The Gotcha! games have already begun

When is a gaffe not a gaffe in politics? When it's untrue, apparently. Enjoy the campaigns. A classic gaffe, a career-threatening humiliation delightful to the press, is when someone expresses a home truth in plain language. Like that if a foreign nation attacked a country with which you had a defensive alliance you would defend them. You can have real trouble living something like that down.

It's an especially juicy gaffe when someone blurts out what everyone knows.

Like the NDP candidate, formerly campaign director for the B.C. Marijuana Party in 2005, who got dumped because video surfaced of him smoking pot. Surely the real mistake was made by whoever in the NDP welcomed him as a candidate without realizing the marijuana in question was the stuff you smoke to get high. Didn't the party grasp that a guy whose political philosophy was openly based on weed had probably sampled it? So why is actual video of him smoking it confirmation of anything but the obvious? (The video of the other ex-NDP candidate apparently driving after taking hallucinogens is an entirely different matter -- surprising, stupid and dangerous).

Then there's the September 22 NDP e-mail inviting me to visit their digital "Orange Room" where a video called "Stephenstein" offers 39 seconds of alternating shots of the prime minister and Boris Karloff's Frankenstein, then says "Don't Let This Fool Fool You."

I say that posting mean, childish junk on your website reveals something important about your party. But, evidently it's just good clean fun, unlike, say, a cyberpuffin pooping on someone. Blurting out your real partisan feelings only seems to qualify as a gaffe when conservatives do it.

The most interesting case thus far this fall is the amazing howler by Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden in a September 22 CBS puffball "Exclusive" full of hard-hitting journalistic observations from Katie Couric like "Relating to the fears of the average American is one of Biden's strong suits" and "You say what's on your mind and I think people appreciate that." After claiming the Republicans will take things he says out of context (but "If I have to go parse through every single thing that I'm gonna say then I'm not me"), Mr. Biden illustrated his concept of true leadership with, "When the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on the television and didn't just talk about the, you know, the princes of greed. He said, 'look, here's what happened.'"

Well, yes. Except Roosevelt wasn't president at the time and there was no commercial television. If Sarah Palin had said it, she'd have been pilloried for cluelessness, and rightly so. But isn't it at least as bad for Biden, put on the Democratic ticket expressly for his knowledge and experience, having been first elected to the Senate in 1972, roughly half-way between the actual inauguration of Roosevelt in 1933 and that interview? It's peculiar, in fact, that the high-priced talent at CBS didn't notice this oopsie while filming, editing and airing the segment. After all, the fact that Republicans were in power when the Depression hit had a huge impact on American politics for the next 50 years and you'd think they'd know that and so should Biden.

Wednesday's Citizen suggested Mr. Biden mostly got away with that blunder because attention was focused on "two bigger gaffes" in the same week, namely not knowing Barack Obama's position on clean-coal plants and calling one of the Obama-Biden campaign's own TV ads "terrible" because it mocked John McCain's not knowing how to send e-mail (in fact Mr. McCain has great difficulty typing because of permanent injuries from being tortured as a Vietnam POW). The latter isn't a gaffe. It's refreshing honesty with a dash of decency. So of course it's what's getting him in real trouble.

Here at home, a Tory candidate in Toronto just "resigned" after his party learned he'd stated abrasively on a blog that if Canadians weren't sissies someone would have come to the aid of that poor guy beheaded on a bus, and advocated "concealed carry" handgun laws in Canada partly to help women and gays defend themselves against violent hate crimes. And he's gay. We complain endlessly that political debate is trite, bland and vacuous, with politicians constantly trying to play it safe. But look how we treat anything frank and unconventional during an election.

On the other hand, I don't see much point in debating Joe Biden's claim that President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation on TV in 1929. It raises serious questions about his fitness to be vice president. But at least it wasn't a gaffe.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]