It’s being called Enrique Peña Nieto's “Rick Perry” moment.
When asked what three books have most influenced him over the weekend, Mr. Peña Nieto, former Mexico state governor and the country's leading presidential candidate, paused, stumbled over his words, and could only cite the Bible and one other title, for which he cited the wrong author.
Making matters worse was the setting: Peña Nieto fumbled at the renowned Guadalajara International Book Fair.
"I have read a number of books, starting with novels, that I particularly liked. I'd have a hard time recalling the titles of the books," Peña Nieto said at a Q & A. He cited “parts of” the Bible, and later a novel, but he incorrectly identified that book’s author.
The crowd laughed. But the gaffe quickly turned into ridicule, and many are wondering if he will suffer politically, as did Governor Rick Perry (R) of Texas in a US presidential debate earlier this year, when he could not name all of the three agencies he said he would eliminate as president.
His party loyalists have assured this will not hurt his chances. But social media is ablaze. #Treslibros (or #threebooks) is trending on Twitter. Skits are circulating on YouTube poking fun of the presidential hopeful. Mexicans dropped off tomes at his party’s headquarters as a joke. His opponents have urged him to attend a reading seminar.
He sought to contain the brouhaha playing out over Twitter with his own feed the day after: “I am reading tweets about my error yesterday, some are very critical, others are even funny. I thank you for all of them.”
In some ways the criticism might be unfair. After all, while literacy rates have been on the rise in Mexico, Mexicans on average only read between two and three books a year, according to a UNESCO study. The Monitor looked at the efforts to increase readership among at least one segment of the population, the police, who at the time, in a town near Mexico City, were obligated to read Bertolt Brecht and Raymond Carver in an attempt to become more cultured.
But among a certain set – those much more well-read – Peña Nieto's stumble has sparked hysterics over the prospect of a leader who does not open a “libro.” According to Pro Mexico, the country’s promotion board, a 2006 National Reader Survey carried out by the National Council for Culture and the Arts revealed that Mexicans with university-level education read an average of 5.1 books annually; the upper-middle and upper classes, 7.2.
The fuss may not really be about how many books Peña Nieto reads anyway. In an opinion Tuesday titled “Bookgate” in the daily Milenio, León Krauze says that the real issue is not the prospect of a president without culture, but one who did not bother to prepare questions about books at a book fair.
Now Peña Nieto has to counter the accusations that he seems presidential on the surface, but he does not know how to be off script, as McClatchy's Tim Johnson details here. Peña Nieto is the candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which held power for 71 years until 2000.
Rick Perry ultimately tried to navigate out of his gaffe with an “oops.” But that of course has not gotten him very far: he's now lagging far behind his opponents in most US national polls. Perry's damage-control efforts are probably not the best script for Peña Nieto to choose this time.