“In a normal year, this could be a campaign-ending event,” people (mostly in the media) have said as Trump has re-Tweeted neo-Nazis, lied about his charitable donations, casually suggested pulling out of NATO, and most recently (as of this writing) asked a hostile foreign power to spy on us to benefit his campaign. (Editor’s note: since the piece was written last week, we’ve also seen Trump attacking a Gold Star family and failing to understand—or care?—that Russia is already in Crimea.)
This got me thinking nostalgically about the great game-changing faux pas and errors committed by candidates in campaigns past. Let’s look back.
Richard Nixon: Failed to Wear Makeup for a Televised Debate
The first televised presidential debate was in 1960. John F. Kennedy looked tanned, relaxed, and healthy; Richard Nixon looked so sallow and ill that his mother called him afterward to ask if he was okay. (He actually had recently been sick—he’d been hospitalized for two weeks due to an infected knee.) After the debate, JFK moved from a slight deficit to a slight lead. Nixon wore makeup in the later debates, but fewer people watched those, and first impressions can be difficult to shake.
Ed Muskie: Cried While Defending His Wife
After the Manchester Union-Leader published a disparaging piece about Ed Muskie’s wife saying that she drank and swore (please note that this did not happen in the Victorian era but during the Nixon administration), Muskie, the “establishment favorite” of the Democratic candidates, became somewhat emotional and possibly he cried. Possibly. He said the moisture on his face was from melting snowflakes, but you know what, why should it even matter, people were saying shitty things about his wife, and there is nothing wrong with getting teary. He underperformed in the 1972 New Hampshire primary and relinquished momentum to McGovern.
Thomas Eagleton: Had Been Treated for Depression
Briefly McGovern’s running mate in 1972, Thomas Eagleton had been treated for depression in the early 1960s. In an illustration of why they vet VP candidates these days, Eagleton neglected to mention his medical history to McGovern when McGovern invited him to join the ticket. When his depression history came out, McGovern initially said he was “1000%” behind Eagleton, then backtracked a day or two later and kicked him off the ticket.
Eagleton also didn’t fess up to being the anonymous source who told a reporter that McGovern was for “amnesty, abortion, and the legalization of pot” early in the primaries. Lucky for him, the reporter kept that secret until after Eagleton died, many decades later.
George Romney: Said He Was “Brainwashed” into Supporting the Vietnam War
Republican Governor and father of Mitt Romney, George was one of Nixon’s primary opponents in 1968. He’d supported the Vietnam War in 1965 but two years later was vocally opposing it. Asked about his flip-flop in an interview, he explained that he’d been “brainwashed” into supporting the war while visiting Vietnam as a guest of the U.S. forces there. The press focused on his word choice, and he plummeted in the polls.
Ted Kennedy: Accidentally Drowned a Campaign Volunteer
Okay, you know — that was a pretty big one. A lot more than a gaffe.
The Chappaquiddick incident happened in 1969, but before that, Ted was viewed as a front-runner for 1972.
Ted Kennedy Again: Apparently Didn’t Know Why He Was Running
Having sat out in 1972 and 1976, Ted Kennedy decided in 1980 that enough time had passed that probably no one cared anymore about that time he drove off a bridge and then didn’t call a rescue crew.
But then he got interviewed by CBS and when asked the most basic of all softball questions — why do you want to be president?
“Well, I’m — were I to make the announcement and to run, the reasons I would run is because I have a great belief in this country. That it is — there’s more natural resources than any nation in the world; the greatest education population in the world; the greatest technology of any country in the world; the greatest capacity for innovation in the world; and the greatest political system in the world.”
He never managed to recover from this moment of incoherence.
Gerald Ford: Was Unaware That the Soviets Dominated Eastern Europe
In a debate with Jimmy Carter a month before the 1976 election, Ford stated that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” (Note: the Ford administration, at that point, was ongoing, Ford having taken office after Nixon’s resignation and becoming the only President to serve without having been elected to either the Presidency or Vice Presidency.) Ford then doubled down instead of backtracking. He’d been gaining on Carter in the polls, but since anyone who owned a world map and an atlas was pretty sure Ford was wrong about this, he stalled out, and Carter squeaked out a victory.
Gary Hart: Complained about Being Stuck Campaigning in New Jersey
In the 1984 presidential primary, Gary Hart was both insulting and kind of whiny: he and his wife were campaigning separately, and he complained about how she got to hold a koala bear on her trip to California while he was stuck in New Jersey and got to hold toxic waste. He promptly lost the New Jersey primary.
Gary Hart: Screwed around with Donna Rice on a Yacht Called The Monkey Business
To this day, apparently, Gary and Donna both insist that nothing untoward happened on that yacht. But let’s face it, if you get caught with a woman who is not your wife on a boat called The Monkey Business, no one’s going to listen to your protestations about the details.
Gary suspended his 1988 campaign a week after the Donna Rice story broke.
Joe Biden: Plagiarized Something, Maybe, at Some Point, Who Knows
During the 1988 Democratic primary, Joe Biden was videotaped giving a speech using and not citing some lines originally written by British Labour leader Neil Kinnock. Biden had cited those very lines on many other occasions, but he got caught in a Failure to Cite and then got accused of maybe plagiarizing a paper in law school. Speaking of law school, he also apparently said he’d graduated in the top half of his class, and that was possibly an exaggeration. The press was apparently bored that month, because JOE BIDEN IS A SERIAL PLAGIARIZER became the shocking news of the day, and he dropped out not long after.
Michael Dukakis: Went for a Ride in a Tank
In the 1988 general election, Dukakis was trying to throw off the narrative that he didn’t know a lot about the military, and somehow decided that the best way to look like he totally knew all the things about the military was to go for a ride in a tank.
He was trying to make a point about military expenditures and projects he supported (conventional stuff, like tanks, as opposed to dysfunctional and insanely expensive projects like Star Wars) by touring a tank factory in Michigan. They offered him a ride, and rather than stopping to ask important questions like, “do I look completely ridiculous in this helmet?” he apparently thought, “I GET TO GO FOR A RIDE IN A TANK!” (If you watch the video, you’ll note that he looks like he is having a really excellent time. Much like any of us would if someone handed us a helmet and the keys to a tank and let us take it for a joyride.)
The footage looked bad enough on the news; the Republicans then put it in an ad. Dukakis’s numbers tanked, and instead of a president who looked like an idiot while driving a tank, we got a president who threw up all over the Prime Minister of Japan.
George Bush (the First One): Looked at His Watch
During a Town Hall style debate with Bill Clinton, George Bush looked at his watch as an audience member started to ask a question. He said later that he was thinking, “I hate these debates, I’m so glad it’s almost over.” The thing is, that came through loud and clear, but especially given the Town Hall format, what that sounded like to people was, “I hate talking to ordinary Americans and having to dumb my policies down for them. When can I stop doing that?”
He got to stop doing that the following January when Clinton took the Oath of Office.
Howard Dean: the Dean Scream
In 2004, Dean was an Internet pioneer in two ways. First, he was doing Internet fundraising before Internet fundraising was cool. Second, he was an Internet meme before we had the term “Internet meme.” The Dean Scream got replayed over and over and over, and he slid from a commanding lead in the polls ahead of the New Hampshire primary to a second-place finish.