Gaffes and Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s Unpresidential Tin Ear

–Richard E. Vatz

Gaffes should not be — and are not usually for candidates with stable support — consequential when they are singular events; when they become a pattern, they may validly reveal truths about politicians and can destroy their candidacies. (An exception to this formula comes to mind regarding, somewhat ironically, George Romney, Gov. Mitt Romney’s father, who said over 40 years ago that he was “brainwashed” by President Lyndon Baines Johnson on the Vietnam War, a comment that effectively ended his presidential aspirations.)

Gov. Rick Perry, whose family’s west Texas hunting camp was associated with a rock sporting the offensive term “Niggerhead,” whose date of erasure has been in hot debate, referred to Herman Cain as “brother” twice in their October 18 debate, beginning with the condescending “I love you, brother.”

Does this mean that he is racist? Of course not, but it does mean that he has a tin ear — it strikes all of those racially sensitive, not to mention those who are overly racially sensitive, as just inappropriate.

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What else?

You don’t persist in interrupting your opponent when debate rules require that he be given his one minute to speak. Anyone can make this error, but Perry violated it serially in the Republican presidential debate over a week ago.

What else?

Gov. Perry said two months ago that for Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to be “printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treasonous in my opinion.” The “almost” gets lost in public translations, and Perry defended his remark as justified by his being “passionate” about his views.

Sorry, but Bernanke is judgment-challenged and should be replaced; he is not treasonous or “almost treasonous” in his behavior. It is language that can work in a primary, but you make impressions for less rough audiences in less rough primary states, not to mention the general election.

What else?

In interviews with Parade Magazine and MSNBC, Gov. Perry has addressed whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States, an anachronistic issue if there ever were one. He not only offered the non sequitur “Well, I don’t have a definitive answer because he’s never seen my birth certificate,” but then in a real rhetorically suicidal coup de grace said that his (Perry’s) questioning the president’s birth location constituted “fun to poke at [the president] a little bit.”

You may recall, dear reader, the light-hearted fun the president has had with this issue.

Gaffes are often sought and found at too low a threshold — single events, silly misspoken mistakes and the like.

Gov. Perry’s unrepentant gaffes reveal a man unsuited for the presidency.

–Dr. Vatz is professor of political rhetoric at Towson University and author of the just-released The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2012)

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