Gaffes are those things that happen that ought to embarrass folks, assuming they can be embarrassed. When Mary spent all day making Veal Oscar for a dinner party and Mr. Grant loaded over half the dinner onto his plate on the Mary Tyler Moore Show; that was a gaffe. When George Bush vomited into the lap of the Japanese prime minister, that was called a gaffe but was really an accident. When Jesse Owens was introduced to some royalty after winning 4 gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, he responded, “Hi King,” and that was considered a gaffe. Hitler did not shake his hand at the ceremonies, but the word is that Hitler was told to shake all hands or none and so he chose none. Had Hitler acted like Franklin Roosevelt, who deliberately refused to see Owens at the White House, that would have been called a snub. When basketball teams or other sporting teams refuse to come to the White House that is called a snub. If someone like Soccer player Megan Rapinoe announces her refusal to go to the White House even though she was not asked, that is a gaffe. Gaffes and faux pas used to be the same thing. Solecisms used to be what gaffes are today.
This way that words change and ideas about words change is fascinating This is worthy of study for a lot of reasons. One is the change in the use of language. Another is how that change effects public perception. Gaffes had the feel of stupidity or social immaturity or maybe a mental competence issue. Gaffes, in my way of thinking were simply expressions of people who removed a filter in their brain and decided to do all the stuff they wanted to but were restrained. The poem “When I Grow Old I Shall Wear Purple” is to me an example of folks getting to a point where convention is no longer tolerable and they are going to act the way they want. That is what makes them “gaffers”. Grandpa made gaffes. The crazy aunt who no one wanted to visit made gaffes. At the same in England, a “gaffer” was a respected man of experience. Most people think of a “Gaffer” as the head electrician on a movie set.
So now we hear that Joe Biden is a “gaffe machine”. When he says that “we believe in the truth, not in facts” is that a gaffe? I have heard for years requests from various community organizer types that they wanted people to give them their stories. We want your truth, they would say and it does not have to be factual. I don’t think that was a gaffe at all. It is an expression of a way to look at reality and the belief that what is true for you may not be true for me. Dueling realities are the stuff of political action.
When Joe says that poor kids are just as smart as white kids, is that a gaffe or the expression of a held belief that can’t be expressed because of political correctness? When he said that Obama was a miracle because he was a clean, smart and well spoken no one seemed to notice except for Al Sharpton who melted down and screamed to the world that he showered and he could talk. Was Biden making a gaffe or saying what he really thought? Think of a world where we are walking on eggshells to the point were saying what we mean is a gaffe.
When Biden grabs women and smells their hair when they are on a stage or in front of a camera, that is considered a gaffe. There was a time it would be considered indecorous or embarrassing but now it is considered criminal. People use the gaffe comment to cover what others would use to press charges of harassment or assault.
When Biden claimed the entire life of Neil Kinnock as his own in the middle of a presidential race was that a gaffe? I think it shows a world view where more and more people don’t know who they are and so they have to borrow other lives to feel good about themselves. Hillary Clinton under fire a the Sarajevo airport was a great story but it wasn’t true and it could be proven not true. Bill Clinton’s anxiety when growing up with lots of black churches burning around him was not true and could be proven not true so why say these things? News anchors have lately been doing the same thing, telling stories about that never happened and can be proven not to have happened. Are these gaffes, or signs of something deeper? Is there a kind of dissociative disease that attracts politicians and people who want celebrity?
Richard Nixon was opening some exhibit at the National Zoo when a little girl kept screaming at him and asking about Smoky Bear. Nixon couldn’t hear her and asked an attendant what the girl was saying. The attendant said “Smoky Bear, here at the Zoo”. Nixon promptly walked over to the girl and said “hello Miss Bear, how are you?” Gaffe, or pathetic attempt to appear human?
Jimmy Carter once was giving a tribute to the late Senator from Minnesota, Hubert Humphrey and he announced him as Hubert Horatio Hornblower. Gaffe or a slip up giving away an underlying thought about a senator “blowing his own horn”.
John Kennedy announcing another phase of rocket research said it would have the largest “payroll”. He meant “payload” or did he? He was able to make a quip about it and everyone laughed but he had to be thinking of what this behemoth was going to cost. Maybe gaffes are as Pundit Michael Kinsley’s said; “when a politician accidentally speaks the truth.”
And why would what people seem to want to define as a slip of the tongue be named after a boat hook?