Have you ever sat listening to a public figure (political or otherwise) making a speech or someone being interviewed on television or radio and you wondered what the hell he/she was saying? You can tell this person is underming the occasion, most times inadvertently. Mostly, it draws laughter, but laughter is not the only reaction such public bungling can cause you. There is a term for this, it is called gaffe. Gaffe is of French origin, originally meaning gaff rig, a ‘boat hook’ – how this ever became associated with a mistake that embarrasses you in front of others is beyond my ken. All I know is that Gaffe rhymes with laugh, but this may not be the only reaction you receive when commit a gaffe. There are several types of gaffes – most involving people of public repute, especially politicians. It can be a statement made by a politician about what he/she believes to be true but one which he/she hasn’t contemplated the consequences of its public stating. It could be a statement the politician privately believes to be true, realizes the dire consequences of saying it, and yet, in spite of himself/herself, utters it in public. I call this doing the Donald. Then, there is the Kingsley gaffe – named after the journalist, Michael Kingley, who says a gaffe occurs when a “politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” 

Gaffes though, are not a preserve of politicians. This morning I watched several videos on the Orlando shooting – just to get more information on this horrific attack. One of the videos was of the ex-wife of the shooter, something she said got me wondering what goes through the mind of people when they speak in public? This lady said her parents called her soon after the shooting (she wasn’t aware of what had just happened) but receiving the call said “…I thought something horriffic has happened.” We have all been touched by this senseless killing. In her defense she was still traumatized by the shooting, and even though this seems like a gaffe, considering what she goes on to say about the callousness of the shooter, we have to understand she was traumatized. 

However, how do you take comments you know the speaker (usually a person of some eminence) has had time to prepare yet, undermine the occasion? The late Former mayor of Washington, D.C. Marion Barry’s (RIP) was a master of gaffes. When he was asked once about an evening revel, he replied, “First, it was not a strip club. It was an erotic club. And, second, what can I say? I’m a night owl.” In 1989, he remarked, Outside of the killings, D.C. has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.” When he was arrested, in 2002, with a white substance under his nose and traces of cocaine in his car, Barry said, They made all this up to justify questioning me. It’s all made up.” I can almost hear one of the arresting officers quipping, That white powder on your nose Mr. Mayor isn’t make-up.” He, Barry, was the butt of comics’ jokes for his gaffes, famously Chris Rock.

He is not alone in publicly drawing laughter, George Bush has left me so many times wondering what’s going on in his head when he speaks. On August 5th, 2004 he said “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.” In his defense …

Some are not as gloomy, just hilarious. Geoffrey Howe who was considered a staunch Thatcher loyalist, and considered by many as one of the great Chancellors, gave a resignation speech in the Commons that made me scratch my head. On November 13, 1990, ensuing what he considered unbecoming behavior by Thatcher regarding Europe, he said “How on earth are the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank of England, commending the ‘Hard ECU’ as they strive to, to be taken as serious participants in the debate against that kind of background noise? I believe that both the Chancellor and the Governor are cricketing enthusiasts, so I hope that there is no monopoly of cricketing metaphors. It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.[1]

This speech reminded me of one given by Nikita Khrushchev on February 25, 1956 before a rapt audience of Communist apparatchiks. However, his speech about Stalin, unlike the joke Howe’s speech was, helped destroy Stalin’s reputation. Stalin, hitherto considered a venerated pillar of the Soviet system, was krushed by Krushchev, and portrayed as a paranoid brute. Stalin became even more capricious, irritable and brutal; in particular, his suspicion grew. His persecution mania reached unbelievable dimensions.”[2] This was a mere three years after the death of Stalin – didn’t they tell him you don’t speak ill of the dead?

Some gaffes can leave you with imageries tumbling around in your mind. For, instance, in the midst of ongoing economic gloom, scepticism about her governance, Margaret Thatcher gave a second conference speech as Prime Minister that did not only underline her stubbornness, but showed her as someone who can take the mickey out of the several U-turns that defined her premiership. She said in part, “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.[3]

Twenty years prior to this, in what seems like the first sign that the British government had accepted that the days of the Empire were over, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan chose to attack South Africa’s apartheid system while addressing the country’s parliament. His imagery was rather windy – “The wind of change is blowing through this continent.”[4] Oh, the fart that is the Empire. 

Well, if that wasn’t imagistic enough let’s take a speech from one of my favorite persons. For me, Barack Obama is a born orator. I never tire listening to him. He gives brilliant speeches, and when he wants to be hilarious, he gets down real good. Watch his speech from the 2016 White House correspondents’ dinner – sheer brilliance. His use of metaphor is what really impresses me. Speaking to the Democratic National Convention in support of Senator John Kerry, the party’s presidential nominee at the time, Barack Obama then a state senator running for the US Senate, gave a speech in which he appealed for putting aside partisan differences and bringing Americans together. He said in part, “We worship an awesome God in the blue states and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States.[5]

This speech reminds me of the Address by Lady Asquith to the Women’s Club of Southwick, and the Women’s Political Partisan League of London.

“We must have what the men have. It may not be much, but we mean to have it, no matter how large or how small it may be. If we cannot have it without friction, then we shall have it with friction. (Applause.) If we cannot have it through our organizations we shall have it through our combinations, or without them if necessary. (Cheers.) But we absolutely refuse to be poked on the floor of the House.” (Prolonged applause.)

“We are willing to look up to the men above, but we do not want to be forced or held down without being able to make a few motions of our own. We women want to hold up our end and show the men our possibilities whenever anything arises that will fill our expectations. We women are deeply interested in good movements, and we will always accept any load that is given to us. (Cheers.) Nothing that comes up will be too hard for us.” (Wild cheers.)

“We are willing to work under the men above us, now as in the past, and to the point of exhaustion if need be (Applause.) But we are becoming disgusted with their failures and shortcomings! (Hissing and boos.) Never when anything arose and required our attention have we failed to come, and we shall come again and again if the occasion presents itself. But too often has our enthusiasm been aroused with false promises, and too often have our hopes and strivings been met with feeble performances that have left us disappointed and dissatisfied. (Cries of “Hear, hear!”) That drunken loafer says “Down with the Petticoats!” How often have our efforts to push forward our ends met in the House with the cry of “Down with the Petticoats!” Now I say, “Up with the Petticoats and Down with the Trousers!” Then and only then will matters be seen in their true light.“ (Wild applause.)

“As long as we women are split up as we are, the men will always be on top.”

Is it just me or Lady Asquith sounds like a member of that party whose members wear red berets …

Copyright © Fani-Kayode Omoregie 2016

[1] Hansard, House of Commons, 6th series, vol. 180 col. 464. Personal statement in the House of Commons on his resignation, 13 November 1990

[2] Nikita Khrushchev, February 25, 1956

[3] Margaret Thatcher, October 10, 1980

[4] Harold Macmillan, February 3, 1960

[5] Barack Obama, July 27, 2004