We have reached a political nadir of some sort if the Democratic Party candidate for the leadership of the free world is chosen on the basis of a casual remark about New Jersey. Yet it seems possible history will record that Gary Hart lost his chance to be President when he stood with his wife, Lee, on a Los Angeles terrace and uttered these fateful words: “The deal is that we campaign separately; that’s the bad news. The good news for her is she campaigns in California, and I campaign in New Jersey.” Lee Hart mentioned that in California she’d held a Koala bear, and the Senator added in mock rue that in New Jersey he’d held “samples from a toxic waste dump.”
The TV networks played this incident very big, the analysts of the print media went to work on it, and it appears to have blossomed into a gaffe. This could cost Hart the New Jersey primary—and therefore, everyone agrees, any hope of the nomination.
The “gaffe” is now the principal dynamic mechanism of American politics, as interpreted by journalists. Each candidacy is born in a state of prelapsarian innocence, and the candidate then proceeds to commit gaffes. Journalists record each new gaffe, weigh it on their Gaffability Index (“major gaffe,” “gaffe,” “minor gaffe,” “possible gaffe,” all the way down to “ironically, could turn out to be a plus with certain interest groups”), and move the players forward or backward on the game board accordingly.
Hart’s Jerseyblooper contained both of the key elements of the gaffe in its classically pure form. First, as explained in this space three weeks ago, a “gaffe” occurs not when a politician lies, but when he tells the truth. The burden of Hart’s remark was that, all else being equal, he’d rather spend a few springtime weeks in California than in New Jersey. Of course he would. So would I. So would Walter Mondale, no doubt, along with the vast majority of Americans, including, quite possibly, most residents of New Jersey. This doesn’t mean that California is more important than New Jersey, or even a better place to live and raise a family. It certainly doesn’t mean that people who live in California are superior to people who live in New Jersey. Quite the contrary. Just as youth is wasted on the young, California is wasted on Californians. Hart’s remark just means that California is more appealing than New Jersey as a place for someone from neither state to spend a few weeks.
The second element of the classic gaffe is that the subject matter should be trivial. Political journalism has evolved in somewhat the same direction as literary criticism, which is now dominated by people called deconstructionists. Deconstructionist criticism is indifferent to the literary value of the “text”—novel or poem or whatever—it is analyzing. The “text” is just grist for arcane and self-referential analysis. A work of no special merit is even preferable in a way, since it doesn’t distract from the analysis, which is the real show.
Similarly, political journalism dwells in its own world of primaries and polls. If necessary, journalists can take a significant fact such as Jesse Jackson’s continuing embrace of the repellent Louis Farrakhan—drain it of all its moral implications, and turn it into a gaffe. But campaign mechanics make for preferable subject matter. And the ideal “text” for political journalism to chew on is an episode of no real meaning or importance—such as a small joke about New Jersey—which can then be analyzed without distraction exclusively in terms of its likely effect on the campaign. The analysis itself, of course, is what creates that effect: a triumph of criticism the deconstructionists can only envy.
Once the press certifies that a gaffe has been committed by any candidate, the rules call for a quick round of lying by all of them. Here too, Jerseygate followed the classic pattern. Walter Mondale, in his patented serial-monogamy style, proclaimed “I love New Jersey” and swore there’s no place on earth he’d rather be. Hart asserted preposterously that all he’d really meant to complain of was having to fly across the country to meet his wife in California, rather than allowing her the pleasure of flying across the country to join him in New Jersey.
Journalists—stern enforcers of political etiquette—require politicians to tell these whoppers in order to put the campaign back on its proper course. Should a politician fail to lie at the first post-gaffe opportunity, the punishment would be headlines on the order of HART COMPOUNDS JERSEY GAFFE or MONDALE SPURNS JERSEY TOO.
So you can’t blame Mondale for following the script. But you can blame him for a repeat performance the next day, when he began by saying he was “not going to press the point” regarding Hart’s insufficient love of New Jersey, then repeated Hart’s remark, repeated his own demand for an apology, and spent several minutes doing variations on the theme.
Mondale happened to be in New Jersey at the moment of Hart’s gaffe. But Mondale is spending nearly twice as much time in California as in New Jersey in the period leading up to both state primaries. What a sacrifice! And what should we make of what Mondale told a group in San Francisco in mid-May? “I saw this beautiful morning,” he said, “and for one sane moment I thought I would withdraw from the race and spend the rest of my life right here.” Right here? In California? Mondale seems to be saying that if he were sane, he would never step foot in his beloved New Jersey again. I think he should apologize. Sounds like a gaffe to me.
NOTE: My column of June 4 was dictated by phone and several passages were badly garbled: “admission” for “suspicion,” “demanded a charge” for “led the charge,” among others too painful to repeat. Even more painful, I’m the only one who seems to have noticed. Is no one out there reading, or am I always this incoherent? The favour of no reply is requested.
This article appeared in the June 18, 1984 issue of the magazine.