Why incumbents aren't crucified for saying dumb things.
"I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"
—Barry Goldwater, accepting the Republican nomination for President, July 16, 1964
Governor George W. Romney of Michigan was a leading contender for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination until September 4, 1967, when he told Detroit television newsman Lou Gordon that he had been "brainwashed" by American generals into supporting the Vietnam war effort while touring Southeast Asia in 1965. Though Romney tried in earnest to explain himself, he became the target of blistering press and partisan attacks. Romney's candidacy never recovered from the furor he created with his statement.
—"Media Frenzies In Our Time, Summaries by Larry J. Sabato," washingtonpost.com, March 27, 1998
President Bush on Wednesday had a tough message for Iraqi militants attacking U.S. troops - "Bring them on" - and said the U.S. military presence was sufficient to deal with the attackers.
—Reuters, July 2, 2003
Goldwater was the nominee of his party, so it was too late to knock him out of the campaign; but he was so hammered by his critics that it may be argued that the fallout gave LBJ the feeling of a mandate that he didn’t deserve. By having good things to say about extremism and bad things to say about moderation, he was made out to be a crazy right-winger, hardly to be trusted with the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
A rational analysis (I am sure it was offered at the time, though drowned out) would have pointed out the sanity of Goldwater's statement. What, you're supposed to die for liberty, but not be extreme about it? You're supposed to be satisfied with a judge who is only moderately just? Every death is extreme, and justice has no modifiers.
So what Goldwater said was an eloquent truism, but he should have saved it for his hoped-for inaugural address. Then it would have been hailed as a Deep Pronouncement. But because he said it in his acceptance speech, where claptrap is the rule and every statement is given the worst possible construction, his critics pounced on him as though he had proposed legalized prostitution.
Governor Romney’s case is sadder still. He used the word “brainwashing” in a casual way to describe how American generals had bamboozled him about the prosecution of the Viet Nam war. He had bought their explanation on the grounds that Generals of the Army are reputed to be honest people who know what they are talking about. He didn’t mean they had turned him into the Manchurian Candidate!
We learned from that episode long ago that no word in American politics may be used casually. The opposition and the press will do their best to make the candidate appear either incompetent or silly.
Unless, of course, the candidate is also the sitting President. The Presidency is serious business; if the President is going to be silly, it has be about silly things. If he is wrong about big things, then he will be attacked on serious grounds; but if he is silly about big things, we can't afford it - yet he remains the President.
Nine months ago, when the beginning of the occupation of Iraq was still in its early stages, President Bush said “Bring them on!” to insurgents in Iraq at the same time that he was insisting that the war was over. I thought at the time that his outlandish challenge would be the end of his bid for re-election, six months before the first primary.
I thought the story would stay alive as political news. Goldwater’s did, as did Romney’s. I thought “Bring Them On” would be endlessly perpetuated by the Press, the Pundits, and the Democrats and that “Bring-them-On Bush” would be the banner on just about every attack ad the Democrats would run.
Not so. On reflection, the reason is clear. He’s the President. If we call attention to his silliness, we will make the country look silly too. We can't afford that. If Candidate Bush were a challenger instead of the sitting President, he would have been ridiculed out of the campaign within a month, if not a week, by “Bring Them On...” But he’s the President, so he may get away with it. If a candidate is being silly, we can say so; but to have a silly President is scary.