With one ‘Oops’ a political star hits the buffers

Gaffes are a part of public life – politicians are human too. But a moment of forgetfulness has sent the American presidential hopeful Rick Perry from front-runner to also-ran. Why?

A disaster of catastrophic proportions has befallen the US presidential contender and former Texas governor Rick Perry. Last week, he was a credible future leader of the United States. Now, he seems little more than a national joke.

Online, the video of Perry hammering the final nail into his own coffin is inescapable. And it is excruciating to watch. Outlining the three government agencies he plans to axe, he names commerce, then education... then stutters. The third utterly escapes him.

After a painful, panicked minute, a moderator puts him out of his misery. ‘You can’t name the third one?’

‘No, sorry, I can’t,’ Perry replies. ‘The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops.’

Most people will recognise the feeling that a name is right on the tip of the tongue, just beyond grasp. In most cases, we are forgiven such errors. But, for politicians, Freudian slips, factual mistakes or ill-judged comments can be fatal.

During his 2010 UK election campaign, Gordon Brown forgot to turn his microphone off after meeting a rather combative member of the public. It recorded him calling 65-year-old Gillian Duffy a ‘bigoted woman’, minutes after wishing her a warm goodbye.

The incident largely scuppered Brown’s chances of election success. For years, he had been suspected of impatience and unpleasantness. Like Perry’s error, which showed an incompetence he’d been previously criticised for, the gaffe appeared to confirm existing doubts.

Some politicians, however, seem to have built careers on gaffe-prone reputations. A line like ‘voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW’ would be a shocking faux pas from many mouths, but it was just another amusing soundbite from London’s bumbling mayor, Boris Johnson.

Like George W. Bush, who has gone down in history for his frequent verbal slip-ups, Johnson has built a habit for such indiscretions into his reputation, and is not just forgiven, but celebrated for them.


Should a single gaffe ever have the power to destroy a whole career? Supporters of Perry say that even politicians are human, and should be allowed to make mistakes once in a while. Such errors are never the sum of a whole personality: by basing our perception of a politician on gaffes, rather than their record of policy and practice, we make a dire error of judgement.

Such slips, others argue, are a revealing window into the hidden life of a politician. A formidable grasp of policy, respect for the electorate and ability to keep calm under pressure are all essential skills for a politician: if gaffes suggest they may be lacking in such qualities, we should rightly condemn them.

You Decide

  1. Should a political gaffe have the power to end a career?
  2. Are mistakes actually a breath of fresh air in a carefully polished and tightly planned political world?


  1. Create a top ten of political gaffes, presenting them in an interesting way. How many different sorts or genres of error are there?
  2. Research the error of Rick Perry or Gordon Brown, and imagine you are their campaign manager. Plan a comeback strategy that will claim back your candidate's reputation with the public after the gaffe.

Some People Say...

“We should judge politicians by what they do, not what they say.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How is Perry dealing with his error?
He has embraced it wholeheartedly, laughing at his error with an 'I'm only human' angle. His team have even launched a mini-campaign that asks voters which government agency they'd 'rather forget', using the error to further his argument.
But what does this mean for the presidential race?
Many believe rival Mitt Romney will now easily become the Republican candidate for next year's presidential race.
Have people other than politicians made fatal errors like this?
Absolutely. The most famous example is Gerald Ratner, who wiped millions of pounds off the value of his jewellery business with the following ill-advised anecdote: 'People say, "How can you sell this [your product] for such a low price?", I say, "because it's total crap".'

Word Watch

Presidential contender
Rick Perry is competing to be nominated as the official presidential candidate of the US Republican Party. Whoever gets the Republican Party nomination will go on to challenge President Barack Obama in the presidential elections next year. Perry was once a front runner in the nomination race, but his support has been ebbing away.
Freudian Slip
A 'slip of the tongue', saying one thing when you meant to say another, that reveals something about what you're actually thinking.
Gordon Brown
Former prime minister of the UK, who replaced Tony Blair during the latter period of Labour government.
Boris Johnson
The mayor of London. A Conservative politician, Johnson is well-known for his shock of blond hair, upper-class accent and tendency to commit inappropriate gaffes. He occasionally presents satirical news show Have I Got News For You.
Faux pas
A conversational error – generally resulting in accidental rudeness or embarrassment. The phrase comes from the French meaning 'false step'.


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