Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

5 Major Presidential Gaffes in Modern U.S. History

Created: 24 October, 2016
Updated: 17 October, 2022
3 min read

In last week’s final presidential debate, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton described the Iraqi city of Mosul as "on the border of Syria." However, Mosul is 100 miles east of Syria and 75 miles from the nearest border crossing. Moderator Chris Wallace let the line pass without comment or a request for clarification.

Libertarian Gary Johnson called the incident "a very hypocritical double standard." Extensive media coverage followed Johnson when he flubbed a Syria question. Clinton’s remark elicited little media response.

Candidates often make clear mistakes about geography, conditions around the world, and even their own policy positions. Some receive media scrutiny while others quickly faded into history. Following are five gaffes from presidential campaigns.

1. John McCain on Iran training al Qaeda for Iraq

As the GOP nominee in 2008, Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain’s foreign policy expertise was a key strength. Speaking overseas, McCain said:

"It’s common knowledge and has been reported in the media that Al Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran. That’s well known. And it’s unfortunate."

Sen. Joe Lieberman immediately corrected McCain, saying it was "extremists" and not al Qaeda, which had no established ties to Iran.

2. Joe Biden, Roosevelt, Television, and the Great Depression

At the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis, Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden spoke about presidential leadership. Biden, who has a controversial history of statements, greatly confused presidents and historical innovations:

"When the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on television, and didn’t just talk about the princes of greed."

Herbert Hoover was president when the stock market crashed in 1929. Although he made prolific use of radio, Roosevelt did not appear on television until the 1939 World’s Fair. An estimated 1,000 people watching on 200 television sets in the New York area viewed that address.

3. Gerald Ford and Soviet Domination of Eastern Europe

In a 1976 debate, President Gerald Ford spoke about the recent Helsinki Accords. Ford denied the West made any concessions to the Soviet Union. The president asserted:

"There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration."

Ford’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, admitted the Soviets housed at least four divisions in Poland.

4.  John Kerry and Iraq

During his 2004 presidential bid, then-Sen. John Kerry acquired the epitaph of a flip-flopper over his tendency to change positions. Kerry favored the war resolution. He said prior to the 2003 military action, "[T]he only exit strategy is victory. This is our common mission and the world's cause."

Running for president, Kerry implied that he opposed the war, only voting to "threaten" the use of force against Iraq. Kerry’s inability to take a clear position on the Iraq war consistently hampered his supporters.

As recently as 2013, Kerry averred that he opposed the Iraq war.

5. Mitt Romney and "Iran’s route to the sea"

The 2012 GOP nominee frequently made mistakes when trying to attack President Obama’s foreign policy. In a debate, Romney labeled Iran’s ally Syria as their "route to the sea." However, Iran is not a landlocked country and has more than 1,500 miles of coastline.

What gaffes would you add to the list?

Photo Credit: Jim Cole / AP Photo