American politicians have been known to say dumb things. That could be because politics in the United States has a low entry bar. If you’re slightly taller than average and have an endless ability to eat mediocre chicken at fundraising dinners, you can walk right into Congress. If you can hold a baby at a photo op without making it cry, you can probably be a Senator. Still, the American public does have some standards, and people who reveal how surrealistically unfit for service they have a way of gracefully bowing out of public life, “to spend more time with their family,” as it were. Before they go, however, some of them leave behind quite a quotable record for future historians to enjoy.
1. “We have every mixture you can have. I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent.”
Ronald Reagan’s first Secretary of the Interior, James G. Watt, was quite a piece of work. During his confirmation hearings in 1981, the man America was going to put in charge of the environment testified that he wasn’t sure how many generations the country was going to have to enjoy the environment before Armageddon.
As part of his job at Interior, Watt was obliged to set up a program to lease coal from private suppliers. To manage the program, he set up a commission of experts to advise and oversee contracts. In an early tremor of what would become modern identity politics, some in Congress asked about the diversity at Watt’s office. Revealing himself to be from a much older generation of politicians, who seem not to have understood how serious their critics were about diversity, Watt uttered the above quote in an incredulous, exasperated tone, as if it explained everything. Shortly after his 1983 testimony, James Watt offered his resignation and left office.
2. “From what I understand from doctors, [getting pregnant from rape is] really rare. But, if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways of shutting that whole thing down.”
Missouri Congressman Todd Akin ran as a pro-life Republican in a fairly conservative district. Shortly after winning a seat in the House, he was appointed to – of all the things – the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Akin wasn’t a doctor, and nobody knows for sure where he was getting his information from, though in 2012 when he uttered these words, the House did have an oddly high number of gynecologists in it.
What Congressman Akin seemed to have been trying – and spectacularly failing – to articulate is that, during a rape, women’s bodies produce large amounts of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. Overproduction of these hormones can, indeed, get in the way of natural conception, but it doesn’t act as an anti-rape valve in the womb. Instead, long-term elevations in stress can interfere with normal fertility and prevent a couple having kids; for the record, there is no known mechanism in human physiology that “shuts down” conception after a rape, legitimate or otherwise. This gaffe was obnoxious enough that even the voters noticed, and the Distinguished Gentleman lost his bid for the Senate by a 54-39 split.
3. “You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”
This remark, by Secretary of State and Presidential politics also-ran John Kerry, wasn’t dumb in a “the Earth is flat” sense, but rather in a “that dress makes you look really fat” sense. It is a particular feature of American society that, indeed, the military tends to be extra attractive for low-income/low-education young people, as the various veterans’ programs offer significant social and economic advantages to kids who couldn’t get them otherwise. And it’s also true that war zones tend to fill up with servicemen who couldn’t avoid getting sent to a war zone… but you just don’t say that into a microphone.
The backlash to this remark was swift but short. After an initial uproar of criticism, the large excitement-suppression field generated by John Kerry’s adrenal glands soon caused the nation to get bored, drift away, and get mad about something else a few days later. John Kerry remained at his cabinet post until President Trump’s January 2017 inauguration.
4. “Every lesbian spearchucker in this country is hoping I get defeated.”
California’s Congressman Bob Dornan drifted in and out of politics for several decades. A former Air Force pilot and Hollywood actor, Dornan had been a vigorous Civil Rights campaigner in the mid-1960s and had participated in voter registration drives across segregated Mississippi. By the ’70s, he was one of California’s leading “Family Values” Republicans, and his over-the-top personality made him a real live wire in live interviews and party events.
Dornan’s political fortunes waxed and waned as his districts kept getting redrawn, possibly in a backdoor effort to ease him out of Congress for good. During one election, his campaign posted signs in Spanish around the Latino neighborhoods in his district that warned voters about immigration checks at the polling locations. He once called a Russian journalist a “[L]ying, betraying little Jew,” and his wife, Sallie, once reputedly shouted “Shut up, fag!” at an AIDS activist. The above quote was said in a 1992 interview, while Dornan was running against a female primary challenger. Dornan won that race but lost his seat years later to a Hispanic woman.
5. “Over the last 15 months, we’ve traveled to every corner of the United States. I’ve now been in 57 states? I think one left to go.”
Every politician has a narrative attached to him. Once a label gets stuck; “draft-dodger,” “crazy,” “crooked,” etc., people’s confirmation bias does the rest, and soon every last bit of coverage the officeholder gets will feed into the ordained wisdom. If Donald Trump, for example, tweets something mean at Gloria Steinem, it feeds the “unhinged woman-hater” narrative. If he then tweets his sympathy for the family of a murder victim, don’t expect it to make headlines. Stories are often more powerful than facts.
The narrative attached to President Barack Obama was, among other things, “smart.” That’s why it’s jarring to see him, as President of the United States of America, make the above statement during a speech in Beaverton, Oregon, in 2011. What makes it even more jarring, aside from the President getting momentarily confused over how many states he’s in charge of keeping together, was that even if he’d said “49,” as he seemed to have meant, he’d still have been off by a few. As of 2011, President Obama had yet to visit as many as half a dozen states.
6. Dumbest Statements From American Politicians Special Mention: Joe Biden
Speaking of narratives, it has long been former Vice-President Joe Biden’s narrative identity that he has virtually no ability to control his mouth. For eight years, every time the VP stepped in front of the press to attempt a few remarks, reporters could be seen jostling to get their microphones closer to him on the off chance he would accidentally leak details of an alien invasion or call on Puerto Rico to surrender its nukes.
