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.

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The Outraged Reaction Machine chews up gaffers and spits them out without making many distinctions. But we can make a few. Should it destroy your career to use the word faggot in the course of denying that you had used it before? Even if the denial is dishonest, it seems more like an apology than a repeat of the original crime. And is it really a gaffe if the alleged victim feels no pain? Rice complained about Boxer's passing remark only after the likes of Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh had made an issue of it. And neither she nor any of the Fox News feminists took offense, or even noted, when Laura Bush said in December in PEOPLE that Rice wouldn't run for President "probably because she is single."

But gaffology is getting out of hand. An obviously unintended misstatement is significant only if you think the speaker has accidentally revealed something true about himself or herself. It ought to reinforce some pre-existing suspicion: Bush's Pentagon doesn't care about civil liberties, or Chirac is losing his marbles. One TV commentator, trying to explain his ginned-up outrage over Boxer, accused her of thinking that a black woman can't be Secretary of State without children--a form of prejudice so convoluted that I doubt anyone actually suffers from it.

The pre-existing suspicion--certainty, in fact--about Biden is not that he is a racist, or even close, but that he is pathologically loquacious. And he babbles. That means his unintended comments about black presidential candidates deserve less weight, not more. But it would be nice if just occasionally we could shrug off stupid things that people say accidentally.

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