The Meaning of Gaffes

If you'll permit a little cross-self-promotion, I had a piece in Sunday's Washington Post, which opened this way:

If you aren't old enough to remember it, you've probably heard the story of the most consequential presidential campaign gaffe of the modern era. In 1972, Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie responded to a series of attacks by the Manchester Union Leader with a news conference outside the paper's offices. Standing in the New Hampshire snow, the candidate for the Democratic nomination condemned the paper for, among other things, attacking his wife. The Washington Post's David Broder began his story about the incident this way: "With tears streaming down his face and his voice choked with emotion . . ."

Though Muskie insisted that his facial wetness came from the snow, the idea that a candidate would cry created a scandal. Muskie, thought until that moment to be his party's inevitable nominee, soon saw his campaign flounder and die.

The less well-known part of this story is that some influential journalists had decided long before that there was something slightly off about Muskie. In his 1977 book "Reporting: An Inside View," legendary journalist Lou Cannon wrote that, after playing poker with Muskie, he concluded that the senator was too temperamental to be president. "What does a political reporter do with this kind of insight?" Cannon asked. "As in this instance, it is rarely written as a hard news story the first time the thought arises. . . . What we reporters tend to do is to store away in our minds such incidents and then use them to interpret — to set a context — for major incidents when they occur."

In other words, Cannon, Broder and their colleagues decided Muskie was a nut, then just waited until the right opportunity to tell the public. When he committed the sin of undue emotion outside the Union-Leader, they had their chance, and they took it. There was almost nothing objectively problematic about the incident itself.

This is the rule, not the exception. "Gaffes" almost never reveal anything particularly important; instead, they're opportunities for reporters to offer vivid illustrations of conclusions they've already made about the candidates. Since there's a Republican primary on, and reporters are attempting to explain to the public who these Republican candidates are, Republicans will be the ones committing the gaffes. It's hard to have sympathy for people you find otherwise repellent, but when the next major gaffe comes along (they should keep arriving about once every week and a half or so), we should try not to ascribe too much importance to it. There will be plenty of reasons to take issue with Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, or whoever the Republican nominee is, without spending too much time on something one of them said once.