The following is a list of faux pas (a violation of accepted, although unwritten, social rules), gaffes (unintentional things said or done that proved embarrassing or humiliating) and unfortunate incidents (those things that were not gaffes or faux pas yet were nonetheless considered to be regrettable or embarrassing to the party or parties involved) involving U.S. Presidents. Some were by Presidents themselves while others were made by those either associated with or who reported about the U.S. President of the day.

Warren G Harding portrait as senator June 1920

President Harding's poor use of English became notorious during his presidency.

Warren Harding[]

Warren Harding’s poor grasp of the English language, coupled with his insistence on writing his own speeches, produced notorious linguistic errors. He once commented:

“I would like the government to do all it can to mitigate, then, in understanding, in mutuality of interest, in concern for the common good, our tasks will be solved.”[1]

Following Harding’s death, poet E. E. Cummings said “The only man, woman or child who wrote a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical errors is dead.”[1]

Harry S. Truman[]

Harry S. Truman had unexpectedly become President owing to the sudden death of longterm President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Few expected him to secure election as the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1948. In an effort to boost his ratings, during the Democratic National Convention the party released dozens of doves into the convention hall. The action backfired spectacularly when some of the doves died in the intense heat and others, made dizzy by the heat, desperately tried to escape and dive bombed the delegates.[2]

Lyndon B. Johnson[]

Lyndon B. Johnson was well-known for his coarse language and occasionally unrefined behavior. While not a gaffe in office, an embarrassingly personal tape of LBJ ordering pants from Joe Haggar on August 9, 1964, was later released to the public. In it Johnson belches, complains about the pants riding up and cutting him “down where ya nuts hang” when he gains a little weight, like “riding a wire fence,” and asks for more material “under my back of my bunghole” that he can let out if need be.

Gerald Ford[]

Gerald Ford, who succeeded Richard Nixon in 1974, made numerous gaffes and faux-pas, many of which, while making people see him as human and less |imperial than his predecessor, made others vote against him for election in 1976.

Among his more famous examples are: On October 6, 1976, during a televised Presidential debate in the 1976 Presidential election with rival Jimmy Carter, President Ford became confused and stated that Poland and Eastern Europe were not under the domination of the Soviet Union. When challenged over his comments, he repeated “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.”[3] In the words of Professor Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High Risk TV: “That was a gaffe that took him some time to recover from—mostly because he did not back away from the statement.”[4]

Jimmy Carter[]

Jimmy Carter and Killer Rabbit

President Carter in his fight with a “killer rabbit.”

While campaigning for president in 1976, Jimmy Carter candidly noted during an interview with Playboy magazine, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do—and I have done it—and God forgives me for it.”[5]

While on a visit to Poland in 1977, President Carter delivered a speech which was notoriously mistranslated. For example, one innocent comment by Carter was translated as indicating that the President of the United States had “left America never to return.”[6][7]

During an April 20, 1979, fishing trip to Plains, Georgia, Carter encountered a swamp rabbit that attempted to board the President's fishing boat, which he shooed away with a paddle. The story found its way to the national press a few months later. It was covered for over a week, and Carter was widely portrayed as having acted in a “cowardly” fashion on his encounter with what the press nicknamed the “Killer rabbit.”[8]

Ronald Reagan[]

On December 1, 1982, at a banquet in Brazil, President Ronald Reagan offered a toast to Brazilian President Figueiredo and “to the people of Bolivia.”

In 1984, before his weekly radio address, President Reagan was asked to say something to do a soundcheck. He remained quiet for a few moments, then not realizing that the microphone was now on and recording he joked “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” Information about the recording (though the recording itself was not aired) was later released, causing an alert to be triggered in the USSR.

In a slip of the tongue, where he meant to say “employment,” President Reagan told Americans “We are trying to get unemployment to go up, and I think we’re going to succeed.”[9] At a gala dinner in Washington, D.C., President Reagan called Princess Diana “Princess David.” “Permit me to add our congratulations to Prince Charles on his birthday just five days away,” he said, “and express also our great happiness that…er…Princess David—Princess Diane [sic] here on her first trip to the United States.”[10]

George H. W. Bush[]

In January 1992, while on a state visit to Japan, President George H. W. Bush became ill and was shown on television vomiting into the lap of the Prime Minister of Japan, Kiichi Miyazawa, who was sitting beside him, during a state dinner.

