The Alberta race, within view of the ribbon, is yielding the gaffes which invariably issue from the combined stresses of mental fatigue, excitement and desperation. In the gaffe genre, there are many sub-species of misspeaking. Each fresh entry into the canon tells us something distinct.
We begin with a politician of Albertan extraction. “What is the totality of your acreage?” former Prime Minister Joe Clark once asked, addressing an indigent farmer on a trip to India. Like Gerald Ford’s inept descent from an airplane, infamous thereafter as a recurring Chevy Chase gag, Clark’s pinheaded phrasing became a metonym for his perceived signature fault: an inability to connect with the common folk and to perceive the blowing of the political winds. Rather swiftly, Clark’s tin ear for politics brought him down. (In the case of Gerald Ford, one of the most nimbly athletic persons to occupy the White House, the perception of ineptitude was well off-the-mark: but in politics perception is everything.)
Moving further afield from Alberta, Kim Campbell submitted two gaffes under the rubric “Things Which Are Probably True But Should Not Be Said.” During her campaign, she asserted that the recession was likely to go on for some time (it did) and that elections were a lousy time to discuss the issues (quite arguably true, when you consider it).
In the gaffe category of “What I Meant To Say” falls the recent statement of Calgary-Greenwood aspirant, Ron Leech. In my estimation an unfairly labeled instance of bigotry, Leech’s claim that “As a Caucasian, I believe that I can speak to all the community” confirmed certain familiar stereotypes of Westerners. Seeking his office in Calgary-Greenway (a come-lately electoral district patched together from among three previous ridings, in a 2010 re-distribution), Leech meant to say that he can win in an ethnically diverse area. Having narrowly lost in his last attempt, this is precisely his current political challenge. A “white” candidate the political version of Type O blood? This is a whack of gaffe, but hate is not a part of the package. (An aside: the word candidate derives from the Latin term “shimmering white,” describing the bright toga put on by Roman campaigners. White candidate is thus a tautology.) A better argument would have been to observe that social conservatism is the ideological home of many immigrant populations, and that Leech is nothing if not a social conservative. Oh well.
Then there are the gaffes — the ones we most cherish — which are merely humorous. In this context I recall Bob Wenman’s professed allegiance to “Judo Christianity” (which brings to my mind the so-called muscular Christianity of Henry Fielding) and Allan Lamport’s assertion that Canada is the greatest nation in this country. Such comments are usually laughed off and forgotten, but they do risk exemplifying Mark Twain’s observation that “it is better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”
An example here is Stockwell Day, who after an initial burst of extraordinary political promise seemed bent in both word and deed toward making a proper fool of himself. His pointless attack on Lorne Goddard eventually cost the Albertan taxpayers over $700,000, and along the way he made a specimen of himself in two water-related incidents, decrying that “jobs were flowing south just like the Niagara River” and appearing on Jet-Ski for a wet suit photo-op. At first merely comical, his miscalculations and fumblings eventually split the Alliance Party, leading to the ascendance of the current, and surprisingly gaffe-free, Prime Minister.
In the final category fall gaffes of a more serious nature, as my colleague Kelly McParland has observed. These gaffes bring forth questions which can be evaded or brushed aside for only so long, for the “mispeakings” here are cases neither of comical confusion nor of political tone-deafness, but of views likely held by candidates but dishonestly withdrawn or repudiated for a home-stretch tactical advantage. In these cynical instances, the gaffes are no matter for laughter.