The top 10 campaign-ending political gaffes in modern US history

Rick Robinson Author, Writ of Mandamus
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It happens each election cycle: some politician makes a comment so stupid that the fallout essentially ends his campaign, whether he drops out or not. These disastrous quotes generally go way beyond Dan Quayle’s spelling abilities, Al Gore inventing the Internet or Joe Biden, well, being Joe Biden. The quotes that cut the electorate to the core are those that force a “WTF” to pop into voters’ minds every time they see the numbskull on television or read about him in the newspaper.

Such is the case with Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin. The damage from his inane comments on “legitimate rape” cannot be washed aside by the world’s greatest spin masters. Argue as he may that he misspoke, politically he’s done — banished to the electoral graveyard with other idiots who couldn’t keep their mouths shut. If Akin stays in the race, he’s toast.

But Akin is not the only person to open his political pie-hole and insert his foot. His gaffe, however, does rank as one of the biggest career-ending utterances in modern American political history. Before last Sunday, what were the top 10?

10.) Edwin Muskie’s snowflake tears: An emotional outburst on a cold and snowy morning ended the presidential bid of Edwin Muskie. The Maine senator was the Democratic front-runner when a New Hampshire newspaper ran two scurrilous editorials, one accusing Muskie’s wife of hard drinking and off-color humor. Muskie held an impromptu press conference on the steps in front of the newspaper’s offices, offering an emotional rebuttal to the attacks. The press said he cried. Muskie’s aides said it was melted snowflakes. Whatever it was, Muskie was done and Sen. George McGovern won the right to face President Richard Nixon in 1972.

9.) McGovern: “I am 1,000% for Tom Eagleton”: Speaking of George McGovern and the 1972 presidential campaign, when a story broke that his running mate, Sen. Tom Eagleton, had been hospitalized for depression and treated with electro-shock therapy, McGovern said he stood “1,000% for Tom Eagleton.” Eagleton was dumped from the ticket after 18 days and replaced by Sargent Shriver. It was all downhill from there.

8.) McCain/Palin: It’s hard to imagine that a gaffe-free campaign could have stopped the Obama juggernaut, but the 2008 GOP ticket still had plenty to offer. McCain made the mistake of saying in the middle of the financial collapse that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.” And Palin looked like a moose-in-the-headlights in her initial television interviews. Her responses regarding the “Bush Doctrine” and reading anything other than the Wasilla Gazette gave way to “Saturday Night Live” skits that, fairly or unfairly, forged her image in the eyes of many voters.

7.) Bob Dole’s fall: Many believe that Senator Bob Dole’s chance to beat President Bill Clinton in 1996 ended when he fell off a stage in Chico, California. Then 73, Dole reached down to shake the hand of a supporter, when an unanchored, decorative railing on the stage gave way. Though uninjured by the fall, the televised image of his painful grimace underscored the age difference between him and Clinton.

6.) Howard Dean’s “I Have a Scream” speech: No one expected former Vermont Governor Howard Dean to be the early front-runner for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination — least of all Iowans. After a disappointing third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, a red-faced Dean in rolled-up shirt sleeves let loose a scream that became the joke of late-night comedians for weeks to come. His substantial lead in the New Hampshire primary dwindled, as did his presidential aspirations.

5.) George Allen’s “Macaca” comment: At a 2006 campaign rally, United States Senator George Allen decided to go off-script (always a bad move for a candidate) and introduce a young man who worked for his opponent’s campaign and had been following him around, trying to catch him making a gaffe. “This fellow over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is,” Allen said. “He’s with my opponent. … Let’s give a welcome to Macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.” Voters in the Old Dominion State never forgave Allen for using a racial epithet for Indians. That fall, he lost to challenger Jim Webb by fewer than 10,000 votes.

4.) Gene McCarthy describes RFK supporters as “less intelligent”: Apparently, there was no love lost between Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, the two candidates contending for the anti-war vote during the 1968 Democratic presidential primary. Following a primary loss in Indiana, McCarthy told a gathering in Oregon that Kennedy backers “were among the less intelligent and less educated people in America.” When RFK was assassinated weeks later following his victory in the California primary, those “less intelligent” and “less educated” voters gave their support to eventual Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey.

3.) Christine O’Donnell declares “I am not a witch”: Let’s face it, if a candidate has to run an ad in order to convince voters she does not practice the black art of sorcery, its time to quit spending money on polls and go back to your coven. It’s over.

2.) The debate blunders of Jerry Ford and Mike Dukakis (tie): The first rule in a campaign debate is to not let your opponent deliver a knock-out punch. It’s worse when the candidate delivers a knock-out punch to himself.

Thus, no discussion of monumental political gaffes is complete without noting Jerry Ford’s declaration that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” or Mike Dukakis’ milquetoast response to a hypothetical question regarding the punishment for someone who might rape and murder his wife. Perhaps both campaigns were destined to lose, but neither candidate ever fully recovered from his on-camera slip.

1.) Gary Hart says, “Catch me if you can”: Gary Hart had a rock-star type following when he entered the 1988 Democratic presidential primary. Then The New York Times ran a story alleging he was having an extramarital affair. Hart’s response: “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’ll be very bored.” Two reporters from The Miami Herald took Hart up on the dare and subsequently introduced the world to Hart’s mistress, Donna Rice.

Rick Robinson is the author of political thrillers which can be purchased on Amazon and at book stores everywhere. His latest novel, Manifest Destiny has won seven writing awards, including Best Fiction at the Paris Book Festival.