Political Gaffes

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Daniel Mallia is an HNN intern and a student at Fordham University.

They Said What?

Rick Perry: The Sixteenth-Century American Revolution?

"...We fought the revolution in the sixteenth century...to get away from the kind of onerous crown."

—Rick Perry [October 11, 2011]

The Tea Party seems to be having a great deal of difficulty getting the facts of America's beginnings straight this year.  In a history discussion after the October 11 Republican debate, Rick Perry managed to add another mistake to the growing list.

Perry was more than a just little historically inaccurate—try two centuries off the mark.  The sixteenth century refers, of course, to the 1500s.  But, every American school child knows, if nothing else, the critical year of the American Revolution was 1776, placing the revolution in the eighteenth century.

Furthermore, the American Revolution was not a give or take two centuries sort of situation, because the simple fact was there weren't any (English) Americans to stage a revolution in the sixteenth century.  That century was instead largely dominated by continuing exploration of the North American continent, by the likes of Henry Hudson, Giovanni da Verrazano and many others.  The first lasting colonial town wasn't even established until the early seventeenth century, at Jamestown, Virginia.  Even the famous Mayflower pilgrims, who started the Plymouth colony in the 1620s, hadn't arrived by the time Perry indicated. 

To be fair, Perry correctly identified our enemy during the Revolution, but he may want to avoid such history discussions for the time being.

Herman Cain: African-Americans Have Been "Brainwashed"?

"...Many African-Americans have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view. I have received some of that same vitriol simply because I am running for the Republican nomination as a conservative. So it's just brainwashing and people not being open-minded, pure and simple."

Herman Cain [September 28, 2011]

As Wolf Blitzer immediately pointed out, "brainwashed" is a strong word.  In fact, it was the wrong word.  Though he did go on to say that one-third, or more, of the African American community is open-minded and would likely even vote for him, Herman Cain made an historically unsupported generalization.

Cain did not specify when he thought such brainwashing had occurred, but it certainly couldn't have been after the Civil War.  African Americans were grateful to Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, and his Republican-dominated Congress—the same Congress which ratified the Thirteen, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution.  Though many of the freedoms intended for African Americans were obstructed for quite some time across the country, their vote was unsurprisingly Republican.

This trend began to change in the middle of the twentieth century, under Democratic presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945) and Harry S. Truman (1945-1953). Their policies, and Truman's desegregation of the military, led to an increasing number of African American votes for the Democratic Party.

The real tipping point came in the 1960s. The Republican Party lost the majority of the African American vote in its 1964 presidential nomination of Senator Barry Goldwater, who strongly opposed the Civil Rights Act.  Furthermore, the party began to turn away from its African American constituency and cater to its large white support base. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party, which had a history of opposition to African American voting, actually took advantage of the opportunity and began to develop a strong African American support base, which it has largely retained until today.

In the present day there is no rule that the African American community will vote one way or another.  There has been no brainwashing.  They simply pay attention to politics and policies, and the Republican Party has lost its tradition of reaching out to the community. As a member of that community who is old enough to remember Goldwater's 1964 nomination, Cain should know better.

Rick Perry Thinks Global Warming is Wrong Because of … Galileo?

"The science [of global warming] is not settled....  The idea that we would put Americans’ economy at jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet to me is just nonsense/ Just because you have a group of scientists who stood up and said here is the fact. Galileo got outvoted for a spell."

Rick Perry [September 7, 2011]

Millions of Americans have suffered at the hands of extreme weather, with the prospect of more disruption to come, and they’re looking for a presidential candidate to offer a plan for dealing with climate change. Instead, Texas governor Rick Perry denies that there’s even a problem, and to support his view he’s cited Galileo Galilei, the Renaissance scientist who was persecuted by the Catholic Church for his advocacy of a heliocentric model of the universe and who died in 1642.

To be fair to Perry, he wasn’t citing Galileo’s climate expertise—he was saying that though Galileo was right about the sun revolving around the Earth, he didn’t have the support of the scientific community.

That’s almost completely backwards. Galileo was a man of mathematics, science and empirical fact, and he was building on the theories of Nicolas Copernicus and Tycho Brahe, who had proposed that the Earth revolved around the sun decades earlier.

It was the Catholic Church, not the scientific community, that persecuted Galileo and attempted to suppress scientific truths for religious reasons. For a man with Perry’s record of religious activism, it’s a particularly painful gaffe.

According to Sarah Palin, Paul Revere Warned the British

"He who warned, uh, 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."

