Dem 51
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GOP 49
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Greatest Blunders: Imagery, Round 1, Part II

Yesterday, we revealed half of the contenders in the "Imagery" bracket—blunders that did serious damage to the public image of the blunderer and/or their political party. Today, it's the other half of the bracket. We're going to do longer capsules today, in response to feedback in the mailbag, and also because there are a bunch of historical examples that won't be as familiar as "deplorables" or "Mission Accomplished."


A screen capture from Mehmet Oz's Twitter video; a picture of George W. Bush peering out the window of Air Force One

#6 Mehmet Oz Goes Shopping for Crudité (April 2022): J.D. Vance is pretty good at faking the "man of the people" bit, even though he's not. That is why he is a U.S. senator right now. Mehmet Oz is pretty bad at faking the "man of the people" bit. That is why he is not a U.S. senator right now.

The worst part of Oz's now-infamous "trying to connect with the common folk" campaign video was his use of a chichi term (i.e., crudité) for a relatively plebeian dish (i.e., a veggie platter). Not much better was his inability to get the name of the grocery store right. The video might nonetheless have disappeared down the memory hole, but someone working for Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) found it several months after it was posted, and in mid-August, "Let them eat crudité" was on everyone's lips, not to mention on mugs, buttons, and t-shirts. Oz might not have won anyhow, but this blunder, which crystallized his upper-crust, carpetbagger status was unrecoverable.

#11 George W. Bush Flyover of Hurricane Katrina Devastation (Aug. 31, 2005): Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the Gulf Coast, particularly the city of New Orleans, with over 1,800 lives lost. It's one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, and the photographs of people's ruined homes were absolutely heartbreaking.

When the hurricane hit, then-president Bush was in the midst of a lengthy vacation at his ranch in Texas. He found time to do many things during that vacation, including attend the birthday party of John McCain out in sunny Arizona. On his way back to Washington, Bush decided not to visit Louisiana in person, apparently concluding that his presence would be too disruptive. Instead, he flew over the damage, "inspecting" it from his seat on Air Force One. The President's handlers allowed the press pool to capture photos of that moment, so the world could see how very much Bush cared.

Of course, "Look how much Bush cares!" is not the message most people took from the photo that appeared on front pages across the country (see picture). It was something more like "Look how uninterested Bush is in the suffering of these people." It also did not help that New Orleans was majority-Black, giving an unpleasant racial tinge to the whole affair. Bush himself later wrote: "That photo of me hovering over the damage suggested I was detached from the suffering on the ground. That was not how I felt. But once that impression was formed, I couldn't change it." Having already won reelection, Bush did not have to worry about facing voters ever again. However, his approval rating went into a tailspin, never to bounce back.

Rudy Giuliani's press conference in front of a landscaping company; a Democratic flyer making hay out of the unwise comments

#3 Rudy Giuliani Holds a Press Conference at the "Four Seasons" (November 7, 2020): Has any modern politician seen their reputation fall so far as Rudy Giuliani? After the 9/11 attacks, he was king of the world, and was wildly popular with members of both political parties. By 2020, he was a failed presidential candidate who had been reduced to kowtowing to Donald Trump.

America's Former Mayor, who is clearly addicted to attention, took the lead in peddling "stop the steal" conspiracy theories that claimed that Trump actually won the presidential election of 2020. There were many low points for Giuliani during that circus, some of which may ultimately land him in jail. But the single most pathetic moment, and one that removed any remaining vestige of seriousness from the "stop the steal" movement, was the press conference Giuliani held four days after the election to make the case that Trump was actually the winner.

It is pretty obvious that the Trump campaign meant to book the chichi Four Seasons Hotel (and yes, that's our second use of "chichi" today). Where they actually ended up, however, was in front of Four Seasons Total Landscaping, a local business whose neighbors included a crematorium and a sex shop. Giuliani had no real choice but to soldier on, and over the course of slightly more than half an hour, the scene became increasingly ridiculous, to the point of being surreal with hair dye dripping down his cheek. Twisting the knife even further is that while Giuliani was speaking, the Associated Press called Pennsylvania for Joe Biden, thus securing his election as president.

#14 Samuel Burchard Slams the Democrats as the Party of "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion" (Oct. 29, 1884): Although Republicans had a near-stranglehold on the presidency between 1860 and 1912, many of the elections were close. And the mother of all swing states back then was... New York, which was pretty evenly divided between social liberals (Republicans) and very religious working-class people who sometimes indulged in racist thinking (Democrats). It was a different time.

