For Shapiro, candidates’ verbal gaffes are gems

The end of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign after the Iowa caucuses was a blow to the Delaware senator’s supporters, staff and — at least in a sense — to Fred Shapiro, author of the “Yale Book of Quotations.”

After all, for Shapiro, who is also a librarian at Yale Law School, Biden’s penchant for controversy made him the perfect source of unforgettable remarks. No surprise, then, that two of what Shapiro recently ranked as the top 10 most memorable quotations of 2007 came straight from Biden’s mouth.

Law School librarian Fred Shapiro shows off a copy of his book, “The Yale Book of Quotations.” His book aims to challenge the traditional collection of quotations, “Bartlett’s Book of Quotations,” by emphasizing contemporary American quotations as opposed to British quotations.
Grant Smith
Law School librarian Fred Shapiro shows off a copy of his book, “The Yale Book of Quotations.” His book aims to challenge the traditional collection of quotations, “Bartlett’s Book of Quotations,” by emphasizing contemporary American quotations as opposed to British quotations.

Biden would probably prefer that his campaign had grabbed headlines for other reasons. Wasting no time, Shapiro said, the senator “sank his candidacy” on its very first day with just a few words about rival candidate Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois.

“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” Biden said last February. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

Those comments were quickly condemned for alleged racism on Biden’s part, but such political gaffes are nothing new, Shapiro noted.

Published in 2006, the “Yale Book of Quotations” is a reference book that challenges the established quotation collection that is “Bartlett’s Book of Quotations” in part by placing particular — and, to a certain degree, unprecedented — emphasis on modern-day American quotations. “Bartlett’s,” by comparison, comprises mostly historical British quotations.

As a way of publicizing his book, Shapiro each year produces a top-10 list of memorable quotations, which garners considerable press.

During the 1968 presidential campaign, George Romney, the father of current Republican candidate Mitt Romney, famously said, “When I came back from Vietnam, I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody could get.”

For what opponents saw as showing mental weakness, George Romney quickly became the butt of jokes, watched his front-runner status disappear and ultimately lost his run for the Republican nomination.

Former president Gerald Ford similarly damaged his campaign’s prospects, Shapiro said, when he showed himself to be out of touch with voters — and, critics claimed, reality — by saying in a 1976 debate, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be one under a Ford administration.”

A disastrous sound bite, said Mark Johnson, a professor at the University of Oregon who has studied and written about linguistics in politics, is one that fits in with a preconceived image or notion of the candidate.

“A good metaphor has to mesh with the other metaphors that are already in place within the culture,” Johnson said.

There is perhaps no better example of a politician playing into his own political weakness, Shapiro said, than John Kerry’s ’66 statement during the 2004 presidential campaign regarding funding for the war in Iraq.

Kerry, who had been steadily criticized for “flip-flopping” during his Senate career, said, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it.”

To some extent, Shapiro said, quotations that have a discernible impact on presidential politics — and are likely to wind up in the pages of Shapiro’s critically acclaimed book — are ones that do damage to a campaign. But, at the same time, Shapiro noted, there are some pithy and memorable phrases that have actually advanced a candidacy.

In a 1988 vice-presidential debate, Democratic candidate Lloyd Bentsen famously shot down Republican Dan Quayle’s attempt to equate his youthfulness with that of former president John F. Kennedy.

“Senator,” Bentsen said, “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

And even though George H.W. Bush ’48 and Quayle still managed to win the election, Bentsen’s line had a powerful historical impact, Shapiro said.

“Bentsen’s eyes lit up because he knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Shapiro said. “That one line sank Dan Quayle’s whole career.”

President Ronald Reagan was known for his sharp and witty responses in debates, Shapiro said, including his famous abrupt aside when President Jimmy Carter was speaking in a 1980 debate: “There you go again.”

Adam Simon, a Political Science professor at Yale, said that, particularly in today’s elections, phrases that garner the most media attention are those that are the least scripted — not least because they seem so rare.

Simon referenced segments on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” on which politicians have been shown using the same words over and over in different speeches as an example of the public’s cynicism about political discourse.

“It’s a game. The candidate wants something picked up in the media, so they repeat the same phrase,” Simon explained. “The point Stewart is making is that this game has become really just that — a game.”

And it is precisely in the framework of that game, Shapiro said, that gaffes and other shockingly spontaneous remarks can have real influence, for better or worse. So when he sits down to write the top 10 quotations of 2008, Shapiro expects that, along with the usual cast of characters like Paris Hilton and Don Imus, a few presidential candidates — and perhaps even a president-elect — will find themselves on the list.

But, so far at least for Shapiro, no 2008 presidential candidate — Joe Biden included — has said anything as memorable as what he ranked first among quotations from 2007: “Don’t tase me, bro.”

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