A "Kinsley gaffe," named for writer Michael Kinsley who coined the term, is when a politician inadvertently says the truth, what he or she really thinks, but it lands them in hot water. So, when then-candidate Barack Obama made his remark about people who "cling to their guns and religion" he committed a Kinsley gaffe. The offending politician then has to back-peddle as quickly as possible, which entails telling a simple lie – "I didn’t mean it" - but in this instance, people saw the truth for what is was and Obama lost the Pennsylvania primary.
Congressman Joe Barton, the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, committed a Kinsley gaffe yesterday when he said he thought it a "tragedy" that the White House had engaged in a "shakedown" of BP and he apologized to BP. Is there anyone who doubts that Barton spoke these words from his anti-government regulation, pro-business, oil company-funded heart? His GOP colleagues, perceiving the damage, forced him to apologize for his remarks and retract his apology to BP, which he did, albeit somewhat clumsily, by the evening news.
Barton’s gaffe is different in kind from California Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown’s comparison of his opponent Meg Whitman with Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Brown says the remark was, he thought, off-the-record, a claim that misunderstands the crime. The problem is not that the offensive remark "got out," the problem is that it was made in the first place. People: Never make Nazi or Holocaust comparisons. They are offensive to those who actually did suffer at the hands of the Nazis. The Nazi regime was so unique, historical analogies are more likely to obscure than to enlighten. And, most of all, in American politics, for all its rough-and-tumble, those who play the game have nothing, repeat nothing, in common with a man like Goebbels who was as close to pure evil as you can get.
Two Senate candidates, Democrat Dick Blumenthal in Connecticut and Republican Mark Kirk in Illinois, told a different kind of lie when they exaggerated the nature of their past military service. There are two explanations for their exaggerations. First, politicians have such an overwhelming desire to identify with their audiences, they so crave their adulation, that they exaggerate to create a story of which they think their audience will approve. Second, politicians, like all human beings, re-write their own history. Blumenthal’s and Kirk’s lies have the same flavor of wishful thinking with which a man remembers a romantic break-up in which it was entirely the fault of their once-but-no-more beloved. This version of resume padding is evidence not so much of a deceitful nature as of an insecure one. Both character flaws can be problematic in a political leader, and in the age of YouTube, this kind of resume inflation can prove fatal to the career it was meant to enhance, which we call justice.
What is most damning to me is not the original offense but the weasel words the politicians use to extricate themselves from their predicament. Barton at first did not retract his comments, but he apologized if they had been misconstrued. Misconstruction was not the problem. As noted, Brown hid behind the fact that he thought he was speaking off the record. Kirk and Blumenthal hid behind the passive voice. Voters do not expect politicians to be error-free, and they definitely expect politicians to shade the truth when they think it will advance their prospects. But, there is something unseemly about the inability to admit a mistake and apologize sincerely. And, the curse appears to be the only instance of bipartisanship in D.C. today.
Michael Sean Winters