In 1884, the Republicans nominated a pretty weak candidate in James G. Blaine (the continental liar from the the state of Maine), while the Democrats nominated a pretty strong one in Grover Cleveland, who just so happened to be a native New Yorker. Recognizing the Empire State was going to be very, very close, the Republicans organized many campaign events immediately prior to the election, including a prayer breakfast with several hundred pro-Republican Protestant clergymen. The keynote speaker at that prayer breakfast, which Blaine attended, was the widely known Rev. Samuel Burchard.

Burchard, consistent with his profession, gave a speech that was more like a sermon. And at the climax, he thundered: "We are Republicans, and don't propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion." The remark received a somewhat tepid response, and it's not clear if Blaine even heard it.

However, people working for the Democratic Party most definitely heard it, and Team Donkey began cranking out handbills (see picture) making hay out of the remark. Slurring the Democrats as the Party responsible for the Civil War was already on its way to being passé in 1884. However, the "rum" and "Romanism" were the real problem, as that was a clear shot at Irish Catholics. In 1884, there just happened to be a very large number of Irish Catholics in New York City. Heck, even today, there happens to be a very large number of Irish Catholics in New York city.

Burchard's remark did not please the Irish Catholic voters, particularly since it appeared to them that Blaine approved the slur. After all, he didn't say anything about it for 3 days, by which time it was far too late. Irish voters turned out in force on Election Day, and New York went for Cleveland by 1,149 votes (0.10% of the total). That decided the election; 219 EVs (including New York's 36 EVs) for Cleveland and 182 EVs for Blaine.

A screen capture of Richard Nixon looking gaunt; a photograph of Andrew Johnson and Abraham Lincoln at the 1865 inaugural

#7 Richard Nixon Debates JFK (Sept. 26, 1960): Presidential primary debates were fairly common by 1960, but this was the first general election debate between presidential candidates. The American public was very curious to see what that might look like, and 70 million of them tuned in to see for themselves.

It's hard to say exactly what went wrong for Richard Nixon on that day. The famous story is that he had 5:00 shadow, which made him look sinister. Maybe so, but photos of the TV broadcast, which are very low-res (see picture), don't capture that. Much clearer in the photos is that Nixon was looking gaunt that day because he had been ill. He was also tired after a long day of campaigning, whereas JFK showed up well-rested. In any event, the overwhelming consensus was that Kennedy came out on top among people who watched on television (although among people who listened to it on the radio, Nixon won).

Whatever the worst blunder was, Nixon certainly felt he had misplayed his hand. He showed up rested for the other debates, and he also allowed his staff to apply some makeup. The problem is that Kennedy pulled ahead in polls after the first debate, while the other debates did not draw nearly so large an audience. Nixon, of course, went on to lose in what is generally regarded as the closest presidential election in U.S. history.

#10 Andrew Johnson Shows up Drunk for His Inauguration (March 4, 1865): Andrew Johnson was not especially suited to being a politician of national stature. He was poorly educated, thin-skinned, and prone to anxiety. Still, he was the only Southern senator not to leave when the Confederacy seceded, and so he had value as a symbol. Consequently, Abraham Lincoln tossed Hannibal Hamlin (of Maine) overboard in 1864 and replaced him with Johnson.

The exact circumstances leading up to Johnson's inauguration will forever remain murky. He may have been suffering from illness, perhaps typhoid. In any event, he arrived in Washington very shortly before his inauguration, and attended a party in his honor at which he over-indulged in liquor. Maybe he was self-medicating for his illness, maybe he was self-medicating for his anxiety, maybe he was just enjoying himself.

Whatever the case may be, Johnson was badly hung over the next day (in addition to possibly being ill and/or anxious). So, he asked for, received, and downed a bottle of whiskey shortly before being inaugurated. He barely made his way through the oath, and then delivered a rambling, drunken speech. The only good news for the administration is that the speech was in the Senate chamber, and so was not seen by the members of the general public. After witnessing one of the worst inaugural performances in history, with much sadness, Abraham Lincoln walked out onto the steps of the Capitol, and delivered one of the best.

Had Lincoln lived, Johnson's shortcomings wouldn't have mattered much, since 19th century VPs were afterthoughts with no meaningful power or influence whatsoever. But Lincoln didn't live, and the ill-suited Johnson took over the big chair with memories of his shameful performance still fresh in people's minds. Things did not get better from there; the same seantors who watched him embarrass himself would later try him in his impeachment trial.

Police officers attack the BEA; A pamphlet version of William Seward's 'Irrepressible Conflict' speech

#2 Herbert Hoover Orders an Attack on the BEA (July 28, 1932): After World War I, Congress voted to give veterans of the conflict a "bonus" to be paid... in 25 years. This was a clever strategy to keep costs down, since the members of Congress knew many men would not live to collect their money. It also allowed the members to claim the political benefits of their "generosity" while sticking a future generation of politicians with the bill.

