Political Blunders of the Year

Dec. 25, 2006 — -- Foot-in-mouth disease and gaffes on the campaign trail are nothing new when it comes to politicians caught on tape. Thanks to a year largely defined by user-generated content, some of 2006's best political flubs stayed in the spotlight, giving the public at large the opportunity to see and hear the country's elected officials in their own words.

Rebuilding a Metaphor

New Orleans Democratic Mayor Ray Nagin, during a City Hall tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. last January, committed one of the year's earliest flubs when he called on the African-American community to rebuild a "chocolate New Orleans" in the post-Katrina landscape.

"This city will be chocolate at the end of the day," Nagin said, "This city will be a majority African-American city. It's the way God wants it to be. You can't have New Orleans no other way; it wouldn't be New Orleans."

Nagin's remarks irritated many of the city's residents. One Web site -- imnotchocolate.com -- went as far as to sell T-shirts, hats and bumper stickers with Nagin in a top hat and the caption "Willy Nagin and the Chocolate Factory."

Later that week Nagin apologized for seeming divisive and tried to clarify his comments in an extended metaphor.

"How do you make chocolate? You take dark chocolate, you mix it with white milk, and it becomes a delicious drink. That is the chocolate I am talking about," he said. "New Orleans was a chocolate city before Katrina. It is going to be a chocolate city after. How is that divisive? It is white and black working together, coming together and making something special."

Many thought the remarks would cost Nagin his re-election, but they didn't. His second term as mayor of New Orleans began in June 2006.

Shoot Me Once, Shame on You

It was a late night comedian's dream come true. On Feb. 11, Vice President Dick Cheney, on a weekend quail hunt at a South Texas ranch, accidentally shot and wounded campaign contributor Harry Whittington. Cheney's office didn't disclose the incident till the ranch owners told a Corpus Christi, Texas, newspaper about it.

Whittington was sprayed with bullets across his neck, face and chest, and had a minor heart attack when a piece of the birdshot moved to his heart.

The week that followed was an exercise in damage control for the vice president's office as every move he made was scrutinized by a press corps and public that couldn't believe the headlines.

In a Fox News interview later that week, a subdued Cheney described the incident as one of the worst days of his life.

"The image of him falling is something I'll never, never be able to get out of my mind," Cheney said. "I fired and there's Harry falling and it was, I have to say, one of the worst days in my life."

Cheney was ultimately absolved by the president, Texas law enforcement and Whittington himself, who said in a Feb 18 press conference that "accidents do and will happen."

When Congresswomen Attack

At the end of March, in an incident that seemed more Naomi Campbell than Capitol Hill, Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., found herself at the center of a media maelstrom after an altercation with Capitol Hill police.

McKinney claimed that a white police officer grabbed her when she walked past a checkpoint to enter the Longworth House Office Building, bypassing a metal detector, which House members are allowed to do. She admitted to not wearing her congressional pin but said the officer should have recognized her.

Various reports described McKinney as striking the officer with everything from her cell phone to her fist.

A week later, after a tense meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, McKinney apologized on the House floor and expressed support for Captiol Hill police.

"There should not have been any physical contact in this incident," she said. "I am sorry that this misunderstanding happened at all, and I regret its escalation and I apologize."

The incident was ultimately referred to a grand jury, which decided not to indict the Georgia Democrat, though McKinney lost her re-election bid in November.

Driving Under the Influence

After an early-morning Washington car crash, Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) was written up by Capitol Hill police in May for driving with his lights off after barely missing a police cruiser and crashing his convertible into a security barricade. Kennedy was observed staggering when he got out of his car and claimed he was late for a vote though the House had adjourned three hours prior.

In a statement, Kennedy denied alcohol consumption, but in the days following announced he was entering treatment for addiction to prescription pain medication.

The Summer of YouTube

In a summer forever linked with user-generated content, two powerful senators made what might have once been unmemorable political gaffes that took the Internet by storm.

First, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) on a June edition of C-SPAN's "Road to the White House" said, "In Delaware, the largest growth in population is Indian-Americans moving from India. You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I'm not joking."

Biden's office defended the remarks, describing them as a testament to the recent growth of middle-class Indian families in the state. Biden was not up for re-election this year.

