Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Gaffe: A Presidential Foul

According to the United States Bowling Congress's Rule 5a:

A foul occurs when a part of the player’s body encroaches on or goes beyond the foul line and touches any part of the lane, equipment or building during or after a delivery...When a foul is recorded the delivery counts, but the player is not credited with any pins knocked down by that delivery.

I don't want to discuss politics on this blog very often. There are two reasons for this. First off, to do so runs counter to my assertion that autism (and special needs as a whole) does not discriminate by race, religion or political persuasion and therefore, we should not let these distinctions divide us. I've found that the commonality of our experiences should be a tighter bond than these other traditional differences that have created such carnage and mayhem in human history. Secondly, my political views run counter to many I've met in the special needs area and I'm likely to alienate more people than I attract with them.

However, as I sat in Hangzhou, China - 7,500 miles away from my home in Texas - I was unable to avoid this presidential misstep. Considering the relation of the topic to autism, I feel I have to at least comment on it, so here it goes.

President Obama's joke about the Special Olympics was a stupid comment from a man who holds the position that carries with it the largest bully pulpit in the world and should have known better. I admit I was disappointed by it but I wasn't offended by it. My initial reaction was "Wow, he really screwed that up."

Ironically, hours before the program a friend of mine, a strong supporter of the president, asked me what I thought about the appearance on The Tonight Show. In hindsight, my response reads pretty funny: Obama's smart to go on Leno. Easy gig. Brings out his likable side. Frankly, I think he can achieve a lot. If he sort of wants to change the tone a bit, that's a good place to start. He apologizes better than any president I've seen (I'm serious about that). What a better place to do it?

Okay. Maybe not.

In my opinion, the president deserves all of the backlash he's received - real and contrived (mostly contrived) - not because of the merit of his statement (or lack thereof), but because that's how politics is played in our country and has been since its inception. Say or do something that can be used against you by your political opponents and it will be used. No exceptions. If someone had told us on Wednesday night that the president would make this gaffe, most of us could have predicted the specific reactions by Democrats and Republicans alike, as well as certain news organizations and even individuals with remarkable accuracy. Strong supporters would be disappointed but not waver with their support of their president (or simply think it wasn't that big of a deal). Strong detractors would point to this is a sin of ginormous proportions proving his unworthiness. Politicians who would stand to gain from the mistake would take their prize.

It happens.

It happened to Andrew Jackson and his "gaffe" was that he unknowingly married his wife Rachel while she was technically still married to her first husband, thirty years before the 1828 election (which is considered to be one of the nastiest elections ever held because John Quincy Adams's attacks over this alleged "adultery" and "bigamy" were so vicious). It happened to poor Gerald Ford in a 1976 presidential debate ("There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be.."). It cost James Blaine the 1884 election to Grover Cleveland and he was only sitting next to the guy who made the gaffe (a protestant minister who "chided those who had left the Republican Party by stating, 'We don’t propose to leave our party and identify with the party whose antecedents are rum, Romanism, and rebellion.'” - a clear insult to Catholics and Irish voters in New York). Karl Rove and David Axelrod didn't invent this sport, they're merely the current stars of the game.

Many Republicans were quick to point out that "if Bush had said that.....(blah, blah blah)" and they're right. Though, their level of prognostication is akin to predicting "if I go outside in the rain without an umbrella, I'm gonna get wet." If former President Bush, or some other prominent Republican, had made the same gaffe, strong supporters would be disappointed but not waver with their support of their man or woman (or simply think it wasn't that big of a deal). Strong detractors would point to this is a sin of ginormous proportions proving his or her unworthiness. Politicians who would stand to gain from the mistake would take their prize. We know how Fox News would react. We know how The New York Times would react. We could almost write their stories for them.

My biggest complaint about the president's gaffe (and the closest thing I'll make to a political comment about it) is that it represents yet another example of the lack of discipline in his communications. The campaign communications juggernaut that we saw last year has yet to arrive to the White House. His predecessor was never thought to be the "Great Communicator" and he easily lived up to (or down to?) that expectation. The gap between the expectations of the Obama Administration's communications skills and the results we've witnessed thus far, however, is enormous. He owns this. There's no one to blame for it.

As I presciently mentioned to my friend prior to the show, the president apologizes well and he did so again here. The apology was swift and to the point and anyone not trying to take political advantage of the situation will be fine with it. Three and half years from now (if not sooner), we will see this clip in a political ad. An attempt (or several attempts) will be made to make this a reelection issue. If you're going to be offended by somebody doing that, express your outrage now. Get it out of the way because it is going to happen.

The president's joke went over the line - the foul line. No more. No less. In accordance with Rule 5a, the foul was recorded; the interview with Jay Leno counts; but he won't be credited for any of the pins (or Republicans) he knocked down during it. The next time he steps up to the line, who knows? Maybe he'll throw a gutter ball. Maybe he'll throw a strike. Either way, it has nothing to do with autism, special needs or the Special Olympics and neither did the president's gaffe. It was a just a stupid thing to say.

This isn't another Dennis Leary moment.

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