WASHINGTON -- A flippant remark by presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts -- that what this country needs, like Iraq, is "regime change" -- has some fellow Democrats gnashing their teeth and Republican foes crying crocodile tears.
Mr. Kerry is being bashed by Boston columnists and others for giving political ammunition to the enemy camp, which in turn is wailing that in his wisecrack he was comparing President Bush to Saddam Hussein.
All Mr. Kerry obviously was doing was playing on Mr. Bush's polite euphemism for killing or otherwise getting rid of the Iraq dictator and his gang of cutthroats. But veteran hatchet men such as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay have reacted as if Mr. Kerry was advocating rubbing out the American president. Other Republicans have questioned the patriotism of the man who is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War.
The whole brouhaha is a commentary on the decline of the state of humor in politics.
Yet such is the political tenor of the times that Mr. Kerry will probably have to spend days or even weeks dodging the barbs his harmless if perhaps careless observation are bringing his way.
Indeed, the battlefield of presidential politics is strewn with the carcasses of candidates who engaged in flippancy or simply unthinking remarks that provided fodder for the opposition, sometimes with only temporary political damage, sometimes with deep and lasting scars.
For example, the famously pious Jimmy Carter allowed in a 1976 Playboy interview that he had "lusted in my heart." But he had more than sufficient personal righteousness to overcome the confession and was elected.
Not so fortunate was Republican Gov. George Romney of Michigan, who reported after a trip to Vietnam in 1967 that he had been "brainwashed" by American generals, and saw his presidential aspirations crumble. Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy led the ridicule by observing that "I would have thought a light rinse would have done it."
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a 1984 Democratic candidate, got in hot water by referring to New York as "Hymietown" in a conversation with a Washington Post reporter, who printed the remark. There probably went whatever Jewish vote there had been for Mr. Jackson, which probably wasn't all that much anyway.
In the midst of the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon was moved to blurt out to an audience, "I am not a crook." It wasn't the defensive comment that did him in, however. It was the smoking gun of a White House tape for words uttered in private that clearly implicated him in the cover-up of the scandal.
Other presidential candidates or presidents have had a special talent for slipping the noose after remarks made in the heat of political turmoil. In most recent memory was Bill Clinton's "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." Before that was his dodge as a candidate in 1992 that he had "never broken the laws of my country" against smoking pot, confessing he had puffed the stuff in England but "I didn't inhale."
The senior President Bush as a candidate in 1980 first denied calling rival Ronald Reagan's solution to solving the budget deficit "voodoo economics," but later embraced it as Mr. Reagan's running mate, thus avoiding what on another occasion he called "deep doo-doo."
As for Mr. Reagan, he had to live down a careless remark into an open radio microphone in which he observed in giving a voice level: "My fellow Americans: I am pleased to tell you I just signed legislation outlawing Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes!" He was, however, already president, and both he and the Soviet Union survived that remark.
So there's a long history to the phenomenon of presidential candidates and presidents talking themselves into trouble, but it seldom has been politically fatal.
That won't stop the Republicans from piling on Senator Kerry, though it will take some doing to squeeze much more mileage out of his call for "regime change" at home. We have a peaceful mechanism to pursue it called the next election, which is obviously what Mr. Kerry was suggesting.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.