Back in 1988 Michael Kinsley (in the Times of London) famously defined the gaffe as the occasion when "a politician tells the truth." Kinsley himself immediately watered down his elegant definition by adding "some obvious truth he isn't supposed to say," as if the code of the politician did not require him to be uniformly and constantly a liar. Other journalists, not understanding Kinsley's point, now refer to what they call the "Kinsley gaffe"—as if there really were some other significant type of innocent mistake that embarrassed the politician—the verbal equivalent of Gerry Ford tripping on the carpet or George H.W. Bush vomiting his Japanese dinner.
These verbal slips are important because they afford the nation's helots a brief and ill-lit glimpse into the lives of their masters. But there is another sort of gaffe, a mistaken action or decision that can give us a similar insight into the secret world of the ruling class. Let us call such a mistake a "practical gaffe" or even "a gaffe in deed."
In the past few days, we have all been witness to the Obama Administration's slip-up on the release of Bowe Bergdahl, and what that tells us about the current masters of the universe is very disquieting. Here is Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Bergdahl's return: “It is our ethos that we never leave a fallen comrade, Today we have back in our ranks the only remaining captured soldier from our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Welcome home, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl."
And President Obama, speaking from the same script: “He wasn’t forgotten by his country. The United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind."
Not ever? Perhaps the President is not old enough to remember all the efforts, largely unsuccessful, at rescuing MIA's in Vietnam. The expression "not ever" is always the mark of the adolescent liar who thinks the more extreme he makes his statement, the less likely he is to be contradicted. In the same way, as Mark Steyn recently pointed out on the radio, he repeatedly ends one of his banalities with "period." As in, "We bring American soldiers back. Period. Full Stop."
The President and the Pentagon were planning a hero's welcome—including a parade—for Bergdahl until complaints from the people General Dempsey would call his "comrades" created the GOP's best PR and development opportunity since Monika Lewinsky. One wonders what was going through General Dempsey's mind, when he referred to a deserter and traitor as a "fallen comrade." Dempsey, apparently, will never be guilty of any verbal gaffes, unlike the scape-goated General Shinseki, who actually told the truth about Don Rumsfeld's stupid and costly plan to fight the Iraq War on the cheap.
It is not as if Barack Obama and Chuck Hagel did not know the facts of Bergdahl's desertion. Even their fans at the Washington Post reported on June 1 that officials had anticipated controversy and indicated that the deserter would not be put on trial. Predictably, Susan Rice has told the world that Bergdahl served honorably, and her gaffe-free words are almost always a guaranteed lie.
Hagel, Obama, Ms Clinton—all of them were involved in the protracted negotiations that resulted in Bergdahl's release, and they all knew what the deserter's comrades were saying about him. Anyone with internet access could have immediately located the Daily Mail story of 2010, which reported that Bergdahl had converted to Islam and was teaching the Taliban to make bombs.
They knew, but they didn't care. They didn't care what sort of traitor they were rescuing at the expense of American prestige and security, because they scented a propaganda coup. "Don't you ever, ever say we don't care about our fighting men and women or our vets." They also did not worry about any fallout because they sincerely believe that Americans—or at least any Americans who could bring themselves to vote for the Democratic Party—are so stupid and gullible that they will swallow any lie, no matter how preposterous, that Susan Rice can devise.
America's political leaders despise the people that vote for them, and they are right to do so. What must Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell think of the voters who would tolerate them as leaders of their respective parties? That some people will not fall for this latest lie is no proof of the integrity of conservative Republicans, because these same Hannitys and Levins and all their little fans out there in radioland who are now screaming treason and impeachment against Obama and Hagel listened to all the Bush-Rumsfeld lies with equanimity. No, Obama's handlers misjudged the reaction because they are entirely out of touch with American realities, but they will not disprove Mencken's accurate assessment of our national character, that "No one ever went broke underestimating the American people."
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.