Believe it or not, there’s a storied history of presidential blunders that stretch back years and years, all the way to before they could become instant memes — because there was no internet.
Shocking, but true.
These moments were “viral” in that they were everywhere — TV, radio, newspapers — but there was no widespread internet to give them a second life as pure meme bliss, like just about everything that happens in the Trump White House these days.
So what moments would go super viral, saturating our culture to the point you can’t get away, if they happened today? You know, like the “Dean scream” or when Dick Cheney shot a friend in the face?
History is rife with political screw-ups, all the way back to the country’s founding, but we combed through the last 40 years or so to find the stand outs from modern political history.
Ronald Reagan’s mic drop (1980)
Ronald Reagan was known for being quick with a quip, but the one that really signaled his ascendency on the way to the White House came at the GOP’s New Hampshire primary debate in February 1980.
When the FEC told the Nashua Telegraph, a local newspaper, that paying for a two-man debate between Reagan and then-frontrunner George H.W. Bush would violate regulations by showing favor to those two candidates over several others that were also running (and amount to a contribution to Reagan and Bush), Reagan offered to pay for it and invited those other candidates to participate. (These types of situations would eventually be remedied in 1987 by the formation of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which would sponsor all debates beginning with the 1988 election cycle.)
Meanwhile, both the Telegraph and Bush held firm in their insistence on a one-on-one debate between Bush and Reagan during a long, protracted process of negotiations.
This led to a heated argument at the beginning of the debate, during which Telegraph editor Jon Breen asked for Reagan’s microphone to be cut. An angered Reagan answered with a red-hot one-liner about the microphones that doubled as a Grade A Alpha Dog moment.
High drama followed in which no one appeared to back down. Eventually, after Bush used his opening statement to stand his ground for a one-on-one debate, the other candidates begrudgingly left the stage and the debate became just Bush versus Reagan.
More important: That thunderous Reagan line reverberated with voters, portraying Reagan as someone standing up for his Republican comrades/competitors while painting Bush in an unfavorable light. It all came to a head with a blowout Reagan win in New Hampshire that launched him to the front of the pack and an on to an eventual White House win in November over incumbent Jimmy Carter.
Walter Mondale asks “Where’s The Beef?” (1984)
Reagan was always the king of the one-liner, but it was Walter Mondale who laid down the best quip of the 1984 campaign during a Democratic primary debate against Gary Hart. Mondale’s zinger harnessed the pop culture zeitgeist of 1984 by lifting the line from an incredibly popular Wendy’s ad.
“Where’s the beef?” was ripe for leveraging in a political campaign as a question begging for substance. And Mondale did so, beautifully.
The two candidates remained locked in a battle throughout the campaign, with Mondale winning the nomination. But “win” is a relative term. He was later steamrolled by Reagan in the general election, proving that the beef is relative.
Dukakis tanks (1988)
Nearly 30 years before the Trump campaign there was the completely bonkers 1988 campaign. It was filled with so much drama, intrigue, and a succession of moments that would have crashed Twitter a few times over. The legendary Richard Ben Cramer book What It Takes is a must-read for absorbing it all from beginning to end.
There was the Gary Hart scandal that involved a boat called “Monkey Business” (that’s the subject of the upcoming Hugh Jackman film The Frontrunner), the Joe Biden plagiarism scandal, George H.W. Bush’s “Read my lips: no new taxes” promise (that he wound up breaking), and one of the great debate burns in U.S. history when Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic VP candidate, slammed Republican VP candidate Dan Quayle.
But perhaps the most would-be viral moment of the 1988 campaign was a September photo-op gone awry. It was a moment that had nothing to do with politics or qualifications and everything to do with optics: when Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis rode around in a tank.
The story behind the infamous incident is now legend, but here’s a quick recap. The visit to a General Dynamics facility in Michigan was meant to make Dukakis seem strong on defense. Part of that trip wound up being a ride in an M1A1 tank, but the General Dynamics team insisted Dukakis wear a helmet for safety. The helmet dwarfed the diminutive candidate, making him look like a child and prompting guffaws from reporters covering the event.
It was such a disaster that video of Dukakis riding around in the tank was used in an attack ad by the Bush campaign.
It wasn’t the only reason Dukakis’ early campaign poll leads evaporated — effective attack ads by the Bush team (Roger Ailes!) and poor debate performances by Dukakis and Bentsen (burn aside) also contributed — but it was a major misstep that definitely played a part.
A grocery list of campaign mishaps (1992)
While not quite as crazy as the 1988 election, the 1992 election had plenty of memorable moments — Bill Clinton’s sax-tastic appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show, those Clinton and Al Gore jogging photos, Bill’s love of McDonald’s (which spawned a classic SNL sketch), and the entrance of third party candidate Ross Perot, who turned things upside down for a few months.
