'I Could Have Said That Better'

To err is human. To forgive, not always possible when it comes to presidential candidates. Every candidate makes at least one major gaffe during a campaign. The lesson of modern politics is that surviving a gaffe depends on how you respond once it becomes public fodder. You’ve got to clarify what you’ve said, make it sound as if you meant something else, and apologize if necessary. It musn’t be allowed to fester in the press, reinforce an already negative perception, or reveal the unexpected. If any of these things happen, it could spell “curtains” for your campaign, or at the very least, force you into days of explanations and clarifications.

Example 1: Last week, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani equated himself with the rescue workers of September 11. “I was at Ground Zero as often, if not more, than most of the workers,” he said. “I was there working with them. I was exposed to exactly the same things they were exposed to. So in that sense, I’m one of them.”

Many police officers and firefighters didn’t appreciate this comment, as they were the ones digging through the rubble for weeks at a time with their bare hands. The mayor had provided steady leadership during a great crisis, but the comparison to the rescue workers was not welcome. Giuliani apologized, saying he misspoke and that his words were in no way meant to detract from the selfless sacrifices made by those responders.

The reason the gaffe got play: it reflected a perception of Rudy as a self-centered authoritarian.

Example 2: Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney also made a gaffe last week, when he was asked whether his five sons would serve in the military. “One of the ways that my sons are showing support for our nation,” he said, “is helping me get elected because they think I’d be a great president.”

His mistake and Rudy’s were cut from the same mold. Equating his sons’ traipsing around Iowa on his behalf to our men and women dodging IEDs in Iraq didn’t go over well. Romney apologized: “I misspoke there. I didn’t mean in any way to compare service in the country with my boys….It’s not service to the country. It’s service to me. And there’s just no comparison.”

The reason the gaffe got play: it played into a perception of Romney as too smooth to be for real.

Example 3: Senator Barack Obama demonstrated his neophyte status when he was asked by a group of reporters whether, as president, he would use nuclear weapons. “I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance,” he said, followed by a pause, “including civilians.” Huh? He quickly added, “Let me scratch that. There’s been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That’s not on the table.”

Despite the uproar that ensued, he didn’t even try to backtrack from this one, because he’s a liberal and he believes it.

The reason the gaffe got play: it reinforced a perception of Obama as not ready for primetime.

Example 4: Several months ago, Senator Hillary Clinton was asked whether she thought homosexuality was immoral. She dodged the question, infuriating scores of one of her core constituencies: gays and lesbians. Of not answering, she didn’t exactly apologize, saying, “It was a mistake,” she later acknowledged. “I should have put it in a broader context.” (Whatever that means!)

The reason the gaffe got play: it reinforced a perception of Hillary as a hyper-scripted opportunist.

Another reason that gaffe stuck: because she so rarely makes one. The only two modern candidates to pull off the total denial of mistakes and hypocrisy are Bill and Hillary Clinton. They are masters of claiming they meant something else when presented with a past quote of theirs that makes them look bad. Most recently, she charged Obama with being “naïve and irresponsible” for saying that as president, he’d talk to America’s enemies. She had said the exact same thing four months before, and when confronted with her words, claimed the circumstances were “different.” She also criticized Obama for taking nuclear weapons “off the table,” and when presented with a 2006 quote in which she had said the same thing, again she claimed the situations were “different.”

Bald-faced denial that flies in the face of facts is a particular Clintonian talent. No other candidate should try this at home (or on the campaign trail).

If left unanswered, a gaffe will metastasize in the media and ultimately undermine and even destroy a candidacy. If the mistake reinforces an already negative image, it will get magnified into a bigger character issue or provide evidence of something suspected but until the gaffe, unproven. (See the “Dean scream”). If the gaffe surprises people by revealing something unexpectedly negative, it can end the candidacy. (See former Senator George Allen’s “macaca” crack.)

There are gaffes, and then there are gaffes. None of the slips so far rival those committed by President Ford when he liberated eastern Europe in a debate with Governor Carter in 1976 or President Clinton when he lied about having relations with “that woman” in 1998. But the current candidates need to swerve around anything that may reinforce preexisting negative perceptions. In this YouTube age, only those who know how to effectively finesse a gaffe will survive.