Here are my favourites from British and American politics.
BUSH AND HIS PET GOAT
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.
CRISIS? WHAT CRISIS?
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.
MIND YOUR LANGUAGE
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 WAS A TEENAGE BOOZE FIEND
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.”
LABOUR’S ELECTION PROBLEMS
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.
BAD NEWS IS GOOD NEWS
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.”
YOU SAY POTATOE ……
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.