"A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth": Michael Kinsley's 1992 bon mot has become a permanent part of Washington wisdom. A gaffe prompts red-facedness and apologies precisely because it articulates what everyone knows but no one is willing to say.
It was a gaffe last April when President Bush, asked if he would deploy U.S. military forces to help Taiwan defend itself against China, replied that he would do "whatever it took," thereby admitting something that no president had said since 1979, even if all of them thought the same way. The White House scurried to apologize, explain away and change the subject, but the truth was out.
It was a gaffe in October when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld admitted that U.S. forces might not capture Osama bin Laden: "It's a big world. There are lots of countries. He's got a lot of money, he's got a lot of people who support him, and I just don't know whether we'll be successful."
After this remark made headlines, Rumsfeld back-pedaled, expressed full confidence in the American troops and mumbled about his previous statement being "one of those semantic discussions. From time to time, I suppose, things come out of my mouth not quite the right way." But he had acknowledged what everyone knew.
It was a gaffe in January, when CNN promoted Paula Zahn's new show, "American Morning," with an ad that had a male voice describing her as "a morning news anchor who's provocative, super-smart, oh yeah, and just a little sexy." The word sexy then popped up on the screen accompanied by the sound of a zipper opening.
CNN scurried to apologize, explain away and change the subject, but the ad confirmed what everyone knows but the networks had always denied - that beauty and sexiness are key considerations in a news anchor's career.
Another gaffe occurred last Thursday morning, when White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said something unusually truthful during his morning "gaggle," the informal session with reporters before his televised briefing begins.
Referring to the Camp David II summit of mid 2000, Fleischer made a very valid point (though, admittedly, not in the most elegant way): "You can make the case that in an attempt to shoot the moon and get nothing, more violence resulted; that as a result of an attempt to push the parties beyond where they were willing to go, that it led to expectations that were raised to such a high level that it turned into violence.
"It is important to be careful in the region," he went on, "to proceed at a pace that is achievable and doable, and not to raise people's expectations falsely so high by trying to reach something that the parties cannot agree to, themselves, because the failure to reach that level created unmet expectations in the region. And that resulted in violence."
Fleischer did not mention Bill Clinton by name, but the former president's office immediately issued a statement condemning Fleischer's comments as "unfortunate." Under pressure from President Bush himself, as well as Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Fleischer quickly back-pedaled. "I mistakenly suggested that increasing violence in the Middle East was attributable to the peace efforts that were underway in 2000. That is not the position of the administration."
But Fleischer was only stating what others are thinking; as CBS Morning News reported, his view "is privately held by many people in the administration, including President Bush."
More importantly, his analysis is correct.
The wildly over-ambitious diplomacy co-sponsored by Clinton and Israel's Labor Party leaders (Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak) had precisely the opposite effect from that expected: The Camp David II summit was supposed to close down the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but in fact prompted an unprecedentedly aggressive round of Palestinian violence against Israel that still continues and is still getting worse.
Fleischer's insight has large implications. Before the U.S. government hares off after yet another "peace" plan (such as the current absurdity jointly promoted by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and The New York Times), it should very carefully assess its potential for harm. The Camp David II summit fiasco bears at least partial responsibility for 1,200 deaths; what will be the toll of the next shoot-the-moon round of diplomacy?