Famous Political Gaffes and Blunders

June 28, 2008

Here are my favourites from British and American politics.





Who can forget the Florida classroom scene in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911? Moore affirms that Bush was informed about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center on his way to the elementary school.  In the film we see him in the classroom sitting in with the children. When told that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center and that the nation was under attack, Bush continued reading The Pet Goat (a children’s story contained in the book Reading Mastery II: Storybook 1, by Siegfried Engelmann and Elaine C. Bruner) to the kids, and, according to Moore, he went on for nearly seven minutes.




On January 10 1979 hapless Prime Minister Jim Callaghan back from a summit in Guadeloupe was asked  by a reporter about the “mounting chaos” as a result of the  famous “Winter of Discontent”, during which there were strikes by trade unions demanding larger pay raises for their members. Callaghan replied: “I don’t think other people would necessarily share the view that there is mounting chaos.” But when the story appeared on the front page of The Sun under the headline “Crisis? What Crisis” everyone assumed that the headline reflected what the PM had actually said. In May he was roundly defeated in the election by Thatcher and the rest is history.




            In the U.K. former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott had what Matthew Parris has described as “a long and inconclusive war with the English Language. In The Political Animal Jeremy Paxman claims that before being accepted as transcribers to the Parliamentary record the Hansard, applicants must listen to one of Prescott’s speeches and write down what they think he was trying to say. So, try this one for starters:

On the other hand, when I look at the urban cities and I look at how we use our money, there are issues where the need to buy issues, quite frankly, and it’s bought at a price and a very discounted price, which we all agreed to be doing, but then it’s sold at a very high price back to the state when they want to do something about improvements. Well, that’s costing us literally millions of pounds.”

U.S. President Warren Harding also had a poor grasp of the English language Yet he insisted on writing his own speeches, with predictably disastrous results. He once commented:

“I would like the government to do all it can to mitigate, then, in understanding, in mutuality of interest, in concern for the common good, our tasks will be solved.

            Sometimes presidents are the victims of their translators. In June 1963, John F. Kennedy stood at the Berlin Wall and declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” which translates as “I am a cream bun.” In December 1977, Jimmy Carter gave a speech in Poland which included the sentence, “I want to know the Polish people.” When this was rendered into Polish, the word “know” was mistranslated so that Carter was quoted as having said, “I want to have carnal knowledge of the Polish people.”

            When he was Vice-President of the United States, George H.W. Bush caused widespread offence when, on being shown the gas chambers at Auschwitz, he remarked: “Boy, they were big on crematoriums, weren’t they?”  




I can still remember future Tory leader William Hague as a 16-year-old making a rousing speech at the Tory party conference. He was never able to shake off his image as a young fogey. His efforts to counter this were, alas, to cause more ridicule. Soon after becoming Conservative leader in 1997, Mr Hague took to donning a baseball cap with his name embroidered on the front, and then visiting the Notting Hill Carnival with fiancée Ffion. He also boasted about  his drinking exploits as a teenager -14 pints a night apparently. The reaction of the tabloids could hardly come as a surprise. The Mirror came out with “I was Britain’s biggest boozer,” and the Sun called him “Billy Liar.”




            Neil Kinnock, Labour leader from also deserves a couple of mentions. During one seasonal seaside stroll for the cameras the “Welsh Windbag” tripped and fell into the water and had to be hauled to his feet by wife Glenys. More damaging though was his jubilant fist waving at Labour’s 1992 election “victory” rally in Sheffield. Only days away from a general election, Mr Kinnock believed he was home and dry. Labour though somehow managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. On the day of the general election, The Sun ran a famous front page featuring the headline: If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights. This loss was largely because of income tax but the brash, American-style rally certainly didn’t help.




            Within two hours of the hijacked planes flying into the Twin Towers and The Pentagon, Jo Moore, a New Labour special adviser sent an email to a colleague at the Department of Local Government, Transport and the Regions explaining that this would be an excellent opportunity to hide bad news: “Today is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury.”




Bush 41’s Vice-President Dan Quayle most infamous blunder occurred at an elementary school spelling bee in Trenton, New Jersey, on June 15, 1992. Quayle had to sit and read a number of words from some flash cards and the kids would then go up and spell them at the blackboard. 12-year-old William Figueroa duly went up and wrote potato on the board. Quayle looked at the blackboard, then at his flash card (it had an incorrect spelling), and proceeded  to correct the boy: “You’re close, but you left a little something off. The e on the end.” So William, against his better judgment and trying to be polite, added an e’’ All those assembled in the classroom burst into a spontaneous round of applause. Quayle said that he began to realize something was up at a subsequent press conference when he was asked by a journalist to spell the word potato. Figueroa was interviewed and said that  the experience had made him believe all the talk about the vice president being “an idiot.’’ The Democratic candidates certainly exploited the incident; Figueroa was flown in to deliver the pledge of allegiance at the Democratic National Convention that summer. Quayle was never able to live it down and Clinton and Gore went on to win the election in November. What is William Figueroa up to these days? In August 2004, a New York Times reporter caught up with him. It turns out that he became a high-school dropout with a child of his own by the age of 16. By 24, he’d had 3 kids and was working at Wal-Mart.

