Monday marks the 30th anniversary of a major presidential gaffe — Ronald Reagan joking during a microphone test: "My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." Though the remark was not broadcast, it became public, infuriating the Russians. And the blunders keep coming in Washington and elsewhere. Last month, Rep. Curt Clawson, R-Fla., embarrassed himself by addressing two U.S. officials who happened to be of Indian descent as if they were Indian government officials. "I am familiar with your country," he said. "I love your country." Here are 10 painful facts about gaffes:
1/ He's not a giant of the 20th century, but he played one in a movie. A billboard in India intending to honor Nelson Mandela after his death in December 2013 mistakenly used actor Morgan Freeman's photograph instead of the former South African president's.
2/ It would be hard to make this worse: On Oct. 31, 2000, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, paying his respects at Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel with Prime Minister Ehud Barak, unfortunately turned a handle the wrong way and accidentally extinguished the eternal flame, which stands in the Hall of Remembrance for the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis. Barak tried to relight it but failed. A memorial employee finally reignited it with a cigarette lighter.
3/ During the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney committed numerous gaffes that put his wealth in an unfavorable light, including his comment that 47 percent of Americans are "dependent upon government" and his offer of a $10,000 bet with a debate opponent. Less publicized was a 2011 statement in which he actually misstated his own name. At the start of a 2011 debate, CNN's Wolf Blitzer said: "I'm Wolf Blitzer, and yes, that's my real name." Romney said: "I'm Mitt Romney — and yes, Wolf, that's also my first name." But Romney's first name isn't Mitt — that's his middle name. His first name is Willard.
4/ The man who beat Romney has delivered his own share of erroneous statements, such as saying he had visited "57 states" and suggesting that Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla., are on the Gulf Coast. But perhaps President Barack Obama's most painful gaffe came in a 2011 speech to the troops when he referred to a Medal of Honor recipient killed in Afghanistan as if he were still alive. He later called the family to apologize.
5/ Movie promotion seems to invite misjudgment. Gandhi Jayanti is a holiday celebrated in India every Oct. 2 to mark the birth of Mohandas Gandhi, a champion of nonviolence. But that didn't stop promoters of the new Indian film "Bang Bang!" from picking that day for the premiere, and even promoting it that way: "On the most peaceful day of the year ... bullets will fly." Paramount Pictures Australia recently advertised the new "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" film by tweeting a poster of the turtles flying out of an exploding skyscraper, with the release date: Sept. 11.
6/ The gaffe-prone have often been tripped up by references to the Sept. 11 attacks. Esquire.com accidentally ran a headline reading, "Making Your Morning Commute More Stylish," next to a photo of a man falling out of one of the Twin Towers. The Tumbledown Trails Golf Course in Wisconsin apologized for its tasteless $9.11 golf rate to "commemorate" Sept. 11. But perhaps the most cynical move occurred within hours of the attacks, when British bureaucrat Jo Moore realized that the events in America were so distracting that any bad news at home might be overlooked. "It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury," she wrote in an email. After it was leaked, she said she was sorry.
7/ Former IRS honcho Lois Lerner, under fire over accusations that her agency had targeted conservative groups, made a strange statement for a tax official: "I'm not good at math." But she knew enough about arithmetic to take the Fifth before Congress.
8/ One of the most infamous mistakes in American politics was apparent only in hindsight. The infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner — displayed on the USS Abraham Lincoln for President George W. Bush's May 1, 2003, speech declaring the end of major military operations in Iraq — is now considered a blatant gaffe, but it was not immediately recognized as such. The banner wasn't cited at all in The New York Times' Page 1 stories in the next day's edition. The Chicago Tribune's stories barely mentioned it. The Iraq insurgency, which would extend the fighting for years and cost thousands of lives, hadn't yet begun in earnest.
9/ Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jim Marshall picked up a loose ball during a game in October 1964 and ran 66 yards to the end zone. Unfortunately, he ran the wrong way and scored a safety for the San Francisco 49ers. The Vikings managed to win anyway. The University of California's Roy Riegels, a center, didn't have the same luck. Playing in the 1929 Rose Bowl, he ran a fumble nearly 70 yards in the wrong direction before a teammate slowed him down enough for opposing Georgia Tech players to tackle him on the 1-yard line. Tech scored a safety the next play — and won the game 8-7. Though in tears after the game, Riegels learned to laugh about it later. In 1964, Marshall got a letter from Riegels that opened, "Welcome to the club!"
10/ Al Gore committed a major gaffe by claiming that he invented the Internet, right? Well, no, not really. In a 1999 interview, Gore said: "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet." While that statement was self-promotional, it was not a claim of invention — it was a claim of taking the initiative, which Gore clearly did. Two pioneers of the Internet, Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf, once wrote: "Al Gore was the first political leader to recognize the importance of the Internet and to promote and support its development."
Mark Jacob is a deputy metro editor at the Chicago Tribune; Stephan Benzkofer is the newspaper's weekend editor.
SOURCES: "Football Hall of Shame 2" by Bruce Nash; Chicago Tribune; The Washington Post; The New York Times; San Francisco Chronicle; Agence France-Presse; The Guardian; Detroit Free Press; usnews.com; poynter.org; jimromenesko.com; ibnlive.in.com; snopes.com.