The President of the United States of America, Joe Biden, recently had the world in splits, embarrassingly so, with a stunningly casual throwaway line while addressing the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. It happened at a joint live video communique announcing the formation of an important defence strategic alliance between the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. Joe Biden took over the microphone, virtually that is, from Britain’s PM Boris Johnson, thanked Boris, tactfully refraining from commenting on why Boris had not combed his hair that morning, then turned to the screen displaying the Aussie PM and said, wait for it, ‘And I want to thank that fellow Down Under, thank you very much pal.’ Collapse of stout party, as the venerable Punch magazine used to put it. To Scott Morrison’s credit, he was very diplomatic about the whole faux pas, and in statesman-like fashion, dismissed the incident as one of those things that happen, and that one should not make much of it. That was very large of him but the media had a field day, wondering if Biden’s shocking memory lapse was a portent of more sinister things to come.
For now, Mr. Biden would do well to firmly commit to memory the names of all the world’s leaders he is likely to meet during his tenure as POTUS. The last thing we in India want is for him to address our Prime Minister thus, ‘Gee whiz, what’s that guy’s name with the long, white beard? Thanks for everything buddy.’ No, no. That wouldn’t do at all. No siree, Bob. After all, when his predecessor, Donald Trump last visited India, even his carefully crafted and presumably rehearsed speech found him comically floundering with some iconic Indian names. Try this on for size. ‘Swami Vivekaamundan, Soochin Tendalkar and Virot Kohli.’ I guess we should be grateful that the former President did not say, ‘That Swami feller with the orange tunic and turban.’
American leaders dropping bricks in public fora is not a new phenomenon. On rare occasions this may happen due to an unfortunate slip of the tongue, but more often than not, lack of adequate preparation bordering on carelessness and callousness is the prime cause. Without wishing to rub salt into the wound, Joe Biden again takes the spotlight for an earlier gaffe. In 2008, while campaigning in Missouri, he exhorted Senator Chuck Graham of Columbia, who had been wheelchair-bound since the age of 16, to come forward and take a bow. ‘Chuck, stand up. Let the people see you.’ For one mad, fleeting moment, the public wondered if Biden was possessed of some divine power to perform a miracle cure. America is full of such charlatans. ‘Could he part the waters, make our Chuck walk again?’ That was not to be. Red faced and realising his goof-up a bit too late, he tried to make amends asking the crowd to ‘stand up for Chuck.’ The crowd were already standing and Chuck was still sitting in his wheelchair, a wee bit miffed, I shouldn’t wonder.
Yet another American President, Ronald Reagan, who has appeared in a few Hollywood films in his time, got his roles mixed up on one notorious occasion. Taking part in a sound check shortly before his weekly radio address to the nation in August 1984, Reagan decided to have some fun and announced with much histrionic fanfare, ‘My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I have signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.’ Unfortunately for Reagan, a recording of this flippant and not awfully funny, sound check was leaked to the Russians, who decided to put their defence forces on high alert. Frantic behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts prevented what could have turned into an ugly situation. Why do so many of our world leaders fail to be mindful of errant microphones which are either accidentally or, at times, deliberately left switched on? That said, as lay people we should not complain as such unintended bloopers provide us with much comic distraction.
One would have normally credited former US President Barrack Obama with tact and good sense and the ability to mind his Ps and Qs. However, he too fell victim to the ‘hot mic’ syndrome on one occasion at a G 20 conference during a private chat with the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy, just before the scheduled press conference. The assembled reporters were handed translation boxes but were told not to plug their headphones in until the leaders’ backroom conversation had finished. Several people ignored the instructions and heard Mr. Sarkozy talking to Mr. Obama about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. ‘I can’t stand him anymore, he’s a liar,’ Mr. Sarkozy said. ‘You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day,’ replied Mr. Obama drily, clear as a bell for every reporter to faithfully record. Sacré bleu, about sums it up.
In case, dear reader, my observations thus far have led you to believe that American Presidents have cornered the market on public brick dropping, that is far from the case. `Even the normally understated and extremely tactful Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain had a blushful moment some years ago. The 95-year-old longest reigning British monarch made a blooper when, in a rare diplomatic solecism, she was caught on camera referring to Chinese officials, characterising them as being ‘very rude’ during President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the UK. Coming from the Queen that was almost the equivalent of top swearing. Unfortunately, her remarks were recorded by the official Royal cameraman, which then raises the pertinent question as to how it was leaked to the avaricious British fourth estate. Doubtless the concerned cameraman would have been rigorously questioned by the Palace, his camera taken away and sacked. ‘You will never hold another camera in front of royalty ever again.’ So, he scoots off and joins The Sun or Daily Mirror, tasked with shadowing the royal family wherever they go, armed with a state-of-the-art, long-focus telephoto lens camera. Many a royal has been caught unawares by prying cameras doing unroyal things they would rather the public be blissfully ignorant about.
India has had its own share of prominent personalities who did not quite think through what they were saying, and tended to come a cropper under the unremitting glare of the media. Former senior Congress leader, the much- respected Ghulam Nabi Azad, provided an original twist to the concept of family planning and how best to execute his ambitious programme in a hugely populous country like India. During his tenure in 2009 as Health and Family Welfare minister, he turned the spotlight on the implementation of a massive rural electrification programme to achieve the desired results. You heard right. Electrify the nation and our population growth will decline dramatically! Give the man his due. He had a credible explanation. The minister gave it as his considered opinion that in many backward and rural areas of our country, the lack of electricity meant people had nothing better to do after dusk and invariably resorted to sex for entertainment, which is a necessary precursor to a burgeoning population. If electricity was widespread, people in small towns and villages can visit community halls and watch television till late into the night, the minister opined. By the time they return home they will be too tired to indulge in love making and will make straight for bed to catch up with their beauty sleep. A truly original thought! One wonders why successive governments waste their time and resources towards educating our folk on family planning, contraception and the like when all it needed were millions of television sets placed across the country and the requisite power feed to run them for the diversion and delectation of our outback, small town denizens. Unfortunately for the minister, the numbers indicated no dramatic fall in the population figures. In fact, one could go so far as to say that the romantic antics of our film stars and starlets only enhanced their innate tumescence.
On the subject of population control, here is a quick aside. The late Sanjay Gandhi was ‘credited’ with promulgating the disastrous ‘nasbandhi’ or forced sterilization programme during the late 70s to keep India’s population growth in check. This was during the infamous Emergency and the policy had his mother, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s blessings. Free transistor radios were distributed to those who offered themselves to be thus humiliated. Informed reports also attributed the aggressive intervention by ‘western loan sharks’ like the World Bank and the IMF in the government’s misguided programme, which cost the Congress Party dear at the hustings.
Saving the best for last, three of my favourite gaffes come from the late Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who was famously adept at saying the wrong things at the wrong time. For which reason, the British media declared him a national treasure! In 1969, on an official visit to Canada, he quipped, ‘I declare this thing open, whatever it is.’ On a state visit to China in 1986, he told a group of British students, ‘If you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty-eyed.’ Later in 2003, he told the President of Nigeria, who was attired in his traditional, flowing robes, ‘You look like you’re ready for bed.’
In sum, we should all be grateful when our leaders go off script, as it gives rise to so much mirth and merriment.