Why Covering Gaffes May Be the Most Useful Kind of Political Coverage

“I like being able to fire people.”
—Mitt Romney

“The private sector is doing fine.”
—Barack Obama

Both of these quotes were actually spoken by the candidates to whom they are attributed.  Both are taken out of context:  Romney actually said, “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.”  Obama followed the quoted words with, “Where we’re seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state and local government.”

In addition to being out of context, neither statement conveys quite what the speakers intended.  Romney was making the point that part of what makes free enterprise work is the ability to take your business elsewhere.  Obama was trying to point out that, in a generally shaky economy, the private sector was doing better than the public.  And both have been seized upon as by journalists and political opponents as brief windows to what Romney and Obama, otherwise rigorously disciplined to stay on message, actually believe.

These characteristics make both statements gaffes, in the special definition coined almost thirty years ago by Michael Kinsley, an editor and writer who combines finely tuned insights with a coruscating style. “A gaffe occurs not when a politician lies, but when he tells the truth,”—i.e. says what he actually thinks–Kinsley wrote about a Gary Hart campaign crack that he’d rather be in California than New Jersey.

Right-thinking political journalists see gaffes as the bane of campaign coverage.  “The centrality of the gaffe is an outgrowth of horse race coverage,” writes Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine.  “The increasing speed of campaign coverage surely means that there are more gaffes now than ever before, and thus more opportunities for the soul-crushing stupidity of the process to display itself.”  Washington Post wunderkind Ezra Klein agrees: “The result of our coverage of these press conferences and Q&As,” he writes, “was that voters ended up knowing less than they did before. That’s the saddest part of all.”

That might be true in some parallel political universe.  In that universe, journalists pose questions meant to draw out a candidate on policy issues.  Candidates respond candidly and directly to questions with their actual convictions.

In the universe we actually live in, however, none of those conditions obtain.  Candidates go into interviews or debates determined to say only what is in their own interest, and questioners are intent on breaking through the talking points and throwing the candidates off stride.  It’s like those job interviews that ask you to identify a weakness, a question which the wise job-hunter recognizes as an intelligence test:  Are you stupid enough to alert a prospective employer to a real weakness—I’m an awkward writer.  I find it hard to get to work on time.  I have problems with people telling me what to do.—or are you smart enough to put forward a “weakness”—I work too hard.  I care too much about my work.  I’m too dedicated to the cause.—that is actually a lightly-disguised strength?

Whether the journalists are only reacting to unrelentingly on-message candidates, or the candidates are merely defending themselves against questions designed mainly to elicit embarrassing answers, is impossible to tell.  Maybe both are at fault.

In either case, however, the outcome is the same: The bulk of what passes for political exchange between opposing candidates or between candidates and journalists is predictable and unrewarding.  Genuinely thoughtful questions and candor about anything that really matters are in short supply.

In such a miasma, the gaffe stands out like a halogen lamp.  And, often enough, should.

For the gaffes that catch on do not reveal the speaker as being different than what we thought he was.  Rather they reveal him as being precisely what we thought he was.  Nobody thought that when Romney said “I like being able to fire people” that he was saying that he savors the moment when he summons a subordinate to his office, takes his BlackBerry and key-card, and has security escort him off the premises.  Instead, we saw between the lines what seemed to be a larger truth: that Romney sees the loss of employment as being a fairly neutral part of the great cycle of employment, often beneficial or even necessary to the enterprise or the economy, regrettable for the employee, but not to be unduly lamented or avoided.  And is there any doubt that that is exactly Romney’s view?

So too with Obama’s “The private sector is doing fine” gaffe.  Few could have thought that he believed that a sector characterized by high unemployment, home foreclosures, and short credit is actually “doing fine.”  But it would not be unreasonable to read into the president’s words a belief that the public sector, part of whose purpose is to serve as a safety net for hurts suffered at the hands of the private sector, has a greater claim on federal sympathy and resources. And while Obama is a good deal less transparent than Romney, who would be surprised if this were what the president actually believes?

Why are we more ready to believe that gaffes represent a candidate’s genuine beliefs than his more thought-through statements?  Wikipedia offers an interesting perspective: It describes a “Kinsley gaffe” as being analogous to what is known in the law as an “excited utterance,” an exception to the hearsay rule.  The hearsay rule excludes from evidence statements that merely repeat what someone else has said, because such second-hand statements are less likely to be true than things a witness knows first-hand.  The “excited utterance” exception allows into evidence things that someone else has said but that have been blurted out spontaneously, because such exclamations are less likely to have been manufactured.

So, too, with gaffes.  “I like being able to fire people” and “The private sector is doing fine” were not scripted lines but spontaneous expressions.  In the miasma of political debate, gaffes stand out like beacons of candor—the only candor we may hear from the candidate in a dozen speeches or press conferences.


  1. July 7th, 2012 | 5:34 pm

    Excellent analysis. The general public needs a course on media literacy to get through an election, especially a presidential one.

  2. Fred Phleps
    July 8th, 2012 | 8:59 am

    Although you generously allow that Romney probably does not savor the moment when he actually fires people, I think we have to consider the possibility that Romney is Richard Gere in Pretty Woman before the love of a good prostitute transforms him. The ruthless Gere character seemed to take considerable pleasure in any profitable deal no matter how destructive to the lives of others. Bain Capital does not build companies through long-term investment the way Warren Buffett does. Bain is a jackal, tearing at the weak and half-dead. I bet Romney enjoyed being CEO.

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