The 8 worst "hot mic" blunders of all time.
- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
The microphone has long been both a politician’s best friend and worst enemy. In 1948, for example, Thomas E. Dewey got himself into trouble when the train he was traveling on lurched backward toward a crowd of supporters in Illinois, just as the Republican presidential candidate was preparing to speak into a microphone. “That’s the first lunatic I’ve had for an engineer,” Dewey huffed. “He probably should be shot at sunrise.” Never one to miss an opportunity, Democratic incumbent Harry Truman praised the “all Democratic” train crew, while the “lunatic” engineer himself declared, “I think as much of Dewey as I did before, and that’s not very much.”
You’d think we would have learned a thing or two in the six decades since, but apparently not. President Barack Obama has been stung by the open mic on three separate occasions. And on Monday, it happened again. Microphones caught Obama telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev after a meeting in Seoul that he would have more “flexibility” to deal with issues such as missile defense after the U.S. presidential election. Here’s a transcript and video of the exchange, per ABC News:
Obama: On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.
Medvedev: Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…
Obama: This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.
Medvedev: I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.
The conversation has sparked an outcry among conservatives. Mitt Romney’s campaign pounced, tweeting, “@BarackObama: I’ll have more flexibility to _______ after the election,” prompting followers to fill in the blank with everything from “impose peace plan” on Israel to “act more European.” The Republican National Committee has already come out with an ad asking, “What else is on Obama’s agenda after the election that he isn’t telling you?”
Just a tip: if you have to ask “Is this thing on?” better to be silent than sorry. Here’s a look at the worst tempests in a teacup roiled by the open mic. And if you think Obama put his foot in his mouth, just wait until you hear Putin’s rape joke or recall what Reagan’s slip of the tongue almost caused.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
BARACK OBAMA/NICOLAS SARKOZY ON BENJAMIN NETANYAHU
During a G-20 summit in Cannes, France, in November 2011, journalists who tuned into a translation before they were instructed to do so overheard French President Nicolas Sarkozy calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “liar” who he couldn’t “bear” while discussing France’s vote in favor of the Palestinian bid for UNESCO membership with Obama. “You’re fed up, but I have to deal with him every day,” the U.S. president reportedly responded.
The comments caused a stir in the United States (then-Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann urged Obama to apologize to Netanyahu) and in France (Sarkozy met with leaders of the French Jewish community to explain his comments), but they also generated a great deal of debate in Israel.
“I was embarrassed to read what Sarkozy thinks about our prime minister, and I was even more embarrassed to hear that the U.S. president agrees with him,” Labor Party legislator Daniel Ben-Simon told the Jerusalem Post. “If [Netanyahu] lies so easily to important officials, just imagine how much he lies to us.” On the other end of the spectrum, Danny Danon, a lawmaker who belongs to Netanyahu’s Likud Party, declared that “Obama’s true face was revealed, as were his cold and disrespectful policies towards Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
The Israeli press was equally divided. Over the course of several days, op-ed headlines included, “Don’t Trust the French,” “Don’t Trust Barack Obama,” “Obama, Talk Is Cheap,” “Our Friend in Paris,” “Why Should Anyone Believe Netanyahu?” and “Netanyahu Is Less of a Liar Than Past Israeli PMs.”
In March, Netanyahu “had” to cancel a visit to Paris but did meet with Obama at the White House. This time, Obama spoke of “friendship” and “unbreakable” bonds — at least when the microphones were on.
BARACK OBAMA ON QATAR
During a Democratic fundraiser in Chicago in April 2011, Obama, not realizing that CBS News’s Mark Knoller was still recording his remarks after a question-and-answer session with reporters, informed donors that Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, “is a big booster, big promoter of democracy all throughout the Middle East. Reform, reform, reform — you’re seeing it on Al Jazeera.” But, he added off the cuff, the emir “himself is not reforming significantly. There’s no big move towards democracy in Qatar.”
What made the comments particularly embarrassing is that, earlier in the day, Obama had met with Thani in Washington and praised Qatar’s leadership in Libya and “when it comes to democracy in the Middle East” (the emir, in turn, promised to send Obama tickets to the 2022 World Cup, which his country is hosting).
The Qatari daily The Peninsula quickly issued a pointed rebuttal:
We strongly believe that change and democracy should come from within and should never be imported or we will have what happened in Iraq. Maybe in Qatar, our pace is slow but we have no doubt we are in the right direction. We are sure that we will achieve all that we have set for in our Vision 2030, likely eight years ahead when you come for World Cup 2022. We believe Qatar is on the learning curve and we are making progress in practicing democracy — from media to public debate and education….
Mr. President, we have often written about U.S. foreign policy having double standards and being unmindful of the process of the change in Middle East. We do not want U.S. to export democracy to us because we don’t want to repeat the Iraq experience. But be assured, we can build our own process.
Gary Fabiano-Pool/Getty Images
VLADIMIR PUTIN ON MOSHE KATSAV
At the end of an October 2006 press conference between Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Moscow, a reporter caught the Russian president cracking a joke about rape charges against his Israeli counterpart Moshe Katsav (the Israeli president was later found guilty). “What a mighty man he turns out to be!” Putin reportedly quipped. “He raped 10 women — I would never have expected this from him. He surprised us all — we all envy him!”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov later admitted that Putin made the wisecrack but argued that it “in no way means that President Putin welcomes rape.” For good measure, he added that “Russian is a very complicated language, sometimes it is very sensitive from the point of view of phrasing” (Putin, for his part, claimed that journalists probably “heard something and began to have ideas”).
