What I really meant to say…
Should politicians be held accountable for the things that they say? Is there a difference between a harmless gaffe, a slip of the tongue, and a true reflection of the individual’s personal agenda? If so, how can the average person determine the difference?
According to George Will, “A politician’s words reveal less about what he thinks about his subject than what he thinks about his audience” (1). So the question remains whether we should we judge politicians by their words, especially if we do not have a clear view or record of their actions. Nevertheless, many politicians have said things that when taken out of context could easily be misinterpreted. This is especially true for prominent individuals, and I doubt that there has been one who has not made some sort of gaffe.
The following video is a compilation of awkward moments and worth a laugh.
According to columnist Michael Kinsley, ” A gaffe is not necessarily when a politician tells the truth. It’s when a politician says what’s really on his or her mind, which may or may not be the truth” (3). In the game of politics and elections, it is only natural that the opposition will pick up on any gaffe and use it to their advantage by either taking it out of context, exaggerating it, or misrepresenting it. We have seen this repeatedly during election cycles, especially now. Kinsley argues that ” Either the remark is being misinterpreted by opponents, or it is what used to be called a Freudian slip, unintentionally revealing an attitude or prejudice that the candidate was trying to suppress” (3). He also argues that politicians are so well-trained on their talking points, especially those in major elections, that it would be unlikely that one would actually slip and say what is really on his or her mind.
I would agree with Kinsley on some of his points; however, I also know that politicians, especially those in big elections, have people who write their speeches for them. These speeches are riddled with the well-rehearsed talking points that we so often hear repeated over and over by all who are a part of the campaign and support it. There is often little variation in the substance, and the politician giving the speech typically uses a teleprompter. A 2009 article in The New York Times suggests that President Obama relies on a teleprompter “extensively” and “…uses them for routine announcements…” (4). The author of the article goes so far as to assert “For Mr. Obama, a teleprompter means message discipline, sticking close to the intended words. While some presidents prefer extemporizing, Mr. Obama likes the message to be just so” (4). Although I was not a big supporter of Rick Santorum, I do agree with a statement he made regarding the use of teleprompters:
“See, I always believed that when you run for president of the United States, it should be illegal to read off a
teleprompter. Because all you’re doing is reading someone else’s words to people.You’re voting for someone who
is going to be the leader of our government. It’s important for you to understand who that person is in their own
words, see them, look them in the eye…hear what’s (in their) heart.You’re choosing a leader. A leader isn’t just
about what’s written on a piece of paper” (2).
Perhaps in an effort to appear more genuine or in-touch with people, President Obama seems to speaking more freely during his campaign stops. I do not know whether or not he is still relying on a teleprompter for the smaller events, but my instinct tells me he is not. Nick Wing from The Huffington Post states that “Team Obama thinks the switch, or partial switch — the president is not giving up the teleprompter entirely — will help him better connect with voters” (5). Unfortunately, Obama has made many gaffes in recent months, ones that the republican party is quick to dissect. I cannot say whether or not this a result of Obama’s diminishing reliance on teleprompters and growing attempts to be more extemporaneous.
Most gaffes are harmless, perhaps an insensitive or misdirected attempt by a politician to connect with his or her audience. There are plenty of examples from which to draw (I will focus solely on Obama and Romney). For example, in January Mitt Romney said, “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.” When read by itself, that statement appears to be poorly constructed and paints the speaker as a ruthless tyrant. Nevertheless, when one reviews the entire speech, the meaning is clearly a continuation of his assertion that people should have choice and be able to fire health insurance companies that do not provide adequate or service to their customers. In February when he stated, “[My wife] drives a couple of Cadillacs” he showed his struggle to connect to the average American and appeared somewhat insensitive. But given Romney’s financial background, it would be naive for anyone to expect that on occasion he may slip and reveal glimpses of his wealth. And, when taken in the context of his speech, the message was clear that he was showing his support for the American auto industry, not flaunting his wealth. In September of 2011, Obama commented “Now, we used to have the best infrastructure in the world here in America. We’re the country that built the Intercontinental Railroad…” Obviously this is a harmless slip of the tongue to which any person could fall victim. It would be very easy to say intercontinental instead of transcontinental, and it does not demonstrate a lack of knowledge on Obama’s part. This June he had an “oops” moment when, according to White House transcripts, he said, “I want to thank my wonderful friend [Ellen DeGeneres] who accepts a little bit of teasing about Michelle beating her in pushups — (laughter) — but I think she claims Michelle didn’t go all the way down. (Laughter) ” It is unlikely that he realized or intended any sort of sexual innuendo in the comment.
So how does an average person such as myself determine what is in a candidate’s mind and heart? What information can I use to determine whether or not a verbal slip by a politician is merely poorly chosen words or a glimpse of more? I do not wish to form my opinions strictly based on those of conservative and liberal talking heads, like FOX and MSNBC. Therefore, the first thing I do is eliminate anything that is merely a regurgitation of a talking point. Then I spend an inordinate amount of time reading articles and opinion pieces. Yes, they are often biased, but I review ones that are representative of both sides. I also draw conclusions through my own analysis. I refer not only to the context of the speech but also the speaker’s tone, body language, and word choice.