On February 5, 1992, Bush attended a National Grocers Association photo-op in Orlando, Florida. It was widely reported that he had expressed “wonder” and “amazement” at supermarket scanner technology that had been widely used since 1980. The story gave the impression that Bush was detached from the lives of ordinary Americans.

During a town hall debate with rivals Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, while his opponents were answering, cameras caught a shot of Bush glancing at his watch and looking bored. The action was picked up by the media and reported as a gaffe, in that it showed he wasn’t interested in the debate and didn’t want to have to spend his time taking part, even though the debate was for the electorate’s benefit. National Geographic said that “[t]he gesture gave viewers the distinct impression that Bush would rather have been elsewhere.”[4]

As Vice-President of the United States, Bush caused widespread offense when, on being shown the gas chambers at Auschwitz, he commented, “Boy, they were big on crematoriums, weren’t they?”[11]

Bill Clinton[]

Bill Clinton’s presidential career was, in the view of many, stymied by his address to the 1988 Democratic Convention. The up-to-that-point “future candidate to watch,” Governor Clinton delivered an infamous thirty-minute speech that bored delegates and viewers alike. When he finally said the words “in conclusion” the audience broke out in applause. Clinton, however, saved his reputation by an appearance on The Tonight Show where he poked fun at himself for his longwindedness. Though the speech was widely seen as a major faux-pas that could have killed off any future Presidential bid, by 1992 he had overcome it and won the presidency.[12]

On May 20, 1993, Clinton received a haircut aboard Air Force One by Beverly Hills hairstylist Christophe. It was reported that during the one-hour haircut the airplane’s engines were running and two of the four runways at Los Angeles International Airport were shut down, forcing some scheduled air traffic to circle the airport waiting to land. The expensive haircut was said to have caused long delays, becoming a source of ridicule less than six months into Clinton’s presidency. However, an analysis of Federal Aviation Authority records by Glenn Kessler of Newsday revealed that, contrary to reports, only one (unscheduled) air taxi reported an actual delay-of two minutes.[13][14]

While under attack and under oath during taped grand jury testimony prior to his impeachment hearing, he declared that whether he had told the truth hinged on the definition of the word “is”: “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”[15]

Clinton made the statement “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.” Referring to Lewinsky as “that woman” was widely regarded as crass and a faux-pas. Tests performed by the FBI later showed Clinton’s DNA on a semen-stained navy blue cocktail dress owned by Ms. Lewinsky. Clinton was impeached for making the false statement under oath in what would come to be known as the Lewinsky scandal.[16]

George W. Bush[]

Main article: Wikipedia:Bushism

September 4, 2000 — Thinking he was speaking off the record and privately to running mate Dick Cheney, then-presidential candidate George W. Bush said, “There’s Adam Clymer, major league asshole from The New York Times,” at a campaign rally in Naperville, Illinois, unaware the microphone in front of him was live.[17]

June 11, 2001 — Bush appeared on Spanish television and said “It is a great honor to travel to Spain and visit the King and also Prime Minister Anzar. But I have to practice the very pretty language, and unless I practice I am going to destroy this language.” He had in fact mispronounced the name of the Prime Minister, José María Aznar. He called him ansar, a Spanish word for “goose.”[18] August 6, 2004 — Bush told a televised meeting that “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful—and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people—and neither do we.”[19] November 20, 2005 — Bush attempted to exit a room in China, but it was locked and so he was unable to leave the room, much to the amusement of the world’s press.[20] June 2006 — At a G8 summit, Bush rubbed Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel’s shoulders, causing a surprised Merkel to cringe.[21] September 7, 2007 — While addressing business leaders at the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit of world leaders in Sydney, Australia, Bush opened his address by thanking the host, Australian Prime Minister John Howard for hosting the “OPEC summit,” referring of course to the acronym commonly used for the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. After laughs from the audience, President Bush corrected his faux pas by saying, “He invited me to the OPEC summit next year,” and laughed. This correction provides a further gaffe, as Australia is not a member of OPEC.[22]

