The Biggest Political Gaffes of the Century (So Far)


Everyone makes mistakes, of course. Now imagine your most embarrassing moments caught on film, to be replayed and discussed endlessly for years to come. Once upon a time, lawmakers could get away with a modicum of privacy. But now, every time politician opens his or her mouth someone whips out a cell phone and records the moment for posterity.

Remember when Sarah Palin, as Governor of Alaska, pardoned a Thanksgiving turkey while another turkey was slaughtered in the background? Or that time Dick Cheney shot someone in the face? Or pretty much everything Michelle Bachmann says about the history of the U.S.? (Bachman, by the way, has ratings ranging from “barely true” to “pants on fire” for 24 of her 28 statements rated by the non-partisan Politifact.)

With social media and video-equipped mobile phones making it impossible to get away with anything, politicians these days ought to know what they are letting themselves in for. One would think they’d have the sense to avoid, say, posting intimate photos of themselves on Twitter or soliciting sex in an airport bathroom. Apparently not. Here are some of the biggest political gaffes of the decade, the moments that, thanks to modern media, we will never forgot.

George Allen’s “Macaca” moment

Senator George Allen, a Republican from Virginia, starred in one of the first YouTube-driven political blunders. In August of 2006, while on the campaign trail, he spotted one of his opponent’s campaign volunteers in the crowd at a rally. The staffer, an Indian-American, had a video camera, a fact to which Allen decided to call attention.

“Let’s give a welcome to Macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia,” Allen said, in part. In some cultures, “macaca” is an ethnic slur, although Allen claimed he didn’t know what it meant and said he was referring to the volunteer’s Mohawk-like hairstyle. The video evidence of Allen’s foot-in-mouth moment soon flew across the internet. Once considered a Presidential hopeful, Allen lost his re-election campaign to Democrat James Webb that November.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail

South Carolina governor Mark Sanford unwittingly invented a brand-new sexual euphemism when his staff claimed he was out “hiking the Appalachian Trail” in 2009. Turns out his mystery trip was to Buenos Aires, to visit his long-time lover. Unfortunately for Sanford, he’d made some political enemies who called attention to the governor’s absence, and Sanford’s wife fueled speculation when she didn’t seem terribly concerned about her husband’s disappearance, telling a reporter, “I have not heard from my husband. I am taking care of my children.”

Sanford’s staff, who reportedly were out of the loop as well, tried to put a lid on rumors by saying the governor was hiking along the Appalachian trail, but when his state-owned SUV was discovered at the Columbia, S.C. airport it was clear that someone wasn’t telling the truth. A reporter from the Columbia newspaper The State met Sanford’s flight returning from Argentina, and the story unraveled — along with Sanford’s political career.

Paul Revere’s Ride

With Sarah Palin’s recent cross-country bus tour sparking speculation about a presidential run, her words receive more scrutiny than ever — perhaps unfortunately for her, as a video from early June has renewed concern about the former governor’s grasp of U.S. history. Recorded at Boston’s Old North Church, the video catches Palin in a creative interpretation of Paul Revere’s famous ride:

He who warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms by ringing those bells and, um, making sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that, uh, we were going to be secure and we were going to be free.

Revere was actually warning the colonists of an impending raid by the British, and while Palin faced renewed mockery from late-night comedians, Palin’s supporters tried to rewrite history by altering Revere’s  Wikipedia page to reflect her interpretation.

How Many States?

Lest we be accused of unfairly targeting Republicans, here’s some evidence Democrats have committed their share of blunders as well. President Obama, while often lauded for his speechifying, has managed to flub the current year, a toast to the Queen of England, and even his daughter’s age. Hey, he has a stressful job, and can’t be expected to remember everything, right? But perhaps the most disconcerting gaffe came while he was running for president. On the campaign trail in Oregon in May of 2008, Obama told the crowd he’d been to “57 states,” with only Alaska and Hawaii left to go. Some think he was joking, while some have come up with more sinister theories.

Dean’s Scream

Then there’s Howard Dean, whose presidential hopes were already on a downward slide when he finished third in the Iowa caucuses of 2004. Dean sealed his fate when he followed up this dismal finish with a rousing, and somewhat disconcerting, speech that ended with a sort of screeching primal scream.

The young voters Dean hoped to attract instead used their tech-savvy skills to post remixed sound files and parodies of the speech, and Dean became a political punchline rather than a contender for the Democratic nomination.