The following is a list of faux pas (a violation of accepted, although unwritten, social rules), gaffes (unintentional things said or done that proved embarrassing or humiliating, in one case fatal and in another case potentially so) and unfortunate incidents (those things that were not gaffes or faux pas yet were nonetheless considered to be regrettable or embarrassing to the party or parties involved) involving U.S. Presidents.
Some were by Presidents themselves while others were made by those either associated with or who reported about the U.S. President of the day.
Harding's poor grasp of the English language, coupled with his insistence on writing his own speeches, produced notorious linguistic errors. He once commented:
"I would like the government to do all it can to mitigate, then, in understanding, in mutuality of interest, in concern for the common good, our tasks will be solved."
Following Harding's death, playwright E. E. Cummings said "The only man, woman or child who wrote a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical errors is dead."
Harry S. Truman
Truman had unexpectedly become President due to the sudden death of longterm President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Few expected him to secure election as the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1948. In an effort to boost his ratings, during the Democratic National Convention the party released dozens of doves into the convention hall. The action backfired spectacularly when some of the doves died in the intense heat and others, made dizzy by the heat, desperately tried to escape and divebombed the delegates.(Christian Science Monitor)
Lyndon B. Johnson
Johnson was well known for his coarse language and occasionally unrefined behavior. While not a gaffe in office, an embarrassingly personal tape of LBJ ordering pants from Joe Haggar on August 9, 1964, was later released to the public. In it Johnson belches, complains about the pants riding up and cutting him "where your nuts hang" when he gains a little weight, like "riding a wire fence," and asks for more material "around under my bunghole" that he can let out if need be.
Gerald Ford, who succeeded Richard Nixon in 1974, made numerous gaffes and faux-pas, many of which, while making people see him as human and less imperial than his predecessor, made others vote against him for election in 1976.
Among his more famous examples are:
On October 6, 1976, during a televised Presidential debate in the 1976 Presidential election with rival Jimmy Carter, President Ford became confused and stated that Poland and Eastern Europe were not under the domination of the Soviet Union. When challenged over his comments, he repeated "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration." In the words of Professor Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High Risk TV: "That was a gaffe that took him some time to recover from?mostly because he did not back away from the statement".
While campaigning for president, Jimmy Carter candidly noted during an interview with Playboy magazine, "I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do?and I have done it?and God forgives me for it."
While on a visit to Poland President Carter delivered a speech which was notoriously mistranslated. When Carter told the Poles he "understood their anxiety? about democracy, the translator stated that Carter ?desired them sexually?. (Pravda)
A further innocent comment by Carter was translated as indicating that the President of the United States had "left America never to return."
During an 20 April 1979 fishing trip to Plains Georgia, Carter encountered a swamp rabbit that attempted to board the President's fishing boat, which he shooed away with a paddle. The story found its way to the national press a few months later. It was covered for over a week, and Carter was widely portrayed as having acted in a "cowardly" fashion on his encounter with what the press nicknamed the "Killer rabbit."
In 1984, before his weekly radio address, President Reagan was asked to say something to do a soundcheck. He remained quiet for a few moments, then not realizing that the microphone was now on and recording he joked:
"My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes". This inadvertent radio announcement caused a lowering of the DEFCON level, and one of the tensest moments of the Cold War.
In a slip of the tongue, where he meant to say "employment", President Reagan told Americans "We are trying to get unemployment to go up, and I think we're going to succeed" (Press Association)
George H. W. Bush
In January 1992, while on a state visit to Japan, President George H.W. Bush became ill and was shown on television vomiting into the lap of the Prime Minister of Japan, Kiichi Miyazawa, who was sitting beside him, during a state dinner.
On February 5, 1992, Bush attended a National Grocers Association photo-op in Orlando, Florida. It was widely reported that he had expressed "wonder" and "amazement" at supermarket scanner technology that had been widely used since 1980. The story gave the impression that Bush was detached from the lives of ordinary Americans. However, it was soon revealed that Bush had previously seen this technology in use and was most likely making polite conversation.
During a town hall debate with rivals Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, while his opponents were answering, cameras caught a shot of Bush glancing at his watch and looking bored. The action was picked up by the media and reported as a gaffe, in that it showed he wasn't interested in the debate and didn't want to have to spend his time taking part, even though the debate was for the electorate's benefit. National Geographic said that "[t]he gesture gave viewers the distinct impression that Bush would rather have been elsewhere".
As Vice-President of the United States, Bush caused widespread offense when, on being shown the gas chambers at Auschwitz, he commented "Boy, they were big on crematoriums, weren't they?"
Bill Clinton's Presidential career was, in the view of many, stymied by his address to the 1988 Democratic Convention. The up-to-that-point 'future candidate to watch', Governor Clinton delivered an infamous 30 minute speech that bored delegates and viewers alike. When he finally said the words "in conclusion" the audience broke out in applause. Clinton however saved his reputation by an appearance on The Tonight Show where he poked fun at himself for his longwindedness. Though the speech was widely seen as a major faux-pas that could have killed off any future Presidential bid, by 1992 he had overcome it and won the presidency.
On 20 May 1993, Clinton received a haircut aboard Air Force One by Beverly Hills hairstylist Christophe. It was reported that during the one-hour haircut the airplane's engines were running and two of the four runways at Los Angeles International Airport were shutdown, forcing some scheduled air traffic to circle the airport waiting to land. The expensive haircut was said to have caused long delays, becoming a source of ridicule less than 6 months into Clinton's presidency. However, an analysis of FAA records by Glenn Kessler of Newsday revealed that, contrary to reports, only one (unscheduled) air taxi reported an actual delay - of two minutes.
Under attack and under oath during taped grand jury testimony prior to his impeachment hearing he declared that whether he had told the truth hinged on the definition of the word "is": "It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is"
Clinton made the statement "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms Lewinsky." Referring to Lewinsky as "that woman" was widely regarded as crass and a faux-pas. Tests performed by the FBI later showed Clinton's DNA on a semen-stained navy blue cocktail dress owned by Ms Lewinsky.
George W. Bush
September 4, 2000 ? "There's Adam Clymer, major league asshole from the New York Times" ? at a campaign rally in Naperville, IL, unaware the microphone in front of him was live.
June 11, 2001 ? Bush appeared on Spanish television and said "It is a great honor to travel to Spain and visit the King and also Prime Minister Anzar. But I have to practice the very pretty language, and unless I practice I am going to destroy this language". He had in fact mispronounced the name of the Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar. He called him ansar, the Spanish word for "goose". (Daily Telegraph)
January 13, 2002 ? Bush lost consciousness for a brief time in the White House while eating a pretzel and watching a professional football game on television. He fell from his couch and has a scrape and large bruise on his left cheekbone, plus a bruise on his lower lip, to show for his troubles. His glasses cut the side of his face. (CNN Politics)
August 6, 2004 ? Bush told a televised meeting that "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful ? and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people ? and neither do we." (BBC News)
November 20, 2005 ? Bush attempted to exit a room in China, but it was locked and so he was unable to leave the room, much to the amusement of the world's press. (BBC News, with video)