British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s remark yesterday calling a voter a “bigoted woman” puts him in a club politicians would probably rather not join.
Brown’s comment about a voter he had just met, overheard through an open microphone, adds to a long list of stumbles that have changed the course of elections or caused politicians some short-term embarrassment.
“This is not an exclusive list that he’s joining,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor at Boston University’s College of Communication. “It’s a pretty robust and large group.”
Brown’s misstep rivals that of former U.S. Senator George Allen, said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin.
The Virginia Republican’s political career was derailed in 2006 after a video circulated on the Internet showing Allen referring to an opponent’s campaign worker of Indian descent as “macaca.” Opponents said the remark was racially derogatory, and Allen lost his Senate race and damaged prospects for a presidential campaign.
The unguarded moments revealed unflattering character traits, Buchanan said.
Brown was caught “saying something disparaging about a woman among those whose votes he’s seeking,” Buchanan said. “That’s useful information for voters, but very damaging to candidates.”
Brown, whose Labour Party trails the Conservatives in a recent poll about the May 6 election, was discussing voter Gillian Duffy’s concerns about immigration yesterday on a campaign stop. Brown made the comment, played on Sky News television, while still wearing his microphone after he got into his car.
“She is just the sort of bigoted woman who said she used to be Labour,” Brown said in the car. “That was a disaster. Who put me with that woman?”
Brown later spent a half hour visiting Duffy at her home to apologize.
“One moment he is the image of a politician shaking hands, being very charming, said Mark Blumenthal, editor of Pollster.com in Washington. “One moment later, the door is closed and he’s calling her a bigot.”
Brown’s setback brings to mind other memorable missteps, involving former U.S. presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, political analysts said.
Ford hindered his chances for election in 1976 when, during a debate with Carter, he said Poland and Eastern Europe weren’t under control of the Soviet Union.
“It really hurt him,” said Lee Edwards, a presidential historian at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based policy- research group. “He seemed ignorant about foreign policy.”
A gaffe for Carter came four years later in a presidential debate with Republican Ronald Reagan just before the 1980 election.
During that debate, Carter, who lost the election to Reagan, said he had asked his 13-year-old daughter, Amy, for her opinion on the most important issue, relating that she cited nuclear weapons. Critics ridiculed him for consulting on world affairs with a teenager.
“It allowed his opponents to portray him as loopy,” Buchanan said.
More recently, President Barack Obama in his primary campaign in 2008, had to repair the damage from remarks caught on tape that he made at a private California fundraiser.
Clinging to Guns
Obama, in describing why he was having trouble winning over working-class voters, said economic woes had led some voters to get “bitter and cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”
For candidates, “there really isn’t a whole lot of off-the-cuff,” said Blumenthal. “You have to watch what you are saying at all times.”
As far as making embarrassing comments into an open microphone, Brown has plenty of company.
Last month, an open microphone picked up U.S. Vice President Joe Biden whispering into Obama’s ear before he signed landmark health-care legislation, “This is a big f----ng deal.”
In 2008, a microphone picked up remarks by the Reverend Jesse Jackson suggesting Obama was “talking down to black people” in recent speeches at black churches. He then said, referring to Obama, “I want to cut his nuts off.”
During his first presidential campaign in 2000, George W. Bush was on a stage in Naperville, Illinois, when he noticed a New York Times reporter in the crowd. Turning to his running mate, Dick Cheney, Bush said, “There’s Adam Clymer -- a major league asshole.”
The lesson for Brown and other politicians is simple, Buchanan said.
“You never want to make a comment in any kind of a context when there’s any remote possibility that you will be overheard.”