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When Presidents' Words Are Amplified, Scrutinized And Become '-Isms'


We've seen in the presidential debate there's no such thing as a famous politician speaking casually. Whatever they say gets amplified.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Everybody in Washington gets all wee-weed (ph) up.


TED STEVENS: The internet is a series of tubes.


SARAH PALIN: They have power in their words. They could refudiate what it is that this group...


JOHN KENNEDY: Ich bin ein Berliner.

SIMON: That was President Obama, two Alaskans, Ted Stevens and Sarah Palin, and President Kennedy all putting their proverbial foot in their mouths. There's really only one person to call when you want to talk gaffes, AJ Jacobs, editor at large at Esquire magazine. AJ, thanks so much for being with us.

AJ JACOBS: Thank you, Scott. It's delightudinous (ph) to be here.

SIMON: (Laughter).

JACOBS: I think that's a word.

SIMON: Yeah, it is now. I understand, AJ, you have categorized gaffes.

JACOBS: Well, yes. My favorite genre of gaffes is old politicians talking about newfangled technology. And we had Trump, recently, in the debate, he said as far as the cyber - so he turned cyber into its very own noun. You had George W. Bush - he gave us the gift of the internets, plural. He also said that he used the Google. And, as you mentioned, there was Ted Stevens describing the internet as a series of tubes.

SIMON: I thought it was a series of, you know, barbed-wire covered stuff...

JACOBS: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...But go ahead, yeah.

JACOBS: Nope, it's vacuum tube, sort of like pneumatic tubes.

SIMON: Now President Kennedy and President Eisenhower had what we might characterize as new usage troubles.

JACOBS: Right. They both used, in different speeches, the word finalize, which the grammar police at the time thought was "atrocious and hideous" - that was the quote - because final was a noun. It should not be verbized (ph) - I guess is the verb. And the New York Herald Tribune wrote, quote, "we agonized when President Kennedy utilized the word finalized."

SIMON: Ah, but what do they know?

JACOBS: (Laughter) Yeah, they're out of business.

SIMON: President George W. Bush, even his most ardent admirers wouldn't say that he didn't commit an occasional gaffe.

JACOBS: Oh, yes, he is the Yogi Berra of modern-day politicians. He's just got so many gems, it's hard to keep track. They misunderestimate (ph) me, one of his classics. This one I like - rarely is the question asked, is our children learning? Yeah, I don't know if you remember that, but that made me smile. Although I would like to say, just to clarify, strategery (ph) is not a Bush-ism (ph). It's a Will Ferrell-ism (ph).

SIMON: Now, did Calvin Coolidge speak so little he couldn't commit a gaffe?

JACOBS: That was his strategy. My father's - one of his favorite sayings is, a closed mouth gathers no feet. They called him Silent Cal. And there's a story that a woman at a dinner party said to the president, I have a bet with my friends that I can make you say more than two words. And he thought about it and looked at her and said, you lose and then said nothing the rest of the night. Who knows if that's true.

SIMON: Now even his critics would say that President Obama is an articulate and even an eloquent man. That doesn't mean he hasn't had gaffes, right?

JACOBS: That's right. Well, not too many, but he did have the one you played in the intro where he said there's something about August going into September where everybody in Washington gets all wee-weed up - wee-weed up. It's my kids favorite presidential quote ever, better than Roosevelt...

SIMON: Oh. Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you (laughter)...

JACOBS: (Laughter) None of those have potty humor in them, and that was the secret to Obama's success with my kids. And it's not a common phrase. It hasn't caught on. But when asked to clarify, the White House spokesman at the time did say that wee-weed up is a synonym for bedwetting. So I guess he was just saying people couldn't control their bladders in the early fall.

SIMON: AJ, thanks for clatching (ph) up our show again.

JACOBS: (Laughter).

SIMON: Really, I do appreciate it. Every time you think that the American political system has reached rock bottom, we bring...

JACOBS: I am (unintelligible).

SIMON: ...You on and, you know, find more room. I'm very grateful. Thank you very much.

JACOBS: I'm just quoting one of our great presidents.

SIMON: Absolutely.

JACOBS: So there you go. Well, it's been an honorarium. Thank you...

SIMON: (Laughter) Thank you.

JACOBS: ...For having me.

SIMON: Everything but that, AJ.

JACOBS: (Laughter).

SIMON: AJ Jacobs of Esquire magazine, also author of the forthcoming book, "It's All Relative." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.