A "Kinsley gaffe," named for writer Michael Kinsley who coined the term, is when a politician inadvertently says the truth, what he or she really thinks, but it lands them in hot water. So, when then-candidate Barack Obama made his remark about people who "cling to their guns and religion" he committed a Kinsley gaffe. The offending politician then has to back-peddle as quickly as possible, which entails telling a simple lie – "I didn’t mean it" - but in this instance, people saw the truth for what is was and Obama lost the Pennsylvania primary.

Congressman Joe Barton, the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, committed a Kinsley gaffe yesterday when he said he thought it a "tragedy" that the White House had engaged in a "shakedown" of BP and he apologized to BP. Is there anyone who doubts that Barton spoke these words from his anti-government regulation, pro-business, oil company-funded heart? His GOP colleagues, perceiving the damage, forced him to apologize for his remarks and retract his apology to BP, which he did, albeit somewhat clumsily, by the evening news.

Barton’s gaffe is different in kind from California Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown’s comparison of his opponent Meg Whitman with Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Brown says the remark was, he thought, off-the-record, a claim that misunderstands the crime. The problem is not that the offensive remark "got out," the problem is that it was made in the first place. People: Never make Nazi or Holocaust comparisons. They are offensive to those who actually did suffer at the hands of the Nazis. The Nazi regime was so unique, historical analogies are more likely to obscure than to enlighten. And, most of all, in American politics, for all its rough-and-tumble, those who play the game have nothing, repeat nothing, in common with a man like Goebbels who was as close to pure evil as you can get.

Two Senate candidates, Democrat Dick Blumenthal in Connecticut and Republican Mark Kirk in Illinois, told a different kind of lie when they exaggerated the nature of their past military service. There are two explanations for their exaggerations. First, politicians have such an overwhelming desire to identify with their audiences, they so crave their adulation, that they exaggerate to create a story of which they think their audience will approve. Second, politicians, like all human beings, re-write their own history. Blumenthal’s and Kirk’s lies have the same flavor of wishful thinking with which a man remembers a romantic break-up in which it was entirely the fault of their once-but-no-more beloved. This version of resume padding is evidence not so much of a deceitful nature as of an insecure one. Both character flaws can be problematic in a political leader, and in the age of YouTube, this kind of resume inflation can prove fatal to the career it was meant to enhance, which we call justice.

What is most damning to me is not the original offense but the weasel words the politicians use to extricate themselves from their predicament. Barton at first did not retract his comments, but he apologized if they had been misconstrued. Misconstruction was not the problem. As noted, Brown hid behind the fact that he thought he was speaking off the record. Kirk and Blumenthal hid behind the passive voice. Voters do not expect politicians to be error-free, and they definitely expect politicians to shade the truth when they think it will advance their prospects. But, there is something unseemly about the inability to admit a mistake and apologize sincerely. And, the curse appears to be the only instance of bipartisanship in D.C. today.

Michael Sean Winters


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10 years 10 months ago
Since I'm usually one of the first to jump when I disagree with Mr. Winters, I suppose in fairness I should jump to say I couldn't agree more with this column!  Whatever their politics, the individual consultant who came up with these gimmick apologies such "I apologize IF I offended anyone or IF my words were misconstrued" should be tarred, feathered and run out of town.  Just apologize, damn it, it's what real-live human beings do.
But, alas, much like the televised perp walks in front of Congressional committees or Supreme Court nomination hearings, I fear this is a permanent feature of our diminished public discourse.
Helena Loflin
10 years 10 months ago
Here in Texas, "Smokey Joe" (named for his shameless defense of dirty coal plants) will porbably be re-elected by a landslide.  But, that says a whole lot more about the voters in Arlington and his patch of Tarrant County than it does about Barton.
Pearce Shea
10 years 10 months ago
I totally agree, though I think you cut politicians way too much slack in your second to last paragraph. It seems to me that the desire to pad your resume and therefore appeal to your constituents (inflating military service, turning one or two visits to a soup kitchen to a life's passion for the homeless, etc.) is the lie so many of us make, not to earn the applause of our fans or the need to satisfy imagined issues conjured by our deep insecurity but the simple fact that when we put our resume together to go out for a job interview, we do so with the position in mind and are more than willing to stretch the facts to the occasion. An A+ paper in law school becomes a near-published, lauded masterpiece on a resume.

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