Ron DeSantis, Welcome to the Flub Club
From the 'Dean scream' to the Dukakis tank stunt, presidential candidate gaffes live on in history
Dean’s scream. Dukakis in a tank. Quayle’s “Jack Kennedy” flop. Jeb Bush’s “Please clap.” They are indelible flubs, often avoidable, awkward moments that invite ridicule – all with lasting consequences for politicians.
Welcome to the fray, Ron DeSantis and Elon Musk. In public imagination -- and especially within the Beltway media bubble -- they really stumbled Wednesday night on DeSantis' presidential campaign rollout, creating yet another iconic moment that won't be easily forgotten.
When Twitter Spaces audio crashed during the Republican Florida governor’s announcement that he was running for president, it was hard to imagine a more disastrous launch.
“It's going to be damaging – because people think in symbols,” says Eric Dezenhall, a veteran Washington PR expert whose business is damage control. “Fails are funny, They are considered symbolic of what the person is. And ridicule is more powerful than hate.”
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To be sure, the DeSantis audio was back up and running after the glitches, but with a fraction of the audience they had at launch.
Other pols have regularly flubbed – George W. Bush mangled the English language – but he had a certain magic. Forget that he gaffed endlessly -- remember “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” President Joe Biden has so many verbal gaffes that it's hard to keep track -- but he's also known as a gifted retail politician.
Bush was a comfortable campaigner who connected with people. DeSantis is widely viewed as an awkward retail politician.
“If you have the natural ability to connect to people, have a sense of humor, show people you are the real deal, you can recover from it,” Peter Mirajanian, a veteran of Democratic presidential campaigns, says. “But the danger is that if you don’t have that, it becomes baked in the cake.”
It is impossible to say just yet that the Twitter glitches will be the singularly defining moment for the Florida governor, who has $200 million in his coffers and the momentum of the political industrial complex at his back in a primary pack headed by master showman Donald Trump. The rest of the 2024 race will determine that for him.
Here is The Messenger’s not-entirely-comprehensive list of some other great implosions and defining moments from the campaign trail.
1960 - Nixon’s 5 o’clock shadow
Let’s go way back, to the very first televised presidential debate. The introduction of the new medium into politics flipped the entire industry on its head, giving millions a chance to see and judge the candidates they had perhaps read about or listened to on the radio.
Voters who listened on the radio thought that Richard Nixon, the well-spoken, cerebral former vice president to Eisenhower, had won the debate. Those who watched on TV couldn’t see past Nixon’s stubble.
1975 - Ford falls down the steps.
Just as the 1976 race was getting underway, President Gerald Ford took an awkward tumble down the steps of his plane. By then Ford had transformed into something akin to the nation’s grandfather – seeking to heal the wounds ripped open by Nixon’s Watergate scandal deceptions and subsequent resignation.
But the fall became a symbol, cemented through caricature by Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live – and that summer, at the Republican convention, Ford was challenged by an upstart politician from California leading a conservative insurgency inside the party, the actor and punchline master, Ronald Reagan.
1988 - Dukakis in the Army tank
The famously short then-governor of Massachusetts – voters are notorious for electing presidents who closer to 6’ tall – created a flubbed image for the ages when his head poked out of the tank and he gave a thumbs up. The gathered national press corps almost fell over laughing. (Decades later, one of Dukakis’ advance men – the folks whose literal job it is to make their candidate look good on camera – blamed the flop on an unwieldy, sprawling campaign with little accountability and a lot of “crossed wires.”)
Says Dezenhall: “He looked like some combination of a Smurf and a Bobblehead. It was an indelible moment.”
Dukakis tanked in the electoral count that November, and almost every serious campaign since then has worked hard to keep their candidate out of military craft.
1988 - Dan Quayle’s challenger: “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Before he took the debate stage with Dukakis’ running mate and veteran lawmaker Lloyd Bentsen, then-U.S. Sen. Dan Quayle’s campaign staff pleaded with him not to use a clever line he’d come up with comparing himself to former President John F. Kennedy, himself a young, rising star when he won the White House in 1960.
Quayle, of course, didn’t listen. Beating back questions of his relative youth and inexperience, Quayle proudly proclaimed, “I have as much experience in Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency.”
Bentsen, almost twice Quayle’s age and an old friend of Kennedy’s, delivered perhaps the only line widely remembered from a vice presidential debate in American history.
“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
2004 - Howard Dean - The scream
Before there was Bernie Sanders and the rise of the populist left, little-known Vermont governor Howard Dean stormed the 2004 Democratic primary and claimed a top shot at unseating Democratic establishment favorite John Kerry.
Just after losing the Iowa caucus to Kerry, Dean worked his fervent supporters into a fever pitch of yells and cheers.
“Not only are we going to New Hampshire, Tom Harkin, we're going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico, and we're going to California and Texas and New York. And we're going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan, and then we're going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House!”
With the crowd at full blast, and Dean unaware that the TV stations were picking up his increasingly fiery preaching - he pumped his arm and let ‘er rip.
Cable news, newly dominant in the world of politics and hungry to fill airtime, played the clip endlessly. And Dean never recovered.
2016 – Jeb Bush seeks applause
The scion of the Bush political dynasty – and a former governor of Florida himself – entered the 2016 race as the clear frontrunner with gobs of money and a juggernaut of a machine ready to clear the field for him. But after repeated bashings by Trump, who labeled him “low energy,” and others, Bush began faltering fast. It was in this weakened state, while cajoling a town hall of New Hampshire voters, that he delivered what he thought was a zinger – the crowd did not – prompting Bush to say, “Please clap.”
It was, as his history now records, an invitation for ridicule. Which no politician ever wants.
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