Chris Matthews: Gaffe Machine

By: Roger Aronoff
Accuracy in Media

One should always be careful, when criticizing and making fun of others, to not be guilty of the same offense. We try to be very careful, with a name like Accuracy in Media. It can come back to bite you. That is unless you’re some hotshot left-wing “news” person on MSNBC. Then it doesn’t matter. But let’s pretend it does.

Chris Matthews was on The Tonight Show earlier this month plugging his new book about John F. Kennedy. But he started out with a good laugh at Governor Rick Perry, who Matthews said was “gone” from the race. Perry had just the night before had his 53 second brain-freeze in the GOP presidential debate in which he forgot the third item on a list of three government agencies that he said he would work to eliminate if he becomes president.

A bit later in the conversation, Jay Leno asked Matthews if that was “the worst faux pas” he had seen “in modern debate history.” Matthews said it’s “a hell of list.” He then cited Dan Quayle for his spelling of the word potato. It’s true, Quayle did tell the boy in the classroom to add an “e” to his correct spelling of the word. It is also true that Quayle made the error when he relied on a list prepared for him by a teacher in the classroom. But, as Leno pointed out to Matthews, it didn’t take place during a presidential debate.

Any others? Matthews came up with another Quayle anecdote as “the best one.” Here is what Matthews said: “The best one, I guess, was Dan Quayle, comparing himself to Jack Kennedy. And Lloyd Bentsen said, ‘you’re no Jack Kennedy.’ That was a home run for that guy. He was never heard of again, by the way. I think he was teaching at Thunderbird University somewhere out in the desert.”

All Quayle had said was that he had as much experience in Congress as Jack Kennedy had when he won the presidency in 1960. Vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen, who was running with Michael Dukakis in 1988, came back with his famous line. You can see that exchange here.

In fact, Quayle had been elected twice to the House of Representatives and twice to the Senate before being chosen as George H.W. Bush’s VP. John F. Kennedy had been elected three times to the House and twice to the Senate when he ran for and won the presidency. By comparison, Barack Obama had been a state senator and was two years into his first term in the U.S. Senate when he announced his candidacy for the White House.

Besides, what was Quayle’s faux pas that was supposedly “the best” ever?

And as to Matthews’ comments about Quayle, well, more gaffes. Presumably the “home run” he referred to was Bentsen’s, for putting down Quayle. Presumably, “He was never heard of again” was meant to be about Quayle, who actually was vice president of the United States for the next four years. He has since been a businessman and associated with a number of organizations, as well as writing a book and a weekly column. And yes, he was a distinguished visiting professor of international studies at Thunderbird for two years.

But Matthews still wasn’t through with his gaffes and brain freezes. Jay asked about the other (than Rick Perry) candidates. This was the day after Herman Cain had come out and said he had never acted inappropriately with anyone, when asked if he had ever sexually harassed anyone.

“Well Perry’s got, don’t you wish you had his self confidence. This guy comes out and says ‘I have never done anything wrong.’”

At this point it wasn’t clear if Matthews meant to say Perry or Cain. But he quickly cleared that up when he added, “I don’t know if he’s telling the truth about how he behaved with these women.” Jay corrected him again and said, “You’re talking about Cain, Herman Cain.” Matthews acknowledged that he meant Cain, though he had said “Perry.”

He was still at it on his weekly show on NBC, The Chris Matthews Show, over the Thanksgiving weekend when he said, “The Republicans have given us one long series of flubs.”

The journalist Michael Kinsley famously defined a gaffe as when a politician, or in some cases a journalist, inadvertently tells the truth. In other words, they say what they believe in an unguarded moment, something they wouldn’t normally say. That is what may have been at work when Matthews made some recent rather critical remarks about President Obama. No, it wasn’t a repeat of his line during the presidential campaign of 2008 that he “felt this thrill going up my leg” following an Obama speech.

In an interview with Alex Witt on MSNBC plugging his Kennedy book, Matthews expressed his frustration with Obama’s presidency, before falling back in line. It was perhaps his harshest criticism to date: “There’s nothing to root for. What are we trying to do in this administration? Why does he want a second term? Would he tell us? What’s he going to do in his second term, more of this? Is this it? Is this as good as it gets? Where are we going?”

He added that “[Obama] has not said one thing about what he’d do in his second term. He never tells what he’s going to do with reforming our healthcare systems, Medicare, Medicaid, how he’s going to reform Social Security. Is he going to deal with longterm debt? How? Is he going to reform the tax system? How? Just tell us,” he said.

Matthews then reverted to his “thrill up my leg” form: “Just tell us, Commander,” he implored Obama, “Give us our orders and tell us where we’re going. Give us the mission. And he hasn’t done it.”

The moral of this story is that if you’re going to come out, without your teleprompter, to make fun of other people for their gaffes, faux pas, and brain freezes, try not to have too many of your own.

You can watch Matthews’ entire appearance on The Tonight Show by clicking here and here.

Roger Aronoff is the Editor of Accuracy in Media, and can be contacted at


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