A Guide to Gaffe-Gate

07/07/2010 09:17 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Gaffes seem to be gushing as much as Gulf Coast oil. John Boehner's antsy metaphor, Joe Barton's apology to BP and Michael Steele's analysis that Obama got us into Afghanistan were heartfelt PR disasters. After his interview, Gen. McChrystal was on his own, like a rolling stone. Last, month it was Carly Fiorina caught on camera mocking her general election opponent Barbara Boxer for hair that was "soooo yesterday." At first I thought it trivial, then the trivial went viral.

And then pols can stumble because of accusations of sexual misconduct, which either ends their careers (Eric Massa, Mark Souder) or helps their careers (Nikki Haley).
In a world of YouTube where everyone's a video camera, publicized moments of misstatement and accusation presumably will only increase. But why do some public people in these crosshairs self-immolate while others endure and prevail? Here's a Guide to Gaffes:

Rule #1: Does the gaffe fit into a prior negative narrative? When is a gaffe only a gaffe? Context counts.

When Jimmy Carter chatted about "ethnic purity" in white suburbs in his 1976 presidential campaign and Senator Harry Reid opined on President Obama's "lack of a negro dialect," each statement seemed to be an out-of-character brain burp. It also helped that, respectively, Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. and Obama exonerated the gaffer.

But when a comment seems to reinforce a prior problem, then a public weary of rehearsed lines and carefully crafted ads may seize on it as a betrayal of true character. When President Ford announced in his presidential debate that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" in 1976, it was politically damaging since he hadn't been regarded previously as an Einstein. When Senator George Allen of Virginia mocked a student of Indian descent as "Macaca" in 2006 -- and Senator Trent Lott previously had lionized Strom Thurmond's segregationist campaign of 1948 -- both sounded racist. That Allen had confederate flags and an actual noose on his office walls - and that Lott's history included too many links to white supremacist groups -- their political lives were ruined.

Jesse Jackson's private comment about NYC being "Hymietown" in 1984 played into Jewish fears of black anti-Semitism. When then-Senator John Edwards was caught on camera combing his hair in a graphically preening way, it seemed to play (even pre-Rielle Hunter) into a pretty-boy context that wasn't quite right.

I have some personal experience with gaffe-gate. During my 2001 race for City Hall after 9/11, I was asked by a radio interviewer how I would have responded to that calamity if I had been mayor rather than Giuliani. The right answer was either "I don't answer hypotheticals" or "he did great," period. But when I engaged the question and replied that ideally I could have done as well, "perhaps even better," it was a dopey answer that played into the narrative that I was "arrogant." (Moi? I'm better than that!) At the time I was dismayed that Giuliani had been trying to exploit the terrorist attack to overturn term limits so he could run again -- but that inside analysis did not exonerate my foot-in-mouth moment. As Michael Kinsley has famously noted, "a gaffe in politics is not when you lie but when you tell the truth."

Rule #2: Does your base stick with you?

When Bill Clinton was caught having some kind of sex with Monica Lewinsky, he was so popular with the Democratic base -- especially elected Black Democrats -- that they stuck with him when the GOP overplayed their hand with impeachment. Today he's probably one of the three most respected men in the world. But when my friends Gary Hart in 1984 and Eliot Spitzer in 2006 were publicly exposed, they lacked Clinton's deep base of party affection and public support.

Rule #3: Can you do a convincing mea culpa?

Think Barney Frank 15 years ago when a male prostitute was selling his wares from the basement of his home -- or Richard Blumenthal in his Connecticut Senate race this year saying he had served "in" Vietnam not "during" Vietnam. Each apologized and each had such deep support among liberals and veterans (see Rule #2, immediately above), respectively, that they moved on and up. (Nor did it hurt that Barney was so brainy and funny.)

Rule #4: Are you a hypocrite? While no one exactly runs on an anti-family platform, it's especially damaging when, as with Rep. Souder two months back, you've been a big family-values Republican preaching morality to others. Forced to admit to an affair with a woman he called a "part-time staffer" ("full-time" would have been better?) -- and with whom he had made an abstinence-only TV tape -- he didn't just decline to run but immediately resigned from the House. Unlike Joe Louis's opponents, he couldn't run and he couldn't hide.

Look, in my view it's fundamentally stupid to judge a person's entire public life by a private indiscretion -- or a slip of the tongue that doesn't reflect a character flaw. But tell that to the tabloid media or cable talk shows which need to fill space and air-time. That sensationalism will pre-empt substance in politics is about as predictable as Russell Crowe's temper. It's no doubt unfair to punish tired candidates for even one mistake. But then those are also the rules when driving on a highway -- or being England's goalie in its World Cup game against the U.S.

So let's focus more on Carly Fiorina's bad views on immigration than her bad hair day...on Jackson's public civil rights lifetime than a one-time private blunder. Does anyone really prefer faithful Presidents like Nixon and Bush over FDR, Ike, JFK and Clinton? As Lincoln said of Grant when the general was accused of drinking too much, "all our generals should have a bottle of whatever he's drinking."

All those who are unforgiving about innocent mistakes or private misconduct should recall a story attributed to the late Congressman Emanuel Celler of Brooklyn. A fastidious constituent inspected a chicken at her butcher shop. She picked up one wing, and groaned. ...then a leg and said "feh!" Behind the counter, an exasperated butcher said, "Ma'am, may I ask you a question?" "Yes," she said. "Could you pass such an inspection?"

This piece originally appeared today in his Inside/Out column in the New York Observer.