My Favourite Links #12

June 28, 2008

This week’s link is Word Spy.  It is one of the most popular sites on the web for finding neologisms that have appeared multiple times in newspapers, magazines, books, websites and other recorded sources. Words come with a definition, an example citation, earliest citation, notes and related words. You can check by month, subject and they have a top 100. Here are a few examples to test you. Look up the answers on the site.


  1. BlackBerry prayer
  2. Boyzilian
  3. Brand slut
  4. Butt bra
  5. Celebutard
  6. Freeconomics
  7. Wal-Mart effect
  8. Wikification



My Media Week 28/06/08

June 28, 2008

Spiked has a feature about eco-warrior George Monbiot. This should give you a flavour of it;

Not many moons ago, Monbiot was looked upon by many people as a green-ink eccentric, who was probably given a newspaper column on the same basis that friends of the Marquis de Sade smuggled scraps of paper and pots of ink into his cell in the Charenton insane asylum: because if he’s kept busy writing, he won’t go utterly off his nut. (The chasm-shaped difference between the Marquis and Monbiot, of course, is that the former wrote some brilliant stuff that nobody was allowed to read, while the latter writes inane copy that one can hardly escape.)  (ARTICLE)



Julian Baggini has written about The dilemmas that force us to compromise our morals. (ARTICLE)



Melvyn Bragg’s programme In Our Time discusses the mighty Arab conquests of the 7th century. (PODCAST AND STREAMING)



The Bottom Line This BBC programme features Evan Davis in conversation with 3 or 4 business leaders. This week they look at  youth marketing and email. (PODCAST AND STREAMING)






Movie Monologues #1

June 28, 2008


Gordon Gekko in Wall Street


Well, I appreciate the opportunity you’re giving me, Mr. Cromwell,

as the single largest shareholder in Teldar Paper, to speak.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, we’re not here to indulge in fantasy, but in political and economic reality. America, America has become a second-rate power. Its trade deficit and its fiscal deficit are at nightmare proportions. Now, in the days of the free market, when our country was a top industrial power, there was accountability to the stockholder. The Carnegies, the Mellons, the men that built this great industrial empire, made sure of it because it was their money at stake. Today, management has no stake in the company!

All together, these men sitting up here [Teldar management] own less than 3 percent of the company. And where does Mr. Cromwell put his million-dollar salary? Not in Teldar stock; he owns less than 1 percent.

You own the company. That’s right — you, the stockholder.

And you are all being royally screwed over by these, these bureaucrats, with their steak lunches, their hunting and fishing trips, their corporate jets and golden parachutes.

Teldar Paper, Mr. Cromwell, Teldar Paper has 33 different vice presidents, each earning over 200 thousand dollars a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can’t figure it out. One thing I do know is that our paper company lost 110 million dollars last year, and I’ll bet that half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents.

The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated.

In the last seven deals that I’ve been involved with, there were 2.5 million stockholders who have made a pretax profit of 12 billion dollars. Thank you.

I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them!

The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed — for lack of a better word — is good.

Greed is right.

Greed works.

Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.

Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind.

And greed — you mark my words — will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.


Some Thoughts on Books

June 22, 2008



I don’t do fiction

I’m sorry to go on about my psychosexual traumas. After confessing last week about my Mathematics O level, this week I’m going to mention my A level English Literature fiasco. I’m not going to mention my grade but I can say that it put me off reading for a while. Then I read Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and I fell in love with reading again. Gradually I drifted into non-fiction and that’s where I’ve been for the last ten years or so. I love books that tell me about the way the world works – economics, anthropology, psychology, history, philosophy, law, the mass media …. But now I’m beginning to feel a yearning for fiction again. I would like to work my way through some of Harold Bloom’s famous canon. But I would also like you to tell me all the great books I’ve missed in the last ten years.


I love Amazon

What a wonderful concept Amazon is. For me it is a celebration of capitalist innovation at its best. First you have the prices. It is marvellous that there is no limit on discounts and to see books reduced by 50%. In Spain that would be against the law. It is often said that not enough people read books. Wouldn’t it be good idea if there was a free market for books and prices came down? But Amazon is more than just the discounts. The inventory at Amazon is  comprised of literally millions of book. Amazon is able to make money by catering to a wide range of tastes. All those predictions about everyone only reading popular trashy bestsellers and celebrity memoirs have proved to be nonsense; the market is flexible enough to be able to meet many needs. Maybe so much choice could be too bewildering but Amazon has solved that problem too. Without the direct involvement of a single human being, their software can generate recommendations that make it incredibly easy to find what you want. No expert would be capable of such a feat. 