Barack Obama[]

January 20, 2009 — During his inauguration speech, Barack Obama said “Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath.”[23]. Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms and is counted as both the twenty-second and the twenty-fourth President. So in fact only forty-three individuals, including Obama, have served as President of the United States and have taken the oath.[24]

January 27, 2009 — While attempting to enter the Oval Office, Barack Obama mistook a window for the door several feet away.[25]

February 24, 2009 — During a speech before a joint session of Congress, Obama claimed the automobile was invented in the United States. German Karl Benz is generally credited with inventing the first automobile powered by an internal combustion engine.[26]

March 2009 — During an exchange of gifts with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Obama returned a bust of Winston Churchill and gave Brown a collection of twenty-five American movies.[27] The DVDs had a North American region code.[27] The British press saw the move as a snub of Brown.[28]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Stephen Pile, The Book of Heroic Failures (Futura, 1980) p.180.
  2. Christian Science Monitor
  3. "Debate One-Liners, Gaffes of Yesteryear". ABC News. 30 September 2004. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Handwerk, Brian (October 12, 2004). "U.S. Presidential Debate Trivia: Gaffes, Zingers, More". National Geographic. 
  5. "Jimmy Carter The Playboy Interview - Excerpt". 2001. Retrieved 2009-05-15. 
  6. Blundell, Nigel (1995). "Washington’s diplomatic disasters". The World’s Greatest Mistakes. New York: Bounty Books. pp. 23–24t. ISBN 0600572323. 
  7. "That’s Not What I Said — Top 10 Embarrassing Diplomatic Moments (9 of 10)". Time Magazine. Retrieved 2009-05-15. 
  8. "A Tale of Carter and the ‘Killer Rabbit’; President Orders Photograph". New York Times. 30 August 1979. pp. A16. 
  9. Press Association
  10. "21 September". On This Day. BBC. Retrieved 1 January. 
  11. Margaret B. Carlson (29 February 1988). "Same Substance, Different Style". Time 131: 38. 
  12. Christian Science Monitor
  13. CJR — Darts & Laurels, Sept/Oct 1993
  14. Haircut: a Tale With a Life of Its Own
  15. "21 September". On This Day. BBC. Retrieved 8 March. 
  16. "Sex, lies and impeachment". BBC News. December 22, 1998. 
  17. BBC (September 5, 2000). "Bush: No apology for gaffe". BBC News. Retrieved January 20 2009. 
  18. BBC (June 12, 2001). "Bush on tricky foreign mission". BBC News. Retrieved January 20 2009. 
  19. BBC (August 6, 2004). "President gaffes in terror speech". BBC News. Retrieved January 20 2009. 
  20. BBC (November 20, 2005). "Door thwarts quick exit for Bush". BBC News. Retrieved January 20 2009. 
  21. ABC (July 20, 2006). "Bush’s ‘Hands-On’ Diplomacy With German Chancellor Raises Eyebrows". ABC News. Retrieved January 20 2009. 
  22. Reuters (September 7, 2007). "Bush shows gift of gaffe at APEC summit". Reuters. Retrieved January 20 2009. 
  25. Oneill, Lisa (January 28, 2009). "Hey Bam, that’s not the door!". New York Daily News. 
  26. (January 14, 2002). "Obama Gaffe: America Didn’t Invent Automobile". CNN. Retrieved February 25, 2009. 
  27. 27.0 27.1 Saltonstall, David (March 7, 2009). "London aghast at President Obama over gifts given to Prime Minister Brown". New York Daily News.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Obama gift gaffe1" defined multiple times with different content
  28. "Obama’s Gifts to Brown Irk British Media". NPR. March 6, 2009. Retrieved March 14, 2009. 

Further reading[]