2001 Political Blunders

Politically, it's been a very weird year. In fact, 2001 was really three weird years wrapped in one.

From January to May, we all watched nervously (come on, admit it!) as our new president cheerfully pedaled about on his training wheels.

From May to September, it was the summer of the pseudo-scandals: Gary Condit, shark attacks and overage Little Leaguers.

Then, from Sept. 11 on, it's been "All Terror, All the Time."

And throughout all three seasons, there was a bumper crop of blunders. Memorable goofs, gaffes and lapses in judgment that left us scratching our heads and wondering: What were they thinking?

For instance, there was John Walker choosing to enlist with the Taliban just six months before it incurred the wrath of the greatest military power in history. Oops!

And who can forget (try as we might) Al Gore's beard, Condit's highly damaging damage control interview with Connie Chung, or Jerry Falwell's post-Sept. 11 rant pinning the terrorist attacks on pagans, abortionists, feminists, homosexuals, the ACLU and People for the American Way?

Of course, the biggest blunder of the year was made by our political leaders, who collectively overlooked the multitude of warning signs pointing to our vulnerability to a terrorist attack. In fact, "blunder" scarcely does justice to their epochal failure.

They knew there were massive holes in U.S. security. They knew our intelligence-gathering capabilities -- particularly in the Mideast -- had been seriously degraded. They knew Osama bin Laden had turned his murderous eye on America, vowing to hit us "where it hurts most." But they also knew that only 0.4 percent of the American people considered terrorism their top concern, so our leaders fiddled while al Qaida schemed.

The biggest political blunder had to be the White House's ham-fisted handling of Sen. Jim Jeffords, who ended up bolting the GOP, turning over control of the Senate to the Democrats. President Bush may have nicknamed Karl Rove "Boy Genius," but it doesn't take a Mensa member to realize that, with a 50-50 Senate, humiliating one of your own is a pretty dumb move.

Another big Bush blunder was his commitment to assaulting the environment.

First, he broke his campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. Then he rescinded the rule lowering levels of arsenic in drinking water -- earning extra blunder points by announcing the decision during National Poison Prevention Week.

This was followed by his flip-flop on the testing for salmonella in hamburger meat served in school lunch programs. After all, what's a little intestinal bacteria among friends?

Moving to the other side of the aisle, the Democrats certainly had their fair share of political pratfalls. Hail to the Chief among them was Bill Clinton pardoning Marc Rich, loading up the moving van with White House property, and picking out that pricey office in midtown Manhattan -- an early season blunder triple play.

The biggest bipartisan blunder had to be the government bailout of the airline industry. $15 billion to the airlines, but not a penny for the hundreds of thousands of industry workers laid off in the wake of Sept. 11.

And speaking of beltway blunders, how about Tommy Thompson assuring us that the mail was safe -- one week before 94-year-old Ottilie Lundgren died as a result of cross-contaminated mail?

But as bad as all these blunders were, in the world of politics, even the most egregious mistakes needn't prove fatal. Embellish your resume and you can't coach football at Notre Dame, but American politics is filled with second and third and even fourteenth chances.

Rudy Giuliani is a classic example of how, given the right circumstance, you can recover from almost any political blunder. It's hard to remember now what a miserable time he was having of it earlier in the year when his divorce and relationship with "very good friend" Judi Nathan were front-page news and his political star was falling faster than the NASDAQ. Things really hit bottom when Giuliani tried to prove that he hadn't committed adultery because treatment for prostate cancer had left him impotent. It was the Prostate Defense.

Bob Dole had made erectile dysfunction respectable -- dare I say, even heroic. But it turns out that Rudy didn't need Viagra -- he just needed a crisis to rise to.

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