The future of reading?

Last year Amazon came out with a new device called the Kindle, an electronic book. It uses technology known as electronic paper designed to recreate the appearance of ordinary ink on paper. It can store up to 200 books, You can’t transfer eBooks to someone else or using them on a different device. There are other competitors such as the Sony eBook and the iLiad. Will they be successful? I don’t know. The book is still an incredibly practical invention. I like the idea of being able to download a book in seconds but I think not being able to share books is a major drawback.  In fact I am a bit sceptical about this kind of device but it is the market will ultimately dictate its fate.


Further reading and listening


Harold Bloom’s canon



The BBC has a programme called  World Book Club, where world famous authors talk about their key works. This month writer Khaled Hosseini is interviewed about his first novel The Kite Runner. Past guests have included Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children), Vikram Seth (A Suitable Boy), Isabelle Allende (A House of Spirits), Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club), Doris Lessing (The Grass is Singing), VS Naipaul (A House for Mr Biswas), Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient), Ian McEwan (Atonement), and Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose). (PODCASTS)








Book Quotes

June 22, 2008

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library. Jorge Luis Borges

I took a speed reading course and read ‘War and Peace’ in twenty minutes. It involves Russia. Woody Allen.

A man ought to read just as inclination leads him, for what he reads as a task will do him little good. Samuel Johnson

A novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images. Albert Camus.

Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures. Jessamyn West.

He knew everything about literature except how to enjoy it.  Joseph Heller.

I divide all readers into two classes: Those who read to remember and those who read to forget.  William Phelps

Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children. Life is the other way round.  David Lodge.

People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading. Logan Pearsall Smith

Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. Albert Einstein.

The covers of this book are too far apart Ambrose Bierce.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. Oscar Wilde.

This book is not to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.  Dorothy Parker.

Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings. Heinrich Heine.

My Media Week 21/06/08

June 22, 2008

The Telegraph’s Craig Brown does a spoof Labour 2010 manifesto. (ARTICLE)



The NPR show The Bryant Park Project has an interview with author Nicholas Carr, whose provocative article  “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” has just appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, claims that while the Internet enables us to get lots of information very quickly, we are unable to really think about it deeply. (PODCAST)



There is a better way to stop bank failures.  An article by John Kay. (ARTICLE)



ABC’S The Philosopher’s Zone has a piece about Egalitarianism (PODCAST)



Finally a couple of things in Spanish.

Xavier Sala-i-Martin, the Catalan professor of economics at Columbia University, is very well known but I hadn’t actually got round to reading any of his stuff. So I was pleased the other day to find a website with loads of his articles. His philosophy is summed up in “No quiero que me toquen ni la cartera ni la bragueta.” Using Babel Fish for automatic translation it comes out as, “I do not want that they touch neither to the portfolio nor the fly to me.” He explains himself very clearly here:

Ni de izquierdas ni de derechas, sino todo lo contrario. Las dos son esquizofrénicas. La derecha predica libertad cuando se habla de economía, pero si hablamos de sexo, religión o gays pide al Estado que preserve los valores. La izquierda es igual, pero al revés. El individuo es estúpido a la hora de gastar, pero a la hora de casarse, no. Yo soy igual las 24 horas del día. Mi lema es: ¡Que no me toquen la cartera ni la bragueta! La derecha mete la mano en la bragueta. La izquierda, en la cartera. Basically it means that he is against state intervention in both the economic and moral spheres. (ARTICLES)



Many of you may know Alberto, from my quiz nights. He has a blog where he gives his take on the world.


My Favourite Links #11

June 22, 2008

Britain now has its own version of The Onion – it’s called The Daily Mash. It is the idea of two Scottish journalists Neil Rafferty and Paul Stokes and sophisticated it is not. The language could  certainly be described as colourful.  As Mr. Rafferty has said “Scotland didn’t have a satirical website updated every day with juvenile humour and innuendo, so we decided to give her one.” Spoof articles include the following:


Forty-Two Grand – To Drive A Fucking Truck

Crime Is Just Awful, Says Government

Africans Thrilled For Wayne And Coleen

Winehouse Joins Ranks Of Great Literary Drug Addicts



The Wonderful World of Probability

June 15, 2008

I have to confess at school I was not very good at maths. I managed to fail my O-level when I was 16 though a year later I did a retake and was able to pass. I don’t really blame my teachers because I probably wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t really see the relevance and I didn’t really have a natural aptitude for it. Now in later life I have started to appreciate its importance. The problem is that I lack that foundation. Even so I think that maths is not entirely a hierarchical subject and anyone can appreciate its beauty and the insight it gives on our world. It is essential to have an understanding of mathematics. I don’t just mean to avoid financial mismanagement and running up consumer debt. It goes much deeper than that.