On July 13, President Obama gave a speech in Roanoke, Virginia during a campaign event. The content, and obvious gaffe, has been the subject of much debate as well as fodder for the Romney campaign. In her article for The Hill, Amie Parnes writes, “Republicans say the seemingly unscripted ‘you didn’t build that’ moment…exposed what they say are Obama’s dismissive feelings for the role of business and the private sector” (6). Although my initial reaction upon hearing the speech was insult and anger, I gave it deep consideration. Rather than focusing on sound bites and isolated lines, I read the 38 minute speech for myself. I also watched the video. Despite the many platitudes, ideals, and personal reflections contained within, there was only one portion that stood out to me, and it still insulted and angered me. The following excerpt, approximately 33 minutes into the speech, is what I believe deserves analysis:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something
back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get
there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.
There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me
tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. (Applause.)
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in
your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.
Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else
made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that
all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do
things together. (7)
I realize that the conservative media and republican party have picked lines from this section of the speech to strengthen their attack on Obama. Nevertheless, that is not specifically why I chose it. As a matter of fact, I feel that in this instance they are fully justified in their attacks. Despite the fact that Obama’s main message is that everyone works together and relies on others to accomplish goals, which I support, I think there is also a hidden message here. I see some very disturbing and telling things in these spoken lines.
It is obvious that Obama is not following a script at this point as he says “They know they didn’t — look…” The shift in his sentence structure and a brief pause indicate a change in direction, and his expression and tone clearly demonstrate deliberate thought. As he continues, his facial expression, body language, cadence, and tone all change. When Obama says “I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there,” he appears agitated, almost angry. I would even go so far as to say he has the beginnings of a smirk or sneer on his face. Then he continues to attack some invisible adversary as he lectures, ” It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.” All of this combined forces me to question his real target. Is it Mitt Romney? Is it those who earn $250,000 or more a year? Is it the individuals who have taken pride in establishing their own businesses? Just whom is he addressing and berating? I also wonder if this is how he views the mindset of “successful” Americans (I’m so smart and worked harder). Does Obama define success by wealth?
These questions all lead me to wonder exactly what Obama means when he says, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” I now know that the object of his derision is the business owner. Obama’s tone is still accusatory and bitter. His body language and expressions continue to indicate agitation. His curved fingers and lowered eyelids as he expresses his thoughts signify anger. Unfortunately, he does not pause to define who that “somebody else” is that made things happen. Is he speaking of the government? middle-class Americans? other businesses? Just who is the “somebody else”?
The next two lines in the speech absolutely define who Obama thinks “somebody else” is- the government. He states, “The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.” This may be two short lines, but they resonate loudly as a clear example of Obama’s point. Companies (aka businesses) are successful (aka rich) because the government provided the Internet (aka means). The statement is faulty logic (post hoc I believe), and also plays off the fact that most people do not distinguish between the Internet and the World Wide Web- which I will save for another post.
Obama’s words are clear here, and no spin, retraction, or “what I meant” can make it any less shocking to me. The obvious disdain and vexation with which Obama speaks, the facial expressions, the body language, all paint a very vivid picture for me. I am no expert in body language, but I sense the change at this point in the speech. I see the sneer, sense the slight variation in his voice, notice the tension in his body. All indicate to me a strong, deep, personal feeling about something.
Gaffes are a part of human nature. Sometimes they are a harmless slip of the tongue signifying nothing. Sometimes they provide material for late night talk show hosts and opponents. Sometimes they reflect the true beliefs and feelings of the speaker. In the case of Obama’s speech I feel it is the latter. I believe that he meant exactly what he said.
I really like the points that Patrick Gage makes in his blog regarding Obama’s speech. He poses a good argument to support his assertion that “Obama believes that government is the foremost creator of economic prosperity in America.” Please take a moment to read it.
(1) Famous Quotes About Politicians and Politics
(2) Politicians (Barack Obama) Who Use a Teleprompter Can’t Think for Themselves
(3) The Gaffe-termath of Political Slips
(4) President Sticks to the Script, With a Little Help
(5) Obama Teleprompter Getting Less Use On Campaign Trail
(6) ‘You didn’t build that’ remarks won’t change Obama’s strategy on the stump
(7) Remarks by the President at a Campaign Event in Roanoke, Virginia
10 Most Awkward Political Gaffes (video)
Dumb Mitt Romney Quotes
Romney: ‘I like being able to fire people who provide services to me’
Mitt Romney: Wife Ann drives ‘a couple of Cadillacs’
Obamaisms: Dumb Quotes and Gaffes by Barack Obama
President Obama’s ‘private sector’ gaffe a possible window to soul like other recent gaffes?