—Sarah Palin [June 2, 2011]

"We were going to be secure and we were going to be free" may rhyme with "one if by land, two if by sea" but that doesn't mean former Alaska governor Sarah Palin was very close to the facts about American silversmith and patriot Paul Revere.  In a short statement during her visit to Christ Church in the City of Boston, also known as Old North Church, Palin managed to rewrite an American history classic.

Every American knows or should know that on the night of April 18, 1775, two lanterns were hung, at Paul Revere's order, in the steeple of the Old North Church in Boston.  It was a warning signal to his fellow American patriots across the Charles River that the British were on their way to Concord and Lexington by sea.

The lantern signal was but one part of Revere's famous ride across the countryside, in which he warned multiple towns including Lexington itself.  The whole event was, somewhat inaccurately, memorialized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem 'Paul Revere's Ride,' which contains the famous line "one if by land, two if by sea."

Palin has Revere as something of a stubborn and tough American patriot, defiantly ringing bells and shooting off shots as a message to the British that we were not going to lay down our arms.  If Revere's warning to the Massachusetts towns had been heard by the British, they too would have been warned.  But the British did not need any notice that they should bring their own weapons to the hunt for American weapon stockpiles.  Palin's gaffe was one more sign that some politicians need to reread the American history books, lest we start to remember Revere as the American who made sure the British came prepared to Lexington and Concord.

It's OK, Herman Cain Hasn't Read the Constitution Either

"We don't need to rewrite the constitution of the United States—rewrite it? We need to re-read the Constitution and enforce the Constitution! ...[A]nd I know that there are some people who are not going to do that, so, for the benefit of those who are not going to read it because they don't want us to go by the Constitution, there's a little section in there that talks about "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. ...When you get to the part about "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," don't stop right there, keep reading! Because that's when it says "When any form of government becomes destructive of those ideals it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it." We've got some altering, and some abolishing to do!"

—Herman Cain [May 21, 2011]

Revising and rehearsing your speech to perfection might be a valuable step before you announce your candidacy for the upcoming presidential election. Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain abandoned that simple piece of advice, and instead took the occasion of his announcement speech to provide his audience with a misinformed lecture on American history.

The problem with Cain's speech is the embarrassing confusion between the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. That little section about "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" and the principle of our right to abolish a government which betrays our ideals, is not in the Constitution but rather in an earlier document, the Declaration of Independence.

On July 4th, 1776, the Continental Congress, with signatures from all thirteen American states, issued the Declaration of Independence. Preceding Cain’s line were the accusations of misgovernment against the Crown and more notably, the principles held dear by American patriots, under which they would fight in the ensuing years—the same principles with which they established their new Republic.

Drafted and adopted in 1787, the Constitution, on the other hand, is the written embodiment and cornerstone of the United States government. It was written with the same principles in mind that were put forth in the Declaration of Independence—indeed they were made manifest in the structure of the new government of the United States. But that does not mean that the documents are interchangeable. They each served their own purpose and are individually significant. Clearly, Herman Cain needs to do a little more research for the next time he decides to lecture his audience and his opponents on the founding of the United States.

Rick Santorum: A Torture Expert?

"...everything I've read shows that we would not have gotten this information as to who this man [Osama bin Laden] was if it had not been gotten information from people who were subject to enhanced interrogation.  And so this idea that we didn't ask that question while Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was being waterboarded, he [John McCain] doesn't understand how enhanced interrogation works.  I mean, you break somebody, and after they're broken, they become cooperative.  And that's when we got this information.  And one thing led to another, and led to another, and that's how we ended up with bin Laden."

Rick Santorum [May 17, 2011]

Torturing captured terrorists for the purpose of carrying out a successful 'War on Terror' has been a topic of much debate in recent years—a debate that was reignited by the assassination of Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011.  Rick Santorum has argued that the waterboarding of captives provided vital information which led the U.S. straight to bin Laden.  John McCain, a notable figure of the opposition, has argued against the morality and usefulness of waterboarding.  Regardless of what he believes, Santorum could not have possibly made a more distasteful, unfounded statement about his opponent.

Given his allegation of a lack of understanding, one would expect Santorum to have his own experience.  In this respect, he falls short. Santorum has never served in America's armed forces, nor has he ever tortured a prisoner nor himself been tortured.  On the other hand Senator John McCain's experienceis well established—he flew jets in the Vietnam War, and paid a heavy price for his service.  After a number of successful missions he was shot down over Vietnam in 1967.  During the next five-and-a-half years, as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese in the 'Hanoi Hilton,' he was subjected to brutal torture, as his captors sought to gain vital intelligence from him.  Due to injuries sustained during his crash, and the subsequent torture and denial of medical care, McCain is physically unable to raise his arms above his head.