For me probability is the most illuminating area of mathematics. An example is the way people think about risk. We seem to have a poor assessment of risk. After a plane crash many people refuse to fly but have no problem taking the car, which is far more dangerous.

We are often fooled by randomness. If there are a lot of cases of cancer near a mobile phone mast, this does not necessarily mean that there is a problem with the mast. When we think of bad things occurring  randomly, we seem often to expect that they will be evenly distributed. But a cluster is perfectly ordinary; in fact what would really be bizarre would be a world where there were no clusters. It is like the gambler’s fallacy where people think if it has been heads four times in a row, it must be time for tails.

            The history of how probability theory came about is vital for understanding our contemporary world. In Against the Gods Peter Bernstein shows how a series of groundbreaking discoveries in mathematics helped to spark the affluence of the Western capitalist world. We can have investments and stock markets and the economic growth that they permit because we understand the concepts of probability and risk management. Many of those who worked on this in the 16th and 17th centuries were compulsive gamblers, but also mathematicians and fascinated by the mechanics of gambling. One of them was Pascal who thought about the existence of God and thought about how to manage the risk implicit in that bet. This is of course the famous Pascal’s Wager. The important point for Pascal is that risk is not just about probabilities but also consequences. It goes like this:

If you believe in God and you are wrong, you lose nothing (if death is the absolute end), whereas if you correctly believe in God, you gain everything (eternal salvation). But if you correctly disbelieve in God, you gain nothing (death ends all), whereas if you wrongly disbelieve in God, you lose everything (eternal damnation).

            A sceptical perspective is provided by Nassim Nicholas Taleb author of The Black Swan. He describes himself as a “sceptical empiricist” and a “philosopher of probability”. For Taleb too many experts overestimate the value of of rational explanations of past data and underestimate the prevalence of inexplicable randomness in that data. The title of the book refers to the fact that we tend to believe all swans are white because we’ve probably never seen a black swan. Taleb distinguishes between two domains of chance – Mediocristan and. Extremistan. For example people’s weights lie in Mediocristan. Some people are fat others are thin but even a very fat person is only a few times heavier than a very thin person and it will still only represent an insignificant percentage of the total weight of everyone. They will converge at a normal (Gaussian) distribution. This is what Taleb calls “mild randomness”. Now, for Extremistan, instead of weight, think about income Think of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. Their wealth is a million times greater than that of the average person. This is “wild randomness” The exceptional in this case is not unimportant. In the summer of 1982, large American banks suddenly lost close to all their past earnings made cumulatively in the history of American banking. They were fooled by  a small sample; they’d had a number of consecutive good years and had forgotten about the small probability of something really bad  happening. This kind of thinking is rife in financial markets, although they do not have the monopoly. According to Taleb no statistician produced a model that predicted the subprime crisis. His conclusion is that we can trust experts and statistics with events that come in a normal distribution but we must be  prepared to admit our ignorance in these events which have an extremely low probability but  with exceptionally severe consequences.


Further listening and reading

More or Less This BBC programme is presented by Tim Harford, author of the best selling book The Undercover Economist and it deals with the world of  numbers. You can listen to all the past programmes They have included stories about the numbers behind the immigration debate, measuring poverty, how much alcohol is too much, whether the financial mathematicians known as “quants” are to blame for the current credit crisis and Eurovision voting.



Who’s Counting? In this website a prestigious mathematician analyses the news from a mathematical perspective.



Nassim Taleb talks about the challenges of coping with uncertainty, predicting events, and understanding history.


My Media Week 15/06/08

June 15, 2008

Here is a piece about how some groups want to keep indigenous peoples trapped in poverty with an overly romanticised idea of life in a tribe. (ARTICLE)



John Kay gives us his perspective on the current agricultural crisis. (ARTICLE)



On the Philosopher’s Zone this week, a conversation with Simon Critchley, author of The Book of Dead Philosophers. We all know about Socrates and his hemlock but the case of Roland Barthes is less famous. The  man whose work influenced many fields including structuralism, semiotics, existentialism, Marxism and post-structuralism,  was hit by a laundry van while walking home through the streets of Paris. (PODCAST)



Lingua Franca is about the case heard last week, in a court in Athens, about the word ‘lesbian’, in which the plaintiffs are claiming that the prerogative to the term belongs to the inhabitants of the island of Lesbos. They are seeking for a ban to be placed on its use by the gay organisation, the Homosexual and Lesbian Community of Greece. (PODCAST)