July 28 (Bloomberg) -- Was this Mitt Romney’s “potatoe” moment?
The presumed Republican presidential nominee’s brief stay in London came off more like a blooper reel than a statesman’s first audition on the international stage.
The visit recalled candidate slip-ups of years past -- from Dan Quayle’s misspelling of potato to Al Gore’s claim of inventing the Internet -- questioning whether Romney’s could do lasting damage to his image and electoral prospects.
“From the point of view of diplomacy and the original intent and nature of the trip, it looks like a real foot-in-the-mouth moment for Romney,” said Michael Silverstein, a professor of anthropology, linguistics and psychology at the University of Chicago who co-wrote a forthcoming book about communication in presidential politics. “It’s really a question of how this will continue -- or not -- to reverberate, and what are its consequences?”
U.S. political history is rife with embarrassing tales of candidate slips that took on lives of their own, sometimes forming lasting tropes about the politician in question.
There was former President George H.W. Bush’s much-lampooned moment of amazement when he encountered a supermarket scanner at a 1992 grocer’s convention. It opened him to ridicule as out of touch with American life outside the cloistered confines of the White House.
Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, drew ridicule for ordering a Philadelphia cheese steak sandwich with Swiss cheese and dressing in head-to-toe camouflage for a campaign trail photo-opportunity going goose-hunting. Both were seen as Kerry’s tin-eared efforts to portray himself as something he was not.
Quayle, who served with Bush, couldn’t shake his reputation as an intellectual lightweight after he corrected a sixth grader during a visit to a Trenton, New Jersey, school, saying the child had left the “e” off the end of the word “potato.”
Quayle would later write in his autobiography that it was “a defining moment of the worst kind imaginable.”
Enter Romney, who had scarcely been on the ground in London a few hours when he came under withering criticism from leaders and media there for having cast doubt on the success of the summer Olympic games.
“You know, it’s hard to know just how well it will turn out,” Romney told NBC in an interview, adding that reports of security problems were “disconcerting.”
The comments prompted a tart retort by British Prime Minister David Cameron, who noted that, “Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere” -- an implicit reference to the games Romney chaired in 2002 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
London Mayor Boris Johnson worked a crowd of 80,000 into a lather referring to the candidate as “a guy called Mitt Romney” who was questioning whether his city could handle the games. “Are we ready? Yes we are!” he yelled.
Romney, wrote The Telegraph newspaper, “is perhaps the only politician who could start a trip that was supposed to be a charm offensive by being utterly devoid of charm and mildly offensive.” The Sun tabloid labeled him “Mitt the Twit.”
It wasn’t over yet. In damage-control mode, Romney slipped again yesterday, as he tried to praise London’s management of the Olympics in an interview with NBC, calling it “impressive” that spectators could watch events from downtown.
“You’re going to be able to be just in the backside of 10 Downing Street for beach volleyball,” Romney said.
The mistakes may not have much shelf-life, given that they occurred overseas and will soon be overtaken by the Olympic Games, said political science professor Steven Frantzich.
“The ones that are damaging are ones that really reflect a candidate’s character or ability, and particularly ones that are repeated so that it becomes a storyline of its own,” said Frantzich, who teaches at U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and has written a book about political gaffes.
“At this point, I don’t think we’re going to look back and say, ‘That was the moment in which Mitt Romney lost the election.’” Frantzich said. “Now, if there is a longer series of missteps, there may be a story that this carefully managed campaign could be coming apart at the seams.”
The former Massachusetts governor’s allies say Americans couldn’t care less about perceived insults and mistakes in England.
“We’re not worried about overseas headlines -- we’re worried about voters back here at home in America,” Louisiana Republican Governor Bobby Jindal told reporters during a conference call July 26.
Still, one top aide did try to change the subject. Beth Myers, who is heading Romney’s vice presidential search, tantalized reporters and others by taking to the social media site Twitter urging them to follow politicians believed to be on the short list -- and then she listed 13 names, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a prospective pick that no party strategist considers serious.
Still, some gaffes -- however silly or overblown -- can help dash presidential hopes. When Gerald Ford fell down the stairs of Air Force One while waving to supporters, he was satirized by Chevy Chase on “Saturday Night Live” as clumsy and dim, doing lasting damage to his reputation.
Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, has had his share of bloopers -- such as when he asked a wheelchair-bound man at a campaign event to, “Stand up -- let ’em see you!” --yet the miscues are rarely seen as a major liability.
“Since virtually all of his over-speakings are of the genial, hail-fellow-well-met sort, he gets away with it,” Silverstein said.
That’s not the case for Romney, he added, in part because of how tightly his campaign manages media and public access to the candidate.
“The strategy seems to involve large clumps of silence or avoidance, and that’s never really a good way of trying to fashion an image or personality,” Silverstein said. “When gaffes are taken to be little breakthrough windows into the real self, then you have a problem.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at or Jdavis159@bloomberg.net.
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