On the first day of the Democratic National Convention, John Kerry's campaign organization found itself in crisis mode. They weren't sweating a last-minute rewrite of the candidate's acceptance speech or concerned about what Al Sharpton might actually say when he took the stage. Instead, the crisis involved photos of Kerry in a hooded, baby-blue anti-contamination outfit (often dubbed a "bunny suit") taken that day at the Kennedy/ NASA Space Center in Florida.
Campaign strategists worried that the pictures of the Massachusetts senator looking somewhat like a Teletubby would overshadow all the talk at the convention about his heroism, vision and leadership. In fact, comparisons were soon being made to another infamous presidential campaign gaffe — the picture of 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis giving an awkward wave from a tank.
Which led to a strategic dilemma — would it be wiser to fight back or to ignore the photos in the hopes they would fade away?
The Kerry team chose the first approach and quickly accused NASA of releasing the pictures as some sort of political "dirty trick." When the Republican National Committee forwarded the photos to supporters with the subject line "Earth to Kerry," the Kerry campaign retaliated by sending out three choice pictures of Bush — in a ceremonial kimono, as a cheerleader at Yale, and picking his nose during a baseball game.
Whether or not these efforts worked — or merely made the situation worse — the Kerry campaign wisely realized that in presidential politics, gaffes often don't fade away. Dukakis was, after all, sitting on a huge lead in the polls when the tank photo was taken; a few months later, he had lost a landslide election to the first president Bush.
Presidential history, in fact, is littered with the remains of candidates unable to live down their missteps. Just remember Howard Dean's rapid fall from grace after his "I Have a Scream" speech earlier this year. Similarly, Al Gore was never able to overcome his claim to have, at the very least, had a hand in inventing the Internet, and former Vice President Dan Quayle's political future was effectively over when he misspelled the word "potato" while helping judge an elementary school spelling bee.
What did these gaffes have in common? Perhaps, fairly or unfairly, they all reinforced a troubling character trait that many voters already suspected about the politician involved. Howard Dean, for example, had the reputation as a bit of a loose cannon, and his high-octane concession speech only confirmed this suspicion. Similarly, Gore's gaffe bolstered the public perception that he was a serial exaggerator; Quayle's reinforced the notion that he was not too bright; and Dukakis' visible awkwardness in the tank only cemented the view that he might be soft on defense.
Yet while these politicians found themselves defined by their mistakes, others are able to endure gaffe after gaffe without breaking stride. Few politicians are as gaffe-prone as President Bush — for whom a new word, "Bushism," was coined — but Bush is usually able to play them off as added proof that he is just an ordinary guy. As a result, few batted an eye when Bush made this startling statement in a speech on Thursday: "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."
Although no individual Bushism seems to make many waves, Democrats hope that at some point over the next three months, the accumulated weight of Bushisms will do the president in. Which reveals another truth about gaffes — they often aren't a solitary flub, but merely the culmination of a lengthy campaign to highlight and soften up a weakness in a candidate's makeup.
Which is why both parties will spend the rest of the campaign hammering away at their opponent's perceived Achilles' heel, whether it's Bush's way with words or Kerry's stiffness and formality. After all, every verbal blunder or bike spill could be their opponent's Dukakis-in-the-tank moment. The bunny suit may not have been that moment for Kerry, but it could be a part of the groundwork for the fatal blow.
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