Gaffes to the Rescue

They keep politics interesting, and sometimes they keep it honest

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Haraz N. Ghanbari /AP Photo

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., speaks during the Democratic National Committee Winter Meeting in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2007. Biden expressed regret for describing presidential rival Barack Obama as an articulate and clean African-American, trying to stem damage to his nascent 2008 campaign.

It used to be, there was truth and there was falsehood. Now there is spin and there are gaffes. Spin is often thought to be synonymous with falsehood or lying, but more accurately it is indifference to the truth. A politician engaged in spin is saying what he or she wishes were true, and sometimes, by coincidence, it is. Meanwhile, a gaffe, it has been said, is when a politician tells the truth--or more precisely, when he or she accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on in his or her head. A gaffe is what happens when the spin breaks down.

Journalists enjoy gaffes as a slight taste of human reality at the banquet of artifice where they sup. But a small secret is that journalists don't mind spin either. A politician's ability to spin is a measure of his or her professionalism, which journalists respect. Furthermore, spin needs to be interpreted, which is the journalist's job. If politicians were totally truthful, political journalists would be out of business.

It has been a magnificent season for gaffes. Consider just the past couple of weeks: Barbara Boxer ostensibly dissed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for not having an "immediate family." A hapless Pentagon official named Charles Stimson called on American corporations to fire any law firm that represented terrorist suspects. An actor on Grey's Anatomy used the word faggot at the Golden Globe awards in the course of denying that he had used this word about another member of the cast in October. French President Jacques Chirac said it wouldn't be so bad if Iran got a nuclear bomb "or perhaps a second bomb a little later."

And then came Joe Biden. Announcing his run for President, he praised his Senate colleague and presidential rival Barack Obama as "articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy" and declared that this was a first for African-American presidential candidates. Generally, the first thing that happens when someone commits a boner like this is that everybody else--political rivals, journalists, news junkies, even his or her staff--has a good laugh. Then all the players declare how saddened they are or how angry they are and demand an apology.

An apology is almost inevitable. These are the varieties. Stimson of the Pentagon took the false-impression route: he is so sorry that some people might have inexplicably got the impression that he meant what he obviously did mean when he said what he said. The Grey's Anatomy actor, Isaiah Washington, chose the therapeutic option. He can neither "defend nor explain" what he said, and "there are issues I obviously need to examine within my own soul," and on and on. "Can I stop now?" you can almost hear him pleading to his bosses at ABC. "No!" they reply with a crack of the whip. "More groveling! Get sorrier!"

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