Santorum may not have intended for his statement to have personal ramifications, but his words were nonetheless poorly chosen.  There is in fact little doubt that McCain has an intimate understanding of the workings of "enhanced interrogation" and Santorum has only magnified his political folly by refusing to apologize to McCain.

Michele Bachmann's Concord Mix-up

"You're the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord."

Michele Bachmann [March 12, 2011]

Earlier this year, in March, Michele Bachmann spoke to local residents of New Hampshire - and informed them that they lived in the state where the "shot heard around the world" was fired. It was likely just as much of a surprise to those residents, as it was to the rest of the nation.

Bachmann was referring to none other than the legendary first shot(s) of the American Revolution, fired in 1775 during the battles of Lexington and Concord.  The problem, of course, is that Lexington and Concord are not in New Hampshire, but rather in neighboring Massachusetts.  To her credit, there is indeed a Concord, New Hampshire, but not the Concord from the beginning of the Revolution.

The gaffe can be interpreted as something of an innocent geographical mix-up, but it was not Bachmann's first American history mistake.  Nor, as some news agencies pointed out, was it a fitting mistake, as Bachmann is a key representative of the Tea Party, which draws its name from the 1773 Boston Tea Party, another key moment of the Revolutionary era.

Michele Bachmann Thinks the Founding Fathers Fought Against Slavery

"We know there was slavery that was still tolerated when the nation began. We know that was an evil - and it was a scourge, and a blot, and a stain upon our history. But we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents [The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution] worked tirelessly, until slavery was no more in the United States. ...Men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country."

Michele Bachmann [January 21, 2011]

Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann's speech is deserves an A for effort and pro-American sentiments, but an F for facts.  Few today would dispute her view of slavery as "a stain upon our history," but Bachmann made a dire mistake by writing those same sentiments into early American history.

The Founding Fathers were aware of the glaring, inherent contradiction in promoting liberty and proclaiming all men equal, but denying freedom and equality to a significant portion of the American population. But even they were not distanced from the problem:  George Washington and Thomas Jefferson themselves owned slaves.  It was an uncomfortable issue for the Founding Fathers.  It is often said Jefferson in fact meant all white men are created equal when he drafted the Declaration of Independence, but his other writings demonstrate an internal debate.

Regardless of how any of the individual Founding Fathers may have felt, there was no unified or tireless effort to eliminate slavery on their part.  It was instead shoved under the proverbial rug. In 1787, the constitutional convention resolved the issue of how slaves would factor into state representation through the three-fifths compromise.  Congress was indeed granted the power to stop the slave trade, but not for another twenty years.  The practice of slavery was left alone just as it was when the Declaration of Independence was drafted.  Slavery was an integral part of Southern economic life and a key to maintaining the support of Southern states for the new Republic—early America could not afford to push the issue. 

Finally, despite Bachmann's insistence, John Quincy Adams never has, and likely never will be, considered one of the Founding Fathers. Born in 1767 he was far too young and though he did strive to end slavery, it was not until later, in the 1800s.

Michele Bachmann was primarily guilty of wishful thinking.  But though we may desire that figures in history, especially our own Founding Fathers, had acted differently, history simply cannot be rewritten.

Biden Not So Sure About FDR and TV

"When the stock market crashed Franklin Roosevelt got on television and didn't just talk about the, you know, the princes of greed. He said, 'look, here's what happened.'"

Joseph Biden [September 23, 2008]

Mere seconds after informing CBS' Katie Couric that "part of what a leader does, is to instill confidence, is demonstrate that he or she knows what they're talking about," 2008 Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Biden demonstrated that he didn't know what he was talking about.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an inspiring leader and communicator, but not exactly as Biden suggested.

To be fair, Roosevelt did exhibit considerable skill as a leader during a time of economic crisis. Biden was attempting to refer to Roosevelt's famous 'fireside chats,' in which he would reach out to speak to Americans in their own homes, to tell them about the state of economic affairs, and later on, war progress. The problem with Biden's account is that the medium Roosevelt utilized to accomplish this was radio, not television.  In the 1930s, television was still in its infancy and was not popularized until much later in the late 1940s and 1950s.

But there is another flaw in Biden's account. Roosevelt was president from 1933 to 1945.  The great stock market crash that touched off the Great Depression happened in 1929.  Herbert Hoover was president at that time, and he has not been as affectionately remembered—Hoovervilles ring a bell?  Roosevelt would not have been addressing the nation for over another three years.  Biden's story was well-meaning, but just not well informed.

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