An Underwhelming Bachmann “Gaffe”

Perhaps predictably, many in the media have latched onto presidential candidate Michele Bachmann’s latest gaffe, in which she apparently confused beloved actor John Wayne with hated murderer John Wayne Gacy during the course of a television interview. But some of those accusing Bachmann of this embarrassing misstep have taken certain liberties in linguistics or in logic to make their points.

“Speaking in her home town of Waterloo, Iowa, on the day she announced her candidacy, Mrs [sic] Bachmann appeared to mix up the actor John Wayne with the notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy,” writes the Telegraph. And yet the candidate never actually used John Wayne Gacy’s name at all; her actual flub was in misnaming John Wayne’s hometown. Central to the Telegraph’s statement is the word “appeared,” which makes room for a certain amount of the figuring that is necessary to bring Gacy into the picture in the first place.

Here’s what Bachmann said: “What I want them to know is, just like John Wayne was from Waterloo, Iowa, that’s the kind of spirit I have too.”

The language is delicate. Some sources have been careful to leave some room for interpretation about the true nature of the flub, like this piece in Slate’s “The Slatest”:

UPDATE: Michele Bachmann defended her presidential campaign on Tuesday after making a gaffe in which she incorrectly claimed she shared a hometown with the actor John Wayne, a verbal slip up that left many wondering whether she was confused with “clown killer” John Wayne Gacy.

Others, like the Baltimore Sun, which here directs readers to the more carefully phrased Washington Times article, simplify the scene, even slightly, in a way that changes the story from the mix-up of towns to that of people:

A flake mistake? Bachmann mixes up John Wayne and John Wayne Gacy.
There is no reason to assume that Bachmann, apparently unaware of the relatively well-known John Wayne Birthplace Museum in Winterset, Iowa, some 150 miles from Waterloo, was better informed about the birthplace of the serial killer (who certainly demonstrated few of the “what America’s all about” qualities the candidate praises in the cowboy). More likely is that Bachmann’s aides were careless in their research before her Waterloo appearance, giving her bad information.

Making the leap from John Wayne’s misnamed hometown to a mix-up of him and Gacy seems like a vaguely dishonest means to a spicy headline (not to mention innumerable videos of a Pogo-faced Michele Bachmann on YouTube). Granted, the headline grabs the eye more than might “BACHMANN MIXES UP JOHN WAYNE’S HOMETOWN WITH ANOTHER IOWA HAMLET STARTING WITH W,” and thus draws attention to the kind of careless mistake on the part of the candidate that could have an impact on swing voters.

But while this kind of flub might be enough to turn a shallow analyst away from the Bachmann ticket, to a careful voter it really says very little about her actual credentials or suitability for the position, and reveals much less about her personality and views than did Obama’s inflammatory “clinging to guns and religion” word vomit of 2008, or most of Bachmann’s statements on policy and ethics.

If media sources latch on to flubs like these for their viral quality, and aren’t afraid to shift the language around to get a good headline, we end up with a lot of energy spent, both in the media and on the part of Bachmann’s campaign staff, explaining the error instead of dealing with more important issues, like policy, the candidate’s experience in the field, and voting records. At The Washington Post, Jonathan Bernstein says it cleanly and well:

“In the unlikely event that Michele Bachmann becomes president, it’s really not going to matter too much if she flunks American history or gets a few facts wrong. But the fact that she believes that hitting the debt limit is harmless and is flat-out against raising it regardless of the actual consequences … well, that’s a truly radical position that raises serious questions about her readiness to be president.

Even if it doesn’t meet the media’s “gaffe” standard.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Isabella Yeager is a contributor to CJR. Tags: , , , ,