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Top Five Political Gaffes of All Time

November is election month in the United States. As students learn about the political process, why not take a break from the rhetoric and campaign slogans to celebrate the lighter side of American politics?

While America is justifiably proud of its political history, there are plenty of examples of our elected leaders making public mistakes both during campaigns and while in office. Here's a rundown of some pretty egregious (and in hindsight, somewhat comical) political slip-ups.

embarrassing political moments

#5 - Howard Dean Goes Out in a Blaze of Glory

In 2004, Howard Dean came out of nowhere to become the early favorite to win the Democratic nomination for the presidency. Despite strong fundraising, an engaged base of supporters and a laundry list of endorsements, Dean finished third behind John Kerry and John Edwards in the Iowa Caucuses.

During a post-caucus speech, Dean fired up his supporters with assertions that he would bounce back from his disappointing Iowa performance. While energizing the crowd, he started shouting out the names of the states where he claimed he would be victorious, ending with what has become known as the Dean Scream: “We’re going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico, and we’re going to California and Texas and New York.... and we’re going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan, and then we're going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House! Yeeee-AH!”

The result was widespread mocking—and a 12-point loss to Kerry in the New Hampshire primary. From there, Dean’s campaign continued to decline, until he eventually pulled out of the race. Sadly, Dean’s genuine enthusiasm about his campaign ultimately cost him a shot at the White House. 

#4 - Gerald Ford Doesn’t Know What Russia is Up To

In fairness to Ford, he was never elected President of the United States, so we can forgive him for not being up to speed on foreign relations before taking office. With that said, he had served as president for three years before making his offending remarks, so he should have known better. During his campaign, President Ford made a claim that his administration wouldn’t let Russia control Eastern Europe, saying, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.”

Of course, in 1976, everyone in the world knew that Russia was completely dominating Eastern Europe. His mistake destroyed his foreign-relations credibility and ultimately cost him the election. 

#3 - George W. Bush Declares 'Mission Accomplished'

In an administration known for gaffes, this one stands out. On May 1, 2003, George W. Bush stood on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and told the world that “In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” His remarks came mere hours after he’d made a flashy entrance, landing on the aircraft carrier in a fighter jet and wearing a combat flight suit. His declaration that the war had been won was made beneath a giant banner, hung from the Lincoln’s tower, that read “Mission Accomplished.”

Despite all the fanfare of May 1, 2003, hostilities in Iraq did not cease. In fact, the U.S. and its allies suffered the majority of casualties in the years after Bush’s speech. For this reason, and due to the fact that the conflict lasted for several years after his remarks, the speech, jet landing and banner are generally considered to be one of biggest public-relations missteps of all time. Even Bush himself admitted in 2009 that “Clearly, putting ‘Mission Accomplished’ on an aircraft carrier was a mistake.” 

#2 - Joe Biden Tries to Make a Disabled Man Stand

Known for his frankness, Joe Biden has never been shy about speaking his mind. His mouth got him in trouble during a 2008 campaign stop in Missouri, where Senator Chuck Graham of Columbia, who has been confined to a wheelchair since the age of 16, was in attendance. Going off script, Biden decided that he wanted to recognize Senator Graham, saying, “Chuck, stand up. Let the people see you.”

Biden’s request led to a very awkward moment for everyone at the event, and a red-faced Biden attempted to backtrack, asking the crowd to “stand up for Chuck.”

#1 - Ronald Reagan Almost Starts World War III

Consider this the original “hot mic” moment. While prepping for his weekly radio address on Aug. 11, 1984, Reagan decided to make a little joke, unaware that his mic was on and that the nation could hear him. He unknowingly opened his remarks by saying, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

Given that this was during the peak of the Cold War, the comment sparked fear among U.S. citizens and panic among Russian authorities. All-out war was averted when those in control of both militaries took the remark for what it was…an ill-conceived attempt at humor.

Article by Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor
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