Since World War I ended in 1918, the bonus would have been paid in 1943. But then the Great Depression hit. And in the midst of election season in 1932, 17,000 veterans (and another 23,000 family members and supporters) descended on Washington to demand early payment of the money they had coming. These 40,000 protesters were known as the Bonus Expeditionary Army (BEA), a mix of the name of the U.S. force that fought in WWI (the American Expeditionary Force) and the bill that awarded the money (the Bonus Bill).

Hoover had no intention of paying the money ahead of schedule. The government didn't have it and, even if it did, the President did not feel it was within his powers to change the timeline. So, the BEA settled in, establishing a massive Hooverville (homeless encampment) up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Hoover asked the BEA to leave. Then he pleaded with them. Then he ordered them, as their ostensible commander-in-chief. The BEA did not go. Hoover felt that this made him look weak at a time when he wanted to project strength. And so, he decided to have the BEA forcibly removed by a contingent of Washington police officers and U.S. Army personnel. The fellow who commanded the Army detachment on that day was a promising young officer named Douglas MacArthur. His vice-commanders were two other promising young officers, Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton.

This did not work at as Hoover expected. As you, and any other person not named Herbert Hoover might guess, it made him look heartless and cruel to attack poor, suffering military veterans. He lost the 1932 election bigly, winning half a dozen states and just 59 EVs. Once Franklin D. Roosevelt took over the White House, the BEA marched again. FDR had a lighter touch, though—he sent First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt out to talk with the marchers, and to give them doughnuts and coffee, and to ask them to head home while the President worked on the problem. And... the leaders of the BEA agreed. "Hoover Sent the Army," read the headlines, "While Roosevelt Sent His Wife."

#15 William Seward Describes an "Irrepressible Conflict" Between Free and Slave States (Oct. 25, 1858): By 1858, it was pretty clear that the Democrats were in deep trouble and that the next Republican nominee for president would likely win the election of 1860. Meanwhile, William Seward was the hands-down favorite to get the nod from the GOP.

In view of his presumed frontrunner status, Seward arranged to give a major address in October of 1858 in which he would lay out his vision for the country. And he not only gave the address; his supporters had copies printed up in pamphlet form, and the text was also provided to the nation's newspapers, many of which ran the speech in its entirety. The key passage from the speech was this characterization of the struggle over slavery: "It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slaveholding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation."

Seward was entirely correct about this. However, it proved to be an impolitic thing to say in 1858. Abolitionists were thrilled, but Southerners were outraged, and Northern conservatives and moderates were none too pleased, either. The New Yorker earned a reputation as an radical overnight, and prominent Republicans began to have doubts about his electability. That created an opening for a gentleman from Illinois to claim the Party's nomination, instead.

We have now completed the first of the four brackets; here's how it looks prior to any matchups being resolved:

#1 Deplorables vs.
#16 Malaise; #8 Dukakis Tank vs. #9 'Not a Witch!'; #4 Goldwater on Nukes vs. #13 Ford stumbles; #5 
'Mission Accomplished' vs. #12 Jewish Space Lasers; #6 Crudite vs. #11 Bush Flyover of Katrina; 
#3 Giuliani at Four Seasons vs. #14 Rum, Romanism, Rebellion; #7 Nixon Debates JFK vs. #10 Drunken Johnson;
#2 Hoover Attacks BEA vs. #15 Irrepressible Conflict

We were asked by several readers who are not sports fans to explain how the brackets work. In short, as with the real March Madness, we picked the 68 entrants and then asked our copy editors to vote on seeding. The #1 seed (Deplorables) was the blunder that the copy editors, at very least, believed was the greatest of the contenders in this part of the bracket. The #2 seed (Hoover attacks BEA) was the second greatest, and so forth. The sequence of matchups (e.g., the winner of #1 vs. #16 faces the winner of #8 vs. #9), which was developed by the NCAA and not by us, is set up in a way to make it easier for higher-seeded (and thus more accomplished) entrants to advance, while lower-seeded (and thus less accomplished) entrants have a tougher row to hoe.

There are still three quadrants that we have not revealed. The contenders in the Venality quadrant will be revealed tomorrow and on Friday. Next week, we will unveil the contenders in the other two quadrants (Strategery and Parapraxery). That means that, as of this moment, there are more than 40 contenders that have not yet been unveiled. So, it's really not necessary, at this point, for folks to send us e-mails about how absurd it is that Watergate or "macaca" or Sarah Palin are not represented. It is not possible to know that these blunders did not make the competition, since the vast majority of blunders that made the cut are unknown to anyone beyond us and the copy editors.

The ballot for this round is here. If you have comments on any or all of these matchups, and why you voted as you did, send them here. (Z)

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