Today, everything an American president says is dissected and analyzed. For anyone under such scrutiny, gaffes are inevitable, and every thoughtless, off-hand comment or tasteless remark is captured and broadcast even before the president realizes what he just said. But all such gaffes are not equally horrid.
Here is a list of the eight most regrettable utterances from the highest office.
1. No Crooks Here
Asked in an interview if there were any situation in which the president, in the best interest of America, could commit an illegal act, Richard Nixon replied, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” In hindsight, he was a little off on that one.
2. What Cold War?
Debating Jimmy Carter in 1976, Gerald Ford declared, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Asked if he truly meant that the nations held behind the USSR’s Iron Curtain weren’t dominated by Soviets, he repeated himself, asserting that Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia were free of Soviet interference. It destroyed all of Ford’s credibility in foreign affairs.
3. Unsound Check
Prior to a 1984 radio broadcast, Ronald Reagan was asked to speak into the microphone for a sound check. Joking, he said, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” A recording of his statement was leaked, and Soviet forces were briefly put on alert.
4. Language Tango
In 1998 testimony before a grand jury, Bill Clinton was questioned about his improper relationship with White House aide Monica Lewinsky. In defending as truthful his statement that “there’s nothing going on between us,” he responded, “It depends on what the meaning of the word is is. If the — if he — if is means ‘is and never has been,’ that is not — that is one thing. If it means ‘there is none,’ that was a completely true statement. … Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.” His attempt at hair-splitting did not prevent his later impeachment by the House of Representatives.
5. Whose Finger Is on the Button?
Harry Truman, who liked to express himself in terse, direct statements, was asked whether the U.S. would consider using atomic weapons against the Chinese in Korea. He replied, “The military commander in the field will have charge of the use of weapons, as he always has.” Unfortunately, the commander was the impulsive, headstrong General Douglas MacArthur. Many Americans feared the General would start the next world war through the use of atomic bombs. The administration quickly issued a correction, but it didn’t erase the worries.
6. Bad Lip Reading
At the 1988 Republican Convention, candidate George H.W. Bush pledged to resist Congressional pressure to raise taxes. “They’ll push, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push again, and I’ll say, to them, ‘Read my lips: no new taxes.’” Two years later, those lips had to eat those words as Bush raised taxes, helping to drop his approval rating from 79% to 56%.
7. You’re on Candid Camera
A reporter once asked Dwight Eisenhower what important decisions his vice president, Richard Nixon, had helped him make. Eisenhower, with uncharacteristic candor, replied, “If you give me a week I might think of one.” It was such a revealing remark that the Democrats replayed it in campaign ads against Nixon in 1960.
8. Gutter Ball
On The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Barack Obama was asked about a recent bowling event. “I bowled a 129,” he replied. Leno replied sarcastically, “That’s very good, Mr. President.” And the president added, “It’s like the Special Olympics or something.” Even before the taped show could be aired, the White House recognized the insult to participants in the Special Olympics, and campaign of apologies began.
Featured image: Rcihard Nixon (Photo by Ollie Atkins, National Archives)