Throughout the course of American history, many politicians have landed memorable bonehead one-liners. Scandals, failures, straight up lies, political unrest, bi-partisan derisiveness… none of them are new, or unique to our current political setting. And none of them are free of from politicians saying something that makes you think, “Did they just say that?”
Though, perhaps thankfully, previous politicians did not have such ready access to Twitter. Pre-modern politicians had the luxury of not being so completely covered by the media — social, mainstream, or otherwise — and, as a result, many great eye-roll statements have been relegated to footnotes on Wiki pages. Along with classics like Bill Clinton’s, “I didn’t inhale,” we have George H. W. Bush’s, “Read my lips: No new taxes.” There are several memorable statements to choose from, and although Bill Clinton holds three of these top train-wreck political one-liners, he’s not nearly alone on this list. And, luckily for us, this problem isn’t limited to any one party.
Barack Obama: “I’ve now been in 57 states — I think one left to go.”
Joe Biden on Barack Obama: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
Rudy Giuliani: “We had no domestic attacks under [George W.] Bush; we’ve had one under Obama.”
Dan Quayle: “One word sums up probably the responsibility of any vice president, and that one word is ‘to be prepared.'”
Between Dan Quayle, Joe Biden, and Sarah Palin, you could almost fill a daily calendar. But those are essentially harmless comments. Thoughtless. Zero gravity pulling the integrity of the American populace down with the speaker. Not all of these slips-of-the-tongue, however, are so light-hearted.
Bill Clinton: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
Tied, in the author’s opinion, for the most fantastic example of an American politician going delusionally verbally haywire when backed into a corner is another timeless Clinton goldie: “That depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”
This is the same kind of comeback you’d get from a smart 10 year-old who isn’t mature enough to know he’s already face-planted and bleeding, yet is still trying to look cool. It’s like another great American (Mark Twain) once wrote: “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”
But when some people are under fire, all cool is lost. Fight or flight mechanisms become confused when you are more or less incapable of doing either. In the cases listed here, despite being outgunned, backed in a corner, and in all other ways defeated, the speaker(s) really only nailed their coffins closed by opening their mouths when it was high time to just “let it go” — and in the process losing any remaining tattered shreds of honor.
Perhaps the most beautiful thing about these specific kinds of comments — the lies told to try to escape clear and obvious guilt — is that they belie the absolute desperation of someone in a position of power. Power that is about to be lost. And although each of these gaffes obviously come with some serious weight, being that the speaker *is* in a position of authority and responsibility, they are nonetheless thoroughly entertaining — if only objectively. And this helps us understand that these people — in their positions of power — are really no more intelligent, no more able, no more squared-away (or not) than any other human being anywhere, when it comes down to the brass tacks. The lofted heroics we tend to assign them notwithstanding.
One important element of those three Clinton quotes is that he was completely oblivious to the fact that none of us were as stupid as he sounded. Which, of course, clues us in to the very nature of how he — or someone in his position — views those he is trying to hoodwink. There is a razor there they are walking; on one side they think we are all foolish enough to believe them, on the other… they are too foolish to realize we are not all fools. Neither of those is a good option for someone who should have the wherewithal to lead.
Former President Bill Clinton is certainly not the only American politician to wrongly assume the lack of cognitive capacity of the average American when trying to save his ass. And others on this list are certainly not the only American politicians to just say stupid stuff. The latter is an acceptable and oft-times entertaining loss; the former is utterly unacceptable, and sacrifices the very integrity of the United States, its people, and the spirit of whichever office that politician is occupying.
In this regard, no lie spoken by any American president carried greater weight nor levied greater sacrifice than the words spoken by former President Richard M. Nixon on this day in 1973.
“I am not a crook.”
The words were, in retrospect, completely untrue; an absolute bold-faced lie. And Richard Nixon blankly assumed to both not get caught AND have us believe him. In that, he almost single-handedly broke the back of the integrity of the Office of the President of the United States.
For any reader who may not know, these words were spoken in somewhat preemptive defense of the unfolding events of the Watergate scandal — a scandal so vast, that every other scandal in American culture now has to end in “-gate”. The scandal itself takes up several chapters in American political history, and shows (as mentioned above) that not only are our elected officials not immune to making absolutely idiotic decisions, but they also fall prey to the same reckless, thoughtless, desperate, straw-grasping immaturity that anyone in that position might become the victim of. And by ‘might,’ I mean, of course, ‘if they lack integrity’.
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