The Russian daily Kommersant may have summed up the controversy best. “This was one of those moments when you just can’t believe your ears,” the paper marveled.
Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images
GEORGE W. BUSH ON HEZBOLLAH
In July 2006, during a G-8 lunch in Russia, a live microphone caught President Bush venting to British Prime Minister Tony Blair about the United Nations’ stance on the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. “See the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it’s over,” Bush noted in reference to Syria’s alleged support for the Islamic militant group (about 1 minute into the clip).
Bush didn’t think much of the incident (“he rolled his eyes and laughed” after seeing the transcript, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow told reporters), but the famously plainspoken president did catch some flak in the press. Tony Blair faced withering criticism as well. Here’s how Ireland’s Sunday Tribune described the exchange, referencing Bush’s apparent greeting of “Yo, Blair!” (some reports translated this line as “Yeah, Blair”).
“Yo Blair,” the leader of the Free World greeted his gofer. He proceeded to slap down the prime minister’s efforts to intervene in the Israeli bombing of Lebanon. Tony sidled away, tail between his legs, his subservience captured for posterity on Bush’s microphone.
During a visit to parliament a couple days after the summit, Blair was reportedly heckled with cries of “yo!” from opposition lawmakers.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
JACQUES CHIRAC ON BRITISH FOOD
This doesn’t technically qualify as a hot mic gaffe, but it’s too good to exclude. In July 2005, French journalists overheard French President Jacques Chirac making fun of British food with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Vladimir Putin. “The only thing [the British] have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow” disease, Chirac reportedly joked. “You can’t trust people who cook as badly as that. After Finland, it’s the country with the worst food.”
The Brits, needless to say, weren’t happy. Under the pun-riddled headline, “Chirac’s reheated food jokes bring Blair to the boil,” the Guardian quoted British chefs saying “a man full of bile is not fit to pronounce on food” and “I’d serve him langoustines followed by good Aberdeen Angus beef and then give him a heart attack with some sticky toffee pudding.”
But when London was selected over Paris as the host city for the 2012 Olympics days later, it was the United Kingdom’s turn to gloat. As an op-ed in the Sunday Mercury put it:
If Jacques Chirac had not stuck his size nines in it before the vote by having a pop at Britain and their less-than-appetizing cuisine, then maybe Paris would have won.
In the end, it was London’s hunger to get the Games, rather than Paris’s apparent self-confidence that they would win, that triumphed.
Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images
JEAN CHRETIEN ON U.S. POLITICIANS
While waiting for President Bill Clinton to arrive at a NATO meeting in Madrid, Spain in July 1997, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien (pictured above, third from right) issued a scathing critique of the United States that was picked up by a television network’s audio system. “In your country, in my country, all the politicians would be in prison because [the Americans] sell their votes,” he told the prime ministers of Belgium and Luxembourg, in reference to the U.S. political system. He bragged about Canada standing up to the United States and even joked about starting the meeting without Clinton.
Clinton later shrugged off the remarks (calling Chrétien a “great leader” and “superior human being,” and vowing to “get even” on the golf course), but the prime minister’s comments proved more divisive in Canada. “Mr. Chrétien has managed to insult the American political process, the president, the Congress, state and municipal leaders, and the U.S. public service,” Preston Manning, the leader of Canada’s opposition at the time, declared. But an editorial in Canada’s Globe and Mail was more glowing:
For years, our diplomats in Washington have had to focus on Congress. Whether the issue was acid rain, softwood lumber, a global ban on landmines, or a treaty on chemical warfare, Canada has often had to put its case not just to the president, but to Congress, as well as interest groups, who wield enormous power in the system.
Thus, when Mr. Chrétien laments the inability of Mr. Clinton to get his way on NATO or Haiti, he shows a critical understanding that a Canadian prime minister must have of the reality of Washington.
Mr. Chrétien should speak from the heart more often. Candor becomes him.
Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images
JOHN MAJOR ON HIS CABINET MEMBERS
In July 1993, British Prime Minister John Major let frustration over his difficulty in securing approval of the European Community’s Maastricht Treaty spill over during an off-the-record chat with a television reporter, not realizing that he was still being taped. Most famously, Major called three of his Euroskeptic ministers “bastards” for opposing European integration. (The prime minister never identified the Cabinet members by name, though that didn’t stop the British press from speculating about their identities.)
The gaffe only further aggravated the divisions within Major’s Conservative Party over the treaty and continued to resonate in the British political arena for quite some time. In 2004, the Independent reported that several Tory lawmakers who had by then embraced the term “bastards” reunited to raise “their glasses to Mr. Major’s fit of pique.”
Johnny Eggitt/AFP/Getty Images
RONALD REAGAN ON RUSSIA
In August 1984, President Ronald Reagan made the mother of all microphone blunders. “My fellow Americans,” he joked during a sound check for a radio address. “I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” (The radio address was actually about a much more mundane subject: religious groups meeting in public high schools.)
Reagan aides and reporters may have laughed at the president’s playful banter, but America’s Cold War enemy was not amused. When the audio leaked, Politico notes, the Soviet military briefly went on high alert, U.S. officials had to assure the Kremlin that Reagan’s remark had been in jest, and Reagan’s poll numbers against Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale temporarily slipped.
A few days after the incident, the Associated Press reported that a Soviet commentator named Genrik Borovik had appeared on television to criticize Reagan and his “maniacal idea” of destroying the Soviet Union. “People say a man’s level of humor corresponds with the level of his thinking,” she observed. “If this is so, then isn’t this too base for the president of a great country?”
As we’ve learned in the decades since Reagan’s scandalous sound check, even presidents of great countries sometimes forget to turn off the microphone.