I have written here and there on political “gaffes,” arguing that they are exaggerated in detection and exaggerated in significance, if not always in effect.
A genuine meaningful gaffe is a premeditated statement of opinion that reveals something substantively deficient about a principal actor; it is not an error, not a Freudian slip, and not a misspeaking.
President Barack Obama made today what I would call a genuine gaffe: he said to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev regarding missile defense positions he could take only after the presidential election: "This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility."
This would be comparable to presidential candidate Mitt Romney -- not his advisor Eric Fehrnstrom -- saying that his current rhetoric is misleading because "I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign; Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch-A-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again."
The Obama statement, made with full intent, is not ambiguous: it means that President Obama will make strong protestations regarding the crucial need for a U.S.-led NATO missile defense system in Europe, but that after the election, he will let it languish as an issue. Thus Russia should not take umbrage.
What will the mainstream media make of this? Ambiguous what the president meant? How could it be ambiguous that he was saying that Russia should ignore as empty political posturing his more strongly stated policy positions now?
Will Brian Williams narrate a segment for his nightly news or for “Rock Center?” Will the Etch-A-Sketch coverage be matched by the coverage of “The Obama Russian Wink?”
We shall see.
Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric and communication at Towson University.