Virginia Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) found himself in deep "macaca" this August. While on the campaign trail, he spotted an Indian-American volunteer of his Democratic opponent's campaign. The volunteer, S.R. Sidarth, had been following Allen with a DV camera, hoping to catch him in a gaffe.

"So, welcome. Let's give a welcome to Macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia," Allen said to the audience at his campaign event, staring into Sidarth's camera. Debated endlessly on the Internet and eventually gaining entries in various online dictionaries, "macaca," in some cultures, is considered a racial slur against African immigrants.

Allen said the comments weren't a xenophobic slam against the South Asian volunteer, rather aimed at his Democrat opponent.

But days later, after Allen's caught-on-tape moment reverberated across the political world, the Virginia senator -- once considered presidential material -- found himself with his tail between his legs, apologizing to Indian-American business leaders in Hindi.

Allen lost his Senate seat to Democratic opponent Jim Webb in November.

Conrad Burns Defines the Enemy

Three-term Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, was also guilty of caught-on-tape-foot-in-mouth disease during the summer months. Only unlike Biden and Allen, Burns did it while sharing a stage with the first lady.

During an August fundraiser in Montana, Burns described terrorists as a "faceless enemy" who "drive taxi cabs in the daytime and kill at night."

For Burns, largely considered a vulnerable incumbent by the GOP, it wasn't the first gaffe on the campaign trail this year.

In June, he joked with a crowd of supporters that the "nice little Guatemalan man" fixing his house might be an illegal immigrant. A week later, during a debate, Burns recalled watching an interview of an illegal immigrant looking for work in Virginia.

""I told my roofer, you better go out and get your help, or you won't get my house roofed," Burns said.

Burns lost his Senate seat to Jon Tester in the November midterms.

Coulda Woulda Shoulda: The Foley Scandal

In late September, former congressman and GOP darling Mark Foley resigned from office after inappropriate and sexually explicit e-mails surfaced; Foley had sent them to young men who had formerly served as congressional pages.

In the wake of the Foley scandal, Republican House leadership came under fire as well and found itself defending "who knew what when" in a series of conflicting and inconsistent public statements.

Critics felt former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was minimizing Foley's actions when he said he understood that the improper conduct occurred after the pages had left the program.

"This was after the fact," Hastert said, " … and you know, would have, could have, should have."

The taint of the Foley scandal so close to the November midterms is thought by many to have cost the party its majority in the House.

The House Ethics Committee reported in December that while GOP lawmakers and aides should have done a better job protecting the young pages, no current lawmakers violated any rules.

A Botched Joke Goes From Bad to Worse

A week before the November midterms, the man who would have been president, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) told a California audience, "Education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. And if you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."

The president called Kerry's remarks "insulting and shameful".

Kerry stood his ground and insisted his comments were a "botched joke" and that the president's attempt to use it politically was "a shameful effort to distract from a botched war," until members of his own party -- following the tune of Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and Sen. Hillary Clinton -- turned against him as well, disagreeing with his comments and calling them "inappropriate."

Kerry -- who wasn't running for anything this year -- eventually apologized and spent the days leading into the election running away from his comments.

Intelligence Questioned

In December, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), tapped by incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to head the House Intelligence Committee come January, stumbled after incorrectly answering basic questions about Islam, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah in an interview with Congressional Quarterly magazine.

When asked by CQ National Security Editor Jeff Stein whether al Qaeda was Sunni or Shia, Reyes answered "they are probably both" and then ventured "probably Shia."

Reyes was wrong despite having a 50-50 chance of success. (Founded by Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda is a Sunni organization.)

"Issues like al Qaeda and the Middle East deserve serious discussion and consideration," Reyes said in a statement after the column was posted on CQ's Web site.

"The CQ interview covered a wide range of topics other than the selected points published in the story. As a member of the Intelligence Committee since before 9/11, I'm acutely aware of al Qaeda's desire to harm Americans. The Intelligence Committee will keep its eye on the ball, and focus on the pressing security and intelligence issues facing us."

As for Reyes' pending chairmanship, Pelosi has not announced any plans to replace Reyes.

For better or for worse, leading in to 2007 and the 110th Congress, Reyes was not the only congressman on the intelligence committee who had trouble with those basic questions. Republicans Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.) and Terry Everett (R-Ala.) also failed the test.