Maybe the best thing about Tailgunner Joe’s gaffes is that a lot of the nutty things he’s said are not technically correct, but have a kind of spiritual accuracy that elevates them above ordinary human language. In a President, that shoot-from-the-hip approach is endearingly real, in a Vice-President, it must have been infuriating for Obama to deal with. Some highlights from Mr. Biden’s long and distinguished career:
“The number one job facing the middle class, and it happens to be, as Barack says, a three-letter word: jobs. J-O-B-S.”
“When the stock market crashed, Franklin D. Roosevelt got on the television and didn’t just talk about the, you know, the princes of greed. He said, ‘Look, here’s what happened.”
“[Irish PM Brian Cowen’s] mom lived on Long Island for ten years or so. God rest her soul. And- although, she’s- wait- your mom’s still- your mom’s still alive. Your dad passed. God bless her soul.”
7. “The idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you’ve got more carbon dioxide.”
This long-winded tribute to America’s failing public schools was spoken in 2009 by then-House Speaker John Boehner. Not to be unfair to the former Speaker, but this quote is so fractally wrong, on so many different levels, that it’s hard to know where to start.
For one thing, nobody has ever claimed that carbon emissions cause cancer. That’s tobacco smoke. The environmental harm caused by excess carbon in the air has nothing to do with its chemistry, which would be the case for a cancer agent, and everything to do with the physics of how it retains heat in the atmosphere. Humans breathing is not a significant source of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and it indeed isn’t a fixable problem anyway; humans can hardly address global warming by breathing less, after all. And as for cow farts, which the Speaker may have been too delicate to mention directly, the problematic gas there is methane, not carbon dioxide, and methane is another potent greenhouse gas.
8. “Today, we have two Vietnams, side by side, North and South, exchanging and working. We may not agree with all that North Vietnam is doing, but they are living in peace. I would look for a better human rights record for North Vietnam, but they are living side by side.”
This line, spoken by Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, was intended as an olive branch extended toward the hostile regime of North Vietnam. Had the message gotten across in time, much tragedy could have, perhaps, been avoided. Unfortunately for world peace, however, the Texas Democrat delivered her remarks in July 2010, roughly 25 years after the Hanoi regime invaded and crushed the Saigon-based South Vietnam for good.
It is worth pointing out that Ms. Jackson Lee was born in 1950 and holds a B.A. in political science from Yale. She also made it all the way through law school and jumped straight from the Houston City Council to the U.S. Congress in 1995. In 1997, during a tour of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she inquired into whether the Mars Rover could get a picture of “the flag the astronauts planted there before.” When this statement got national attention, she accused the media of racism. As of this writing, the Distinguished Ms. Jackson Lee has been the incumbent in her district for 22 years.
9. Special Mention: George W. Bush
The 43rd President of the United States of America was a graduate of both Harvard and Yale. He was also a wealthy businessman and a successful politician. Believe it or not, he actually lost his first bid for elected office, for a West Texas Congressional seat in 1978, because voters said he was too smart to connect with average people. He was also caught jogging, which in El Paso in the late ’70s might have well been a trip to a BDSM dungeon as far as the voters were concerned. The lesson he seems to have taken from this defeat was not to study too hard and try to steer debates into policy issues. Instead, cultivate a folksy demeanor that will come across as authentic. It is for the reader to judge how genuine President George W. Bush was, but his verbal gaffes – often a result of poor preparation and general distraction – became the stuff of legend:
“Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”
“I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.”
“Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.”
“I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family.”
And of course, the gold medal in this competitive field, spoken to an audience in Nashville, Tennessee, on September 17, 2002:
“There’s an old saying in Tennessee (I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee) that says, fool me once, shame on… shame on you? Fool me/you can’t get fooled again.”
10. Dumbest Statements From American Politicians Special Mention: President Donald Trump
The internet loves Donald J. Trump, and we would be remiss if he were left out. During his long life in the public eye, the God Emperor has engaged in more antics than a troupe of circus monkeys. Popular hits include, but are by no means limited to Suing journalists who criticize his businesses, calling Rosie O’Donnell a fat pig, suing comedians who make fun of him and deciding every morning to do that to his hair.
He has a rich legacy of public statements to go with his actions, and most seem to walk the tightrope between funny and terrifying:
“Maybe he should’ve been roughed up.”
Said about a Black Lives Matter protestor who tried to take his stage at a campaign rally, only to be dragged off and, according to the demonstrator, beaten by Trump’s security.
“Happy Cinco de Mayo! The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!”
Tweeted over a picture of Candidate Trump eating a large taco bowl.
“He referred to my hands, if they’re small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee it.”
Possibly the longest-lasting running gag in American politics. Gore Vidal once described Trump as a “short-fingered vulgarian.” Trump seemed not to have gotten the jibe, and he spent years arguing with people about the size of his hands. Sometime in the summer of 2015, a fearless intern must have explained it to him. Having gotten closure, Trump them insisted that his genitals were quite reasonable in front of an audience in the tens of millions.
“You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful [women]. I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy.”
There exists an alternate universe in which Trump’s microphone was not hot during this bit of banter on a bus that was helpfully leaked right before the November 2016 election. It’s conceivable that, in that universe, Trump lost the election because the media failed to make voters hate them enough to vote Trump out of spite.