The Gaffe Patrol keeps its Nieuports, Spads and Sopwith Camels lined up wingtip to wingtip just off the runway at a secret base somewhere deep in Shangri-La, eager to pounce on a politician whose tongue slips. Only the valiant fly with the Gaffe Patrol.
But not always. Mitt Romney seemed to be asking for a visit from the Gaffe Patrol this week when he told a cable-TV interviewer that he “wasn’t concerned about the very poor” because they have “the safety net,” the middle class doesn’t, and the rich don’t need one. Taken in the context of the interview this was unremarkable stuff. Mitt has from the start aimed his campaign at middle-class voters, the overtaxed and underappreciated majority.
But context, as any journalist could tell you, is for sissies, and CNN decreed that Mitt had made “a potential speaking gaffe.” The brave and resolute men of the Gaffe Patrol buckled their chin straps, adjusted their goggles, threw a silk scarf jauntily against the wind and waited for the phone to ring in the ready shack.
Only this time it didn’t ring. Mitt “clarified” his remarks and there seemed to be no damage, collateral or otherwise. The next day, when Newt said he cared about the “very poor” even if Mitt didn’t, there was still no coordinated strafing of the Romney campaign. Newt, no doubt puzzled by the silence in the skies, reached for a stretch. The “safety net” was not enough, anyway. “What the poor need,” he said, “is a trampoline so that they can spring up.”
With Newt off to the sporting goods store in search of a trampoline, the campaign lurched on to Las Vegas, where The Donald, king of reality television, waited to reveal his favorite in the race to the Republican nomination. Would it be Newt Gingrich? The Associated Press, the New York Times and Politico all said so. Or would it be Mitt? Nobody said anything about Rick Santorum or Ron Paul, or even Buddy Roemer, the former governor of Louisiana who was last seen in his pirogue adrift on Bayou Bartholomew. The Drudge Report, right as usual, said Mitt was the man.
You couldn’t blame Newt for thinking the Gaffe Patrol was a squadron of malingerers. There was no pursuit of Mitt earlier when Newt accused Mitt, as governor of Massachusetts, of vetoing legislation “paying for kosher food for seniors in nursing homes - Holocaust survivors.” Surely, Newt thought, this accusation would be enough to darken the skies over Miami Beach with flights of Spads and Nieuports, eager to avenge Mormon hypocrisy on religious freedom. When it didn’t happen, Newt glumly withdrew the accusation.
Newt couldn’t even tempt the Gaffe Patrol to the skies with the resurrection of the tale of the dog on the roof. He put up an advertisement on the Internet telling again the story of how, 25 years ago, Mitt put the family dog Seamus, an Irish setter, in his kennel and strapped it to the roof of the car for a 12-hour trip to Ontario for a family vacation. Seamus, who has long since been scouting the heavenly meadows for mischief with Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, survived. So did Mitt, though it was the gravest national dog crisis since Lyndon Johnson picked up his beagle by its ears, and animal-rights fanatics were eager to sic a pit bull on Mitt. Newt never put the ad on television, probably because he didn’t have the money to do it.
Newt is learning the painful lesson that once your campaign begins losing altitude, nothing works. The Gaffe Patrol rarely avenges gaffes, and never what CNN calls “potential gaffes.” Even the Gaffe Patrol must save fuel in these straitened times. Newt thus feels driven to saying ever more absurd things, like statehood for the moon (which might be “paired” for admission with the District of Columbia), dogs on the roof, no more kosher brisket in the Jewish nursing homes, Mitt forging campaign alliances with George Soros and Goldman Sachs. The absence of grace and tact in politics accelerates. When Rick Santorum left the campaign after the Florida primary to be with a gravely ill daughter, Newt suggested it would be a good time for him to drop out permanently and endorse Newt. This absence of grace is of a piece with his treatment of his wives and other women he leaves wounded in his wake.
Newt can’t help himself. The ego and narcissism that crippled a first-rate mind is the legacy of the ‘60s. The rest of us are paying now for the damage inflicted by that dreadful decade, the greatest gaffe of all. Alas, there was no Gaffe Patrol to answer history.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.