If I asked you who said, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is," or who said, "Trees cause more pollution than automobiles," I imagine you'd have less trouble than if I asked you about some high policy statement by President Clinton or President Reagan. It is remarkable how simple sentences, even phrases, can stick to political leaders, often to their embarrassment.
I learned this on my first American political assignment in 1966, covering Gov. George Romney's resounding reelection victory in Michigan.
This made him the instant front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968.
But, then, in September 1967, criticizing President Johnson's policy on Vietnam, Romney said he had returned from a trip there having experienced "the greatest brainwashing that anyone can get." That brainwashing image appalled many voters and it may have cost Romney the nomination to Richard Nixon.
So let me try you out on a few quotes that have resounded through history:
"Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
Give up? That was Sen. Barry Goldwater, nominated for president in 1964.
"There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." (President Gerald Ford, debating candidate Jimmy Carter in 1976.)
"I've looked on a lot of women with lust, I've committed adultery in my heart many times." (Candidate Carter, interviewed by Playboy magazine the same year.)
"If you've seen one city slum, you've seen them all." (Spiro Agnew, Nixon's running mate in 1968.)
And then a couple of single words that ended up in the political hall of fame. "Potato." Vice President Dan Quayle spelled it with an "e," correcting a student in a spelling bee.
"Brooklyn" Dodgers. That was candidate Bob Dole in 1996 in California congratulating the team on a no-hit game and forgetting that it had been the Los Angeles Dodgers since 1958.
And, finally, "Grecian" and "Kosovarian." I don't need to tell you who that was, especially since he now looks much better on foreign policy.
Slips that pass in the night, slips that would have been less consequential before TV, but slips that now have a way of becoming memorable.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society