JULY 11, 2008
Former senator Phil Gramm -- under fire for saying the United States has "become a nation of whiners" -- said in an interview today that he meant the nation's leaders were whiners, not its citizens.
But the top adviser to Sen. John McCain repeated his assertion that the economy is not in recession, and he declined to retract the comments quoted yesterday in the Washington Times.
"I'm not going to retract any of it. Every word I said was true," Gramm said. ...
He said his staff had told him the Washington Times misquoted his "whiners" comment.
"When I said we've become a nation of whiners, I'm talking about our leaders. I'm not talking about our people," he said. "We've got every kind of excuse in the world about oil prices -- we've got speculators, the oil companies to blame -- but too many people don't have a program to get on with a job of producing."
Obviously not what the McCain campaign wants to deal with today...
Semi-relatedly, this whole controversy's gotten me thinking about the famous Kinsley maxim about Washington gaffes, which, according to Kinsley, happens when a politician speaks the truth. Except that Kinsley's maxim seems inoperative here. Most people probably think Gramm was wrong (voters, of course, but also an increasing number of economists, who worry about median incomes and volatility as opposed to just macro numbers like GDP growth). So the problem wasn't that Gramm was telling an impolitic truth so much as an impolitic falsehood he took to be the truth.
But, when you put it that way, there's nothing really ironic about this sort of Washington gaffe. Kinsley's definition implies there's something unfair about piling on a politician for being impolitic. But why shouldn't they get bashed for telling an impolitic falsehood? (Think also Trent Lott on Strom Thurmond, or any number of pronouncements by Jesse Helms...)
I think Mickey Kaus actually has the better clever definition of a gaffe. Back in March he wrote (scroll down to March 24):
A Kinsley Gaffe is offically defined as
when a politician tells the truth.
To cover the Obama race speech, we may need a second kind of Kinsley Gaffe, call it KG II, that would apply to the trouble generated
when a politican says what he or she actually thinks (whether or not it's the truth).
But even this is slightly imprecise. If you think about it, the KG II should just be the overall definition of a political gaffe--an impolitic statement of what you think. Then there would be two sub-categories: the traditional Kinsley gaffe (when what the politician thinks is true) and the Lott-Gramm gaffe (when what they think is wrong).
Glad we got that cleared up...
Update: Commenter austinexpat makes an important point (in the context of this otherwise trivial discussion, of course): "a 'gaffe' is defined as when a politician *inadvertantly* tells the truth." Right on. I should have inserted the word "inadvertently" into all the above definitions.
Incidentally, while googling around just now, I noticed that Kinsley refined his definition of a gaffe in a column for Time last year, so that it now basically corresponds to what I was getting at (except that he refined it before I actually got at it, of course...). Kinsely wrote that "a gaffe, it has been said, is when a politician tells the truth--or more precisely, when he or she accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on in his or her head."