woody_zimmerman_118_2007When John F. Kennedy addressed thousands of wildly cheering Germans in 1962 Berlin, he famously declaimed, "Ich bin ein Berliner." The next day, cartoons appeared in the Berlin press showing a donut wearing JFK's face. It turned out that "Berliner" is the vernacular for a jelly donut made famous by that place.

Of course, Mr. Kennedy was a faux German, and certainly a faux Berliner, so he (and his staff) couldn't be expected to know about jelly donuts. He was simply trying to bridge a national and cultural divide by speaking an emotionally charged sentence to the German people, in their language, at a time of great tension and peril. He got a pass for his gaffe because his heart was in the right place. Nobody called him a "moron" for not knowing from jelly donuts named after cities. Wags have joked, ever since, that it was fortunate he wasn't speaking in Vienna, where he might have proclaimed himself a hot dog. ("Wien" is the German name for Vienna, and even Americans know what a "wiener" is.)

Republican presidents typically get roasted (so to speak) for slipups on points of geography, history or politics; Democrats, not as much. President Gerald Ford was mercilessly panned for misstating that Eastern Europe was free of Soviet domination in a 1976 presidential debate with Jimmy Carter. (This fit in nicely with the "stumblebum" image the American media had constructed for Mr. Ford.) He clearly meant that he would not let the Soviets overrun Europe, but why let this get in the way of a good Ford-bashing story?

Before a 1984 radio address, Ronald Reagan joked to radio technicians that we would begin bombing Russia in five minutes. The technicians perversely leaked the off-air joke to the media. A furious uproar resulted, including a report that the Soviet Union went on alert for ½ hour because of the bogus comments. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger later confirmed the Soviet alert, but he denied that the USA's DEFCON level had changed at any time.

2008 GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin got the full "hoity-toity" from bloggers when a (later debunked) rumor circulated suggesting that she thought Africa was a country, not an entire continent. She did not say this on the air, but a White House transcript of the interview later made it appear that she had. (Details, details...) Months after the campaign, I still meet perfectly intelligent people (or so I had thought) who "know" Sarah Palin is a dumb brunette in high heels because she didn't know Africa was a continent. As Mark Twain and Winston Churchill said, a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has its boots on - or variations on that theme.

The estimable Joe Biden - now just a heartbeat away from the Oval Office, himself - has elevated blooperism to high art, but sharp-eared media watchdogs either take no notice or just laugh off his gaffes. Remember him asking the guy in the wheelchair to stand up to be recognized? (Could Joe Biden actually have healing powers?) But I digress...

Throughout his terms in office, George W. Bush was mercilessly lampooned and characterized as a moron on account of his occasionally scrambled syntax and unpolished forensic style. Reporters followed him around with hand-held recorders to catch every mangled clause or mispronounced word. Mr. Bush did not disappoint, adding classics like "misunderestimated" to our national lexicon. But his sins were mostly grammatical and pronunciative. If he had ever suggested that Austrian was a language, for instance, there would probably have been calls for his impeachment on grounds that a person of such diminished capacity should not be holding high office.

Yet the Austrian-language gaffe is exactly what President Barak Obama made during a press conference in Strassbourg, France, when he took a question from an Austrian TV reporter named Sonja Sagmeister. By way of explaining the American idiom "wheeling and dealing," Mr. Obama mentioned that he didn't know how that would be expressed in "Austrian". Subsequently, the Final Minority Report, among others, twitted Mr. Obama's language skills, noting that Austrian is not a language. (Austria's official language is German.) On the same European tour, Mr. Obama referred to "England" instead of the "United Kingdom," which is the correct designation.

The American Mainstream Media ignored these gaffes, however, as they have similarly ignored other Obama gaffes, commencing in the 2008 campaign. When Mr. Obama was caught on video making unguarded comments to Joe (the Plumber) Wurzelbacher that suggested socialism, the media jumped on the story. But they went after Joe the Plumber, not Barak Obama - digging into Joe's personal finances, his professional status (he was not, gasp! a licensed plumber) and his personal life. Very little attention was given to the substance of Mr. Obama's remarks about "redistributing" Joe's good fortune to those not doing as well. The eleventh-hour gaffe, which must have made Obama campaign wonks pretty nervous, was conveniently swept down the memory hole by a worshipful media, as The One cruised serenely on toward elective history.

Mr. Obama's recent gaffe of bowing low to the King of Saudi Arabia has been more difficult to sweep aside, since it was clearly caught on tape. Some media outlets have shown it repeatedly. Despite White House disclaimers - i.e., the king was much shorter than Mr. Obama, so the president was simply shaking hands down at his level - the images show an unmistakable bow. It was the kind of bow presidents never make to royalty. Mr. Obama was caught in flagrante delicto, and it has been a little difficult for him to get free of this tar baby.

It turns out that Americans don't like to see their presidents or other government officials making obeisance to foreign potentates - no matter how important the latter seem to American national interests. Labor leader George Meany famously set the standard for treatment of royalty by Americans when he greeted the King of Spain: "Yo! Howya doin', king?")

Mr. Obama is clearly learning on the job, so things might be a little bumpy once the dazzle of Michelle Obama's toned, muscular arms fades. Every president makes gaffes, and this one will be no exception, as we have already seen. The media will do him no favor by attempting to ignore or conceal them. Gaffes are an important part of a president's official record because they show him to be fallible. This is especially important in Mr. Obama's case because such a large segment of the public seems to have imputed an infallibility to him that has no basis in either history or fact.

President Obama is a nice-looking, articulate guy with an attractive family (now including a dog). I believe him to be a patriot (although his understanding of that might differ from mine). But his experience in running anything - not to mention the greatest country on earth - is very limited. He is going to make some mistakes. If we see him making some small ones, maybe it won't be as shocking when he makes some big ones. Think of it as a warm-up for the main act.