But three particular moments perfectly show what an appetite voters had (and still have) for political stumbles, and how much they were willing to overlook the quiet truth of what actually happened.
Bush’s first misstep, in January 1992, was a messy one. Fighting a vicious case of the flu while on a diplomatic trip to Japan, The incumbent Bush became ill at dinner and wound up vomiting on Japan’s prime minister.
Vomiting on a head of state, no matter the circumstances, is, well, not great. That said, it’s not like Bush chose to vomit on Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa. As the story goes, Bush had already toughed out a full slate of diplomatic duties, including a game of tennis with the emperor of Japan.
It’s also worth noting that a lapful of vomit has not come close to doing the damage Trump has done in his behavior toward our allies.
Bush’s next misstep came a month later when he appeared to be amazed by a grocery store scanner during a visit to the National Grocers Association convention. One thing led to another, a famous photo was taken, and it was assumed that Bush, who came from wealth, had been exposed as being out of touch.
The truth, though, seems far more innocuous: Bush was apparently marveling at a new feature in grocery store scanner technology that had the machine correctly read a torn and jumbled bar code, proving he wasn’t quite as out of touch with grocery store behavior as a future Republican president would prove to be.
Vice President Dan Quayle’s slip-up was worse. While visiting a New Jersey school in 1992, he watched a student write the word “potato” on a chalkboard and then told the student he was missing an (erroneous) ‘e’ at the end of the word. The confused student — who would later say, “I knew he was wrong, really. He’s the Vice President and I couldn’t argue with him with all the people there” — complied.
If there’s a saving grace for Quayle, it’s that he was reportedly reading from a school-provided cue card that had the word misspelled with the extra ‘e.’ But Quayle didn’t catch the mistake, simply parroting it, and wound up with a scene that wouldn’t have appeared out of place on Veep.
Clinton’s secret signal (1998)
It’s hard to think of a moment in the Lewinsky-Clinton affair that wasn’t “viral,” as we’d call it today. The internet was becoming a force in the United States, spreading first reports of the scandal thanks to online bomb thrower Matt Drudge.
Remember the infamous line from Clinton’s grand jury testimony, in which he questioned the definition of the word “is”?
Of all the moments from the sordid affair, there’s a smaller one that feels as intriguing and ripe for virality as anything else that happened: the time Bill Clinton allegedly wore a tie Lewinsky had gifted him on the day she testified before a grand jury in the Ken Starr investigation.
It was said to be a signal of solidarity between Clinton and Lewinsky, coming at a time when Clinton still denied the affair. (He would publicly admit to it less than two weeks later.) Clinton played the whole thing off, but the story has held on for 20 years.
The sigh heard ’round the country (2000)
The 2000 presidential election would be remembered for far more important things, like a presidential election being decided by the Supreme Court, the phrase “hanging chads,” and Florida being unable to get its act together.
But then-Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, didn’t do himself any favors during the presidential debates against GOP nominee George W. Bush, letting his body language speak louder than anything he actually said, sighing, rolling his eyes, and even trying intimidate Bush during the town hall debate only to have that backfire.
Gore is hardly alone, as we’ve seen, in making debate mistakes, but his behavior made him seem aloof and irritated compared to the “folksy” Bush. It even got the SNL treatment, one surefire way to know you’ve transcended into the mainstream.
Gore’s behavior called to mind Bush’s father’s watch-checking mistake in the 1992 debates, but we also saw shades of Gore during the 2016 debates when Trump infamously stalked Hillary Clinton on stage.
The latter moment exploded across the internet, an early example of the way our current digital culture came to consume things at a lightning-fast pace. While these moments got play in newspaper, on national news, and late-night comedy, they didn’t become ubiquitous, ever-evolving memes the way they do now.
The 2000 election felt like the tipping point, the moment when internet shifted into something all-consuming. Then, as social media evolved in time for the 2008 election, the minute-by-minute accounts of politics and elections took on a life of their own.
It’s not so much that more is happening in our hyper-connected era — though certainly politician’s direct access to citizens on social media has changed the way things unfold slightly. But mostly it’s that we’re more aware of every single thing that occurs now and we’re able to weigh in now with more speed and in more places than ever before.
Every slip-up, misquote, and awkward handshake is inescapable, occupying every conceivable nook and cranny of our lives if we let it. It’s all grist for the never-ending content mill that doesn’t just occupy television and the few remaining newspapers, but every platform we use, be it Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat.
Now we can both look back at the moments of the past and forward to the fresh hell of a 24-hour news cycle that awaits us as we wade further into the Trump administration and closer to the 2020 election.