Vice President Biden, take note—one of the golden rules of public speaking is to treat every microphone like a live one.
Few pieces of technology have caused more problems for celebrities and politicians than microphones have, because mics don’t discriminate; they pick up the fastidiously prepared and focusgroup–tested remarks just as well as they do the random snippets of private conversation. Since people can never tell for sure whether a microphone is on or off, savvy speakers know never to say a single word that they wouldn’t want broadcast to the whole world. But even seasoned professionals slip up now and then, with sometimes horrifying—and sometimes hilarious—results.
Ronald Reagan Ignites World War III
While running for reelection, President Reagan was preparing to give his weekly radio address on August 11, 1984. During the sound check, Reagan decided to entertain the technicians and producers by making a little lighthearted Cold War joke: “My fellow Americans,” he said, “I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” The statement wasn’t broadcast but it was recorded, and, proving too irresistible to keep quiet, it was leaked shortly thereafter. While the United States knew it was a joke, the Russians did not, and there were reports that the Soviet defense systems had been placed on high alert. Eventually the Russians learned that the statement was intended to be a humorous take on the tensions between the two nations, but they did not find it especially funny.
Jesse Jackson Threatens Obama’s Manhood
During the 2008 presidential campaign, the support of influential activist Jesse Jackson was sometimes a blessing to Barack Obama, and sometimes a curse. During an off-air moment in an interview with Fox & Friends, Jackson whispered to a fellow guest that he thought Obama was “talking down” to black people, and that he’d like to “cut his nuts off.” When the video became the hottest item in that day’s news cycle, Jackson immediately apologized, saying, “My support for Senator Obama’s campaign is wide, deep, and unequivocal.” It’s a good thing Jackson was in favor of Obama, since there’s no telling what he would have said about a candidate he was opposed to.
State Rep Reveals What Lobbyists Actually Do
Incidents like this make it seem as if the family values–espousing, socially conservative politicians are the ones having all the raunchy extramarital fun. California assemblyman Mike Duvall learned the hard way not to have private conversations in front of a microphone. In September 2009, during a lull in proceedings in Sacramento, Duvall offered lurid details of his affairs in a casual conversation with a fellow lawmaker. He revealed not only that his new girlfriend was nineteen years his junior and enjoyed getting spanked, but also that she was a professional lobbyist whose clients would be directly affected by Duvall’s votes as chairman of the utilities committee. It created a conflict of interest serious enough to force his resignation. We can only imagine that Duvall’s wife experienced a similar conflict of interest—her interest in pulling a “Jesse Jackson” on her wayward husband conflicting with her interest in not going to jail.
Conservatives Forget to Keep a Lid on It
Another priceless moment during the 2008 presidential campaign occurred when the cameras stopped rolling on a segment with NBC political director Chuck Todd. The guests were conservative commentators Peggy Noonan and Mike Murphy, and the topic of the day was vice-presidential pick Sarah Palin. When the segment ended, the guests kept right on talking, unaware that their microphones were still hot. Noonan, despite having written favorably about Palin, said that she was far from the most qualified woman for the job, and that the entire Republican strategy was doomed to fail. “It’s over,” she said. Murphy called Palin a “cynical” choice, insinuating that she was chosen because she was appealing to uninformed voters. After the segment, both tried to take back their comments, but after the November election, it became obvious that they weren’t the only people who had those thoughts.
George W. Bush and the Liberal Media
Conservative politicians are always slamming “the paper of record” for having a liberal bias. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Adam Clymer, a veteran political reporter and chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, wrote a series of articles that criticized the Bush campaign. At a stop in Illinois over Labor Day weekend, Bush and Dick Cheney took the stage and, seeing the election press corps, Bush remarked, “There’s Adam Clymer—major-league a**hole from the New York Times.” Cheney agreed, saying, “Oh yeah he is, big time.” Neither one realized that the microphone onstage was on and recording. Few people at the event heard the gaffe live, but it was played back on television, radio, and the Internet, and it conflicted slightly with Bush’s promises to raise the level of political discourse and bring back civility to Washington. Bush apologized that the public heard him making a “private comment,” but media watchers notes that he never actually apologized for the comment itself.
Plenty of politicians have been tripped up by microphones: John Kerry, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, and even England’s Prince Charles. Surprisingly, it takes some people a long time to learn that in front of a microphone isn’t the place for a private joke, a snide comment, or an under-the-breath insult. Anyone who’s even in the same room as a microphone should follow the golden rule, and just stick to the script.