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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lott Was Not the First to Make Gaffe

WASHINGTON -- Political gaffes have ruined or threatened many a political career before Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott's self-inflicted woes.

Racial slurs cost Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz his job during the Gerald Ford administration. Ronald Reagan's interior secretary, James Watt, suffered a similar fate. Vice Presidents Spiro Agnew and Dan Quayle had to apologize for ethnic affronts, as did presidential contender Jesse Jackson.

Speaking without thinking is a common malady for those in public life. In some cases, as with Lott's comments suggesting sympathy with one-time segregationist policies, the damage can be severe.

"When politicians blurt out, they're really saying something about themselves," said Wayne Fields, an expert on political rhetoric at Washington University in St. Louis. "It's not that they are saying something they don't believe. They are probably saying something they do believe but that they normally restrain."

In some instances, the utterances -- such as Hillary Clinton's March 1991 lament, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies" -- turned out to be more politically embarrassing than career-threatening.

In 2000, Vice President Al Gore had to retract a claim that his mother-in-law paid more for arthritis medicine than it cost to treat his dog with the same drug. That was the case, too, with suggestions he helped invent the Internet and served with wife, Tipper, as the model for the book and movie "Love Story."

Bill Clinton lied to a grand jury and the country about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky, conduct that led to impeachment by the House. History will remember his assertion, "I did not have sex with that woman."

Are public figures more prone to gaffes?

"It's easy to make reasonable excuses for them: They're human, they get tired and distracted, and like the rest of us make mistakes," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "But, beyond that, they're in a cocoon, surrounded by supporters and aides who tell them how great they are, and they start to believe it."

Often, an open microphone is nearby -- as Bush found at a September 2000 campaign rally in Illinois, when he used an obscenity to describe a reporter for The New York Times. Running mate Dick Cheney seconded Bush's comments. Both Bush and Cheney thought their remarks were off-mike.

Racial and ethnic slurs have spelled trouble for many politicians.

Senator Robert Byrd, a Democrat, used a racial epithet -- "white nigger" -- in a March 2001 television interview. "The phrase dates back to my boyhood and has no place in today's society," he said later.

Jackson angered many Jewish voters with his 1984 characterization of New York as "Hymietown.

Watt, Reagan's interior secretary, resigned after boasting, "I have a black ... a woman, two Jews and a cripple" on an advisory panel. Butz, during the Ford administration, was forced out after an obscene joke that characterized blacks' preferences in shoes, sex and bathrooms.

Agnew apologized for calling Polish-Americans "polacks" and a Japanese-American reporter a "fat Jap." Quayle drew criticism for telling American Samoans, "You all look like happy campers to me."