What’s in a gaffe?

Two days into his European tour, GOP candidate-in-waiting Mitt Romney is probably wishing he’d remembered Calvin Coolidge’s adage that “I have never been hurt by anything I didn’t say.” The trip, intended to shore up Romney’s foreign affairs credentials, was quickly overshadowed, first by comments by an unnamed Romney campaign staffer about the specialness of the Anglo-Saxon bond between the United States and the United Kingdom, and second, by undiplomatic remarks Romney himself made with regard to London and its preparations and preparedness for the Olympic Games. The first statement was quickly disavowed by Romney, even though it did not contain anything untoward or incendiary, unless you accept the outlandish claim that the term “Anglo-Saxon” itself is in some way tainted or politically incorrect. The second statement was a gaffe only in the Michael Kinsley sense that “a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” And in fact, nothing that Romney said was wrong, it merely was undiplomatic – but then, he is no diplomat.

Clearly, the media are quick to pounce on anything remotely maladroit out of Romney’s mouth, attempting to repeat what happened in 1968 when the elder Romney was brought down by a careless albeit honest statement about having been “brainwashed” on the Vietnam War. As John Avlon points out in a post at The Daily Beast, it was the buttoned-down campaign of Richard Nixon that prevailed that year. Today, contrary to Nixon’s instincts and Coolidge’s tenet, there is an insatiable hunger for statements, for one-liners, for quips, anything to feed the social media frenzy. I’m not convinced that Avlon’s advice to Romney – to be more accessible, and less distrustful of the media – is the right conclusion to draw. My own take-home message for Mitt Romney would be to write down Coolidge’s little nugget of wisdom and keep it in his pocket for easy reference at all times for today, far more than in Coolidge’s or Nixon’s day, any public utterance will be instantly fed into the web and be around for years and years, with no control over misinterpretation or outright fabrication. Better be buttoned-down than sorry.