The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Shouldn’t Have Said That

An image of President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter meet at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia to debate domestic policy during the first of the three Ford-Carter Debates. Source: Wikimedia Commons

President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter meet at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia to debate domestic policy during the first of the three Ford-Carter Debates. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the  2016 presidential election, candidates and pundits have pushed boundaries and raised questions regarding speech. “Political gaffes” made during speeches are often pointed to as the beginning of the end for many careers.

The idea of political gaffes and political correctness is not new. In BackStory’s “Politically Incorrect,” you can hear about the efforts of the Lincoln campaign to avoid any controversies that could devastate his campaign, particularly over the idea of slavery and the 13th amendment. “Who better than Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to know the power of language. I think the summer of ‘64 shows the power of silence. They know language matters so much that they will hold the power of that language in abeyance until they are really ready to deploy it.”

While Abraham Lincoln understood the power of language and chose to remain silent, politicians throughout U.S. history have made career-ending statements. The following ten examples evidence the wide variety of gaffes that can damage a political career. With the 2016 Presidential Election coming to a close, we can’t help but wonder what political gaffes will live on after we have selected a winner in this race.


  1. Howard Dean— “YEEEEEAAARGH!”

In 2004, Vermont Governor, Howard Dean, was a frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. However, on January 19, at the Iowa caucus, Dean let out a shriek, a brief embarrassing moment that ended his career. “And then we’re going to Washington, D.C.—to take back the White House—YEEEEEAAARGH!” According to U.S. News and World Report, the scream “lives on as a case study of how a brief gaffe, given saturation coverage by the media, can cause deep damage to a politician’s image.”



  1. Gerald Ford—“Free of Soviet Domination”

In 1976 Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter agreed to participate in the first televised presidential debate. According to Backstory episode “Fighting Words: A History of Debate in America,” Jimmy Carter’s success in these debates did not come from what he said, but what his opponent, Ford, said. According to Ford, “there is no soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will never be under the Ford administration.” This gaffe, based on inaccurate information, damaged the reputation of Ford and threatened his credibility. Historian John Osborne notes that gaffes frequently plagued Ford. “Mr. Ford often fumbles his words, he often says more or less than he meant to say…never during his presidency had he so completely and disastrously misspoken.” According to tracking polls, this gaffe was disastrous for Ford’s election numbers, especially after Ford refused to correct himself.



  1.     Mitt Romney—“Binders full of Women”

During the second debate of the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama were asked to speak about gender equality in the work force. Republican candidate, Romney, explained that in his quest to employ female cabinet members, he solicited women’s groups to put together “whole binders full of women.” The gaffe spread like wildfire and discredited Romney’s campaign.


  1.     George Allen—“Macaca”

At a 2006 campaign rally in Virginia,  Senator George Allen used a racial slur, creating the largest and most destructive gaffe of his campaign. Allen repeatedly called a non-white volunteer of his opponent a macaca—a racial slur for African immigrants or a term for a monkey from the Eastern Hemisphere. “This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is. He’s with my opponent,” Allen stated. From 1967 to 2000, George Allen also hung a Confederate Flag in his office, adding to his portfolio of racially offensive actions. Although this was not George Allen’s first gaffe, it caused significant damage to his career.



  1.     Mark Foley—Email scandal

In September 2006, the public learned about scandalous emails and instant messages sent by former Florida congressman, Mark Foley. These sexually explicit messages documented conversations from 1995 to 2005 between Foley and under-aged Congressional Pages. In addition to ending his career, Foley’s scandal contributed to the Republican Party’s loss of Congress following the 2006 election.


  1.     Bill Clinton—“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”

During a televised speech on January 26, 1998, President Bill Clinton created one of the most well-known political gaffes in United States History. Clinton denied an alleged sexual relationship with 24-year-old White House Intern, Monica Lewinsky. Once Clinton’s actions were validated, this gaffe led the House of Representative’s movement to impeach him in 1998 on perjury. This led to the suspension of Clinton’s license to practice law and damaged the credibility of the executive branch among voters.


  1.     John McCain—“The fundamentals of our economy are strong”

At a Florida campaign rally during the 2008 presidential election, Republican candidate John McCain insisted, “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.” McCain unwittingly made the statement on the same day that Wall Street giant, Lehman Brothers, filed for bankruptcy, the first of many events in the Great Recession. The gaffe incited Democrats, who claimed that McCain was “disturbingly out of touch” with the economy.

A screenshot of a word cloud displaying the most used words in Hoover's message regarding "Black Thursday" from UVA's Miller Center. Click the image to read the full transcript on the Miller Center's page.

A screenshot of a word cloud displaying the most used words in Hoover’s message regarding “Black Thursday” from UVA’s Miller Center. Click the image to read the full transcript on the Miller Center’s page.


  1.     Herbert Hoover—“ The fundamental business of the country”

Almost 80 years earlier, President Herbert Hoover made a similar gaffe to McCain’s. On October 25, 1929,  Hoover said, “The fundamental business of the country, that is, production and distribution of commodities, is on a sound and prosperous basis.” Four days later, the Stock Market crashed and Americans entered the Great Depression, the most severe economic downturn of United States history.


  1.     George McGovern—“I am 100% for Tom Eagleton.”

In 1972, the Democratic presidential nominee, George McGovern, was under intense pressure to select a running mate. After McGovern named Missouri Attorney General, Thomas Eagleton, as his running mate, McGovern  learned about Eagleton’s recent electroshock treatment for chronic depression. McGovern stood by his running mate, stating, “I am one thousand percent for Tom Eagleton and I have no intention of dropping him from the ticket.” Yet, a few days later, McGovern dropped Eagleton. This damaged McGovern’s credibility and according to NPR, illustrated the need for a thorough screening process before nominees select their vice presidents.


  1. George Bush—“Read my lips: no new taxes.”

During his acceptance speech for the 1988 Republican Party presidential nomination, George H.W. Bush pledged to never raise taxes. “Read my lips: no new taxes,” he said. Yet, under Bush’s presidency, the Democrat-controlled Congress raised taxes. During Bush’s 1992 reelection campaign, opponents cited the gaffe numerous times and used it to craft a narrative of Bush as a president who voters couldn’t trust.




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