Tired candidates stumble into season of gaffes

October 30, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

It's beginning to sound a lot like gaffe season in American politics. That's the time when the candidates become so exhausted from endless campaigning that their brains lose contact with the words flowing out of their mouths.

Did somebody say "Joe Biden"?

The Delaware senator and Democratic presidential hopeful stumbled last week when he compared the performance of District of Columbia schools with Iowa's education successes. "There's less than 1 percent of the population of Iowa that is African-American," he said. "There is probably less than 4 or 5 percent that are minorities. What is it in Washington? So look, it goes back to what you start off with, what you're dealing with."

Was he saying that the district's schools have fallen behind because they have too many black kids? Not quite, said his campaign office, which quickly issued a clarifying statement. Mr. Biden was talking about differences related to poverty, not race, the statement said.

I believe him. I'm sure Mr. Biden meant no offense. I am also certain that he thought he was being nice to his opponent, Barack Obama, when he referred to the Illinois senator a few months back as "clean" and "articulate." Little did Mr. Biden know that his faint praise would spark a national dialogue or, in some cases, argument on what should or should not strike black ears as condescending.

As his latest articulation shortfall faded from the headlines, Mr. Biden had a good reason to be grateful for his low poll numbers. News media pay more attention to your goofs when you have a prayer of winning. That's probably why they made a bigger deal out of Republican hopeful Mitt Romney's spontaneous switching of Mr. Obama's name for the similar-sounding name of a Middle Eastern terrorist.

"Look at what Osam, uh, Barack Obama, said just yesterday," the former Massachusetts governor told Greenwood, S.C., businessmen. "Barack Obama, calling on radicals, jihadists of all different types, to come together in Iraq."

Hey, Mr. Romney, don't you mean Osama bin Laden?

Mr. Obama probably was not pleased, but I think candidates of all parties deserve a bit of a break. In the exhausting pace and volumes of verbiage spewed during a presidential campaign, we shouldn't be too quick to condemn politicians for blurting out something that they obviously didn't mean. Most of them provide us with plenty to criticize in the statements that they do mean.

Besides, Mr. Obama found he, too, could be caught in a crack of political correctness. Some of his top gay supporters were outraged that Mr. Obama's three-night gospel tour in South Carolina had booked Donnie McClurkin, a gospel star with an anti-gay reputation.

That's awkward. Mr. McClurkin has detailed what he calls a struggle with gay tendencies and vowed to battle "the curse of homosexuality." Gay activists wanted him dropped from the program, but that could offend a lot of the evangelical South Carolina voters Mr. Obama is trying to reach. Mr. Obama made a decision that echoed King Solomon: He announced that a gay minister would open the weekend concerts and Mr. McClurkin would remain on the bill. As with all compromises, neither side was thrilled by the decision, but that's politics.

Halle Berry, by contrast, immediately tried to take back her joke, made during a taping of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, that a computer-morphed photo of herself with an enlarged nose looked like "my Jewish cousin." Thinking better of it later, the apologetic Oscar winner asked that the remark be deleted before the show aired, and it was. Here's a hint, Halle: Next time you want to make a joke, leave ethnicity out of it. It might not be as funny, but it's safer.

Ms. Berry's controversy pales next to conservative book machine Ann Coulter's assertions on a CNBC show that "we" Christians "just want Jews to be perfected" through conversion. She meant what she said, she said later, and most of the decent world is trying not to care.

Ms. Coulter has a habit of behaving like an attention-craving little kid when she has a book to sell. After all, it is the season for gaffes and other goofy pronouncements. She's apparently found a way to make it profitable.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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