Gaffes a grand stump tradition

Misues: To err is human - and often disastrous when presidential candidates go off the script.

January 25, 2004|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN STAFF

MANCHESTER, N.H. - In this era of presidential political consultants carefully plotting the candidate's every move to avoid the pitfalls of spontaneity, the uncalculated moment still intrudes, usually to the detriment of the candidate.

The latest example - former Gov. Howard Dean's manic outburst in Des Moines after his dismal third-place finish in Iowa - was in a long tradition of self-inflicted political wounds by presidential aspirants left briefly to their own devices.

Ironically, one of the most famously calculating consultants, the late Republican Lee Atwater, first gave a name to the phenomenon, referring to "defining moments" that crystallize public attitudes already existing about a candidate, almost always in a way that hurts.

As manager of the senior George Bush's presidential campaign in 1988, Atwater overheard voters talking about a prisoner in Massachusetts who had been furloughed for a weekend by Gov. Michael Dukakis and had then raped a woman in Maryland.

Atwater seized on the story as a defining moment to illustrate the Bush campaign's charge that the liberal Dukakis was soft on crime. The result was the Willie Horton television commercial showing convicts leaving prison through a revolving door, as a narrator told the story of the Dukakis furlough policy.

In the same campaign, Dukakis created such a moment by agreeing to don an Army helmet and climb into a tank at a factory outside Detroit, looking ludicrous in the process.

But the defining moment was a staple in presidential politics long before Atwater came up with the label. Sometimes such a moment was constructive, as when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, running in 1952, proclaimed, "I will go to Korea" to end that war and cemented his election victory over Democrat Adlai E. Stevenson.

Much more often, the outcome has been bad for the candidate, and not always because of something said. In 1960, Richard Nixon's haggard appearance and 5 o'clock shadow in his first televised debate with John Kennedy was said to have worked against him among many viewers.

Frequently, the defining moment has played into a candidate weakness or vulnerability already perceived by voters. In the 1968 presidential campaign, Republican Gov. George Romney of Michigan was having difficulty articulating his position on the Vietnam War when he said in a Detroit radio interview that he had received a "brainwashing" by American generals and other officials in South Vietnam.

The remark was immediately seized upon as evidence of Romney's confusion and indecisiveness, sending his candidacy plunging. A Democratic presidential aspirant at the time, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, wisecracked, "I would have thought a light rinse would have done it."

In 1972, in one of the most memorable defining moments, Democratic candidate Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine was widely judged as lacking presidential temperament when he erupted against Manchester Union Leader publisher William Loeb for printing unfavorable remarks about Muskie's wife. As he spoke outside the newspaper in a blizzard, snowflakes -or, some said, tears - rolled down Muskie's cheeks, conveying to many that he was either too angry or too soft to occupy the White House, and he never did.

Also in 1972, Democratic Sen. George McGovern defined himself as indecisive by first vowing he was "1,000 percent" behind his original running mate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, whose previous shock therapy had been disclosed, and then turning around and kicking Eagleton off the Democratic ticket.

In 1976, vice presidential nominee Sen. Robert Dole angrily labeled World Wars I and II "Democrat wars," giving Democratic nominee Walter Mondale the opportunity to question Dole's fairness and temperament.

Later in the same campaign, President Gerald R. Ford seemed to convey intellectual confusion by insisting in a debate against Democrat Jimmy Carter that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination. It took aides a week to get Ford to acknowledge he had misread, or at least misspoken about, recent history.

In 1980, Carter contributed to the catalog of spontaneous embarrassments in a debate with Republican Ronald Reagan by saying he had sought advice from his pre-teen daughter Amy on questions of nuclear proliferation. And Reagan created still another such moment when he asked voters, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Their answer on election day sent Carter into retirement.

Four years later, Reagan in effect resolved misgivings about his age (73 at the time) and ability to function under pressure with another golden moment. Responding to a question by Henry Trewhitt of The Sun in a debate with the younger Mondale, Reagan quipped, "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." Mondale said later, "I knew when I walked off that platform ... that the election was over."

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