Robert Burns wrote his famous tribute to skewered intrigues — “the best-laid schemes of mice an’ men gang aft a-gley, and leave us naught but grief an’ pain for promised joy” — and paid it to a disappointed mouse. But it’s apt consolation to politicians who run their mouths in the wrong direction.
Take that, Joe Biden, and use it for whatever comfort you can. You’re not likely to find sufficient balm in Gilead, or anywhere else. It’s a cold and unforgiving world out there, and nowhere more than in the nation’s capital.
Good old Joe is not the first politician to say something he thought was clever, or learned, and committed suicide, or something close to it, like losing election to the White House. Sometimes one remark that should never have been said is all it takes to consign the unwary to a forgotten footnote to a presidential campaign.
Probably nothing Walter Mondale could have said would have eased the pain of getting caught in the rocks and briars of the landslide that propelled Ronald Reagan to a second term. When you lose 49 states, you’re pretty much in the position of the man who backed into a buzz saw and never figured out which of the teeth actually cut him. But when, in their first presidential debate Mr. Mondale uttered what he imagined was a clever promise to raise necessary taxes — “he won’t tell you taxes will have to be raised, and I just did” — he sipped the Kool-Aid.
Michael Dukakis, smarting from the torrents of contempt he called down on himself when, in debate about capital punishment with George Bush the Elder, he was asked by the interlocutor what he would do to a man who raped the missus, he replied that he would appoint a task force to study the causes of crime. He, too, was probably never destined for the White House, but with that foolish answer to a foolish question he doomed himself to public ridicule and God knows what when he got home that night.
George Bush the Elder finished himself off with a foolish remark four years after that when, after speculating that the wise men who hover about a president would come to him to persuade him to raise taxes and he would say “no.” They would come again with the same advice and he would say “no” again. But on their third try, he would answer with the most memorable words of the campaign: “Read my lips.” We all read those lips and the little Duke was sent packing back to Boston. Later, it was Mr. Bush himself who forgot to read his lips, and Bill Clinton sent him packing back to Texas.
Many months later, aboard his famous cigarette boat at his summer home in Kennebunkport, I asked Mr. Bush, my favorite of all the pols I’ve known, how he could have unhorsed himself so needlessly; it would have been better to organize bake sales and take up collections on street corners rather than betray such eloquence in three little words. “I got a lot of advice about what to do,” he said, “and I listened to the wrong man.”
One remark, and a carefully planned campaign goes down the drain, or wherever such campaigns go when slain by a loose tongue. Joe’s harmless hugs and massaged shoulders with never the follow-through, not an unfortunate remark on the stump, is what has slowed his momentum toward a 2020 campaign.
The hugs and massages diverted the attention of the ever-dozing media to the really chilling things he said in a speech the other day at the Russian Tea Room in Manhattan. He was trying to offer a full grovel to the radical feminists for his close questioning of Anita Hill at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in the previous century. He’s apparently willing to sacrifice America’s crown jewels to make the benighted ladies feel better.
“It’s an English jurisprudential culture, a white man’s culture,” he said, “and it’s got to change.” He did not specify which of the bedrock items of the “English jurisprudential culture” he wants to throw away. The right of a trial by jury? The principle that a suspect is innocent until proved guilty? That, barring exceptional circumstances, a criminal trial must be open to the public? Must all these rights, bought by the blood of patriots, be trashed to make it up to the angry #MeToo ladies abused by a politician’s wandering hands?
Say it ain’t so, Joe.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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