by pandering to right-wing interests.
This changed, however, in one stunning moment when McCain announced that his running mate would be Sarah Palin, an unknown governor from Alaska. Palin would be the second woman ever chosen to run for vice-president (after Geraldine Ferraro in 1984), and her oratorical abilities were on wide display during the Republican Convention, as she charmed the base and electrified the media. McCain surged in the polls and it looked like he had a fighting chance.
Sadly for McCain, however, Palin’s alleged charms dimmed the longer she commanded the stage. While she was an effective attack dog for the campaign, the traditional role of vice-presidential candidate, her knowledge of basic facts became more apparent every time she opened her mouth. Stories began to circulate that in private she was demanding and petty, more interested in fame than public service. The last straw came when she had a one-on-one interview with news anchor Katie Couric. It was clear she had not prepared adequately for the interview, and she tried to buttonhole rote answers into any question Couric asked. Other than Roe v. Wade, she was not able to name a single Supreme Court decision that was of importance to her, nor a single newspaper or magazine that she read (“All of ‘em. Any of ‘em”). She even claimed foreign policy expertise because Russian President Putin liked to fly over Alaskan airspace.
So ridiculous was Palin’s performance that she elevated Tina Fey from comic to superstar. In the end, only the far-right-wing base remained loyal to Palin, and she was an albatross around McCain’s neck for the rest of the campaign. McCain was trounced on Election Day and Obama became our 44th president.
8. The scream that wasn’t.
It was 2004 and the U.S. was in the middle of two wars, one (maybe) justified in Afghanistan, and one definitely not justified in Iraq. Casualties were mounting and there was no end in sight. Bush administration assurances that we would be greeted in Iraq as liberators proved to be as bogus as the weapons of mass destruction. The public was growing increasingly disenchanted with the carnage, and out of that discontent rose an unexpected candidate for the Democratic nomination for President, Governor Howard Dean of Vermont. The progressive Dean climbed in the polls on the promise to reclaim the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” and to end the war in Iraq immediately. There were echoes of the Eugene McCarthy campaign in 1968, which, though unsuccessful, toppled the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Dean became the frontrunner and there was genuine talk of a threat to the Bush White House.
Then came the Iowa caucuses. Although the polls showed Dean leading the Democratic pack, which included eventual nominee Senator John Kerry, the more conservative voters in Iowa would have none of it. When caucus night was over, Dean finished not first, but third, after Kerry and North Carolina Senator John Edwards. If the balloon had not burst, it had at least been somewhat deflated. The actual bursting came later that evening, as Dean addressed the large crowd at his headquarters. Shouting over the din, Dean promised, “Not only are we going to New Hampshire…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!” Then he let out a scream.
While Dean was probably just trying to be heard above the intensely noisy room, he was the only one who was miked, and the whole speech came off as mildly deranged. Dean was visited in the following days by the kiss of death to any political campaign, comedic derision. Late-night hosts had a field day with “the scream,” and the campaign never recovered. In the next contest, in New Hampshire, he finished in second place after having led there in the polls by 30% just the week before. A month later Dean withdrew from the contest.