In defense of flubs (and Rick Perry)

It is foolish to confuse a moment of forgetting with stupidity.  All people who speak make mistakes. We forget things. We confuse words. We lose our train of thought. And if you listen to a recording of yourself for even an hour in your daily life you’ll notice all sorts of gaffs, odd pauses, and long moments of complete inability to remember facts you are certain that you know.

Taken in context of everything else you say, these moments are easily overlooked by your coworkers and family. But taken out of context, and shown in isolation, its easy to make you look downright stupid. Even though all those who think you are stupid based on a small sample, make the same mistakes in their own lives every day.

Presidential debates are shows. They mislead us into thinking speaking on TV is the primary function presidents have, and better speakers will make for better presidents, which is sketchy logic at best. A candidate can claim whatever they like at the lectern, but doing the job requires a very different set of skills.

In the case of Rick Perry, I won’t say much about his merit as a presidential candidate. It’s safe to say I’m not a fan. But I can say that a flub, on its own, is a poor basis for evaluating anyone’s ability to do anything.  He could have handled his forgetting (and his campaign) with much more poise, but the mistake itself is almost noise.

A week ago, a 4 minute video, often titled with suggestions Perry was drunk when he spoke, made the rounds. It was excerpted from a 20 minute speech, and it is informative for anyone who only watches the highlights to watch both.

It would have been nice to see discussion of the merit (or not) of his ideas drive how we evaluate him, but that would involve more effort from us than watching entertaining video clips that gives us the illusion of feeling smart.

13 Responses to “In defense of flubs (and Rick Perry)”

  1. Joseph Scott

    I agree in principle. The challenge for a Presidential candidate flub like this is that the vast majority of the 300+ million will never meet them in person and only see them for a very limited amount of time on TV or the web.

    Taken in context of everything else you say, these moments are easily overlooked by your coworkers and family.

    Now imagine that the only context you have of a person is an hour or so of their life, which included a big flub or two? I agree that it isn’t right to attempt to base an analysis of their qualifications for President on that one hour or so, but it is a natural/automatic response.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Joeseph: I agree. He could have handled the mistake very differently (either withdawing to 2 branches, or moving the conversation forward without joking and seeming cavalier), and for that he should be criticized.

      What I didn’t say perhaps is there’s something sad when most of us merely watch the highlight reels of debates and then pretend to be informed about our candidates.

  2. KevDog

    Let me offer an additional explanation as to why this is so damaging: narratives matter. This wasn’t the first incident of Perry being unable to form complete thoughts under pressure. And that is really the issue, isn’t it? Several times in these debates Perry has been exposed as someone who lacks the abilities to think with agility and to argue cogently. Those are, I would suggest, prerequisites for the office. After all, what is a negotiation but a serial argument that requires a person to quickly analyze and respond to information.

    You are correct that being on TV isn’t the point of being President, but those who cannot form their own arguments are reliant on those who can. And we’ve been there before, haven’t we?

    1. KevDog

      Damn typo: incident -> incidence.

    2. Scott Berkun

      KevDog: I agree there. He’s made it very easy to pin him to the wall for mistakes and flubs like this. Much like George W. Bush, he allowed this to become one of his primary narratives, which means everyone will look even harder to find flubs.

      1. Josh Orum

        Scott: The fact that this evidence confirms an existing narrative is the key thing. While having a narrative may make everyone look harder for supporting evidence, it also makes found evidence much more compelling.

        In this case, one didn’t need to look hard to find the flub, but without the existing narrative (“Perry is an intellectual lightweight”), it would have been much less compelling. If Mitt Romney had made the same flub, for example, it may have been embarrassing, but it wouldn’t be a big story (Romney may have many narratives, but being an intellectual lightweight isn’t one of them).

        Like you, I don’t think people should make a decision based on a single flub, but the reason this is a story is because it’s such a clear example of an existing narrative.

  3. Andy Blackstone

    I would argue that this is a major policy issue he is trying to talk about, and that if he really had thought about and believed that three federal departments should be eliminated, he shouldn’t have too much trouble remembering which ones they are. So I’m inclined to put this down as one more politician making noise by saying what he thinks people want to hear instead of thoughtfully dealing with serious issues. I’m shocked – shocked.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Andy: Believe me, I’m not happy about defending Perry, but I know I’ve forgotten important things. Especially a third item on a list of 3.

      I can’t speak to him being “one more politician making noise by saying what he thinks people want to hear” or not, but merely forgetting something isn’t sufficient on its own for me to think that.

  4. James Sulak

    While I agree with your general point, as someone from Texas who’s not a Perry fan, there’s a reason (beyond schadenfreude) that his flub is so satisfying.

    For the last decade, Perry has flatly refused to debate any of his challengers for governor. Remember, he took over from George W Bush in 2001, and so never faced a general election where he was not already an incumbent. Since Texas is such a Republican state (and he has such cozy relations with big donors) he could get away with this.

    Debates may be an imperfect indicator, but a person running for high public office has an obligation to fully engage in the democratic process. He shirked that duty because he could. His self-destruction in the debate is a well-deserved comeuppance.

    1. James Sulak

      Actually, I need to correct that. Perry did debate in 2002 and 2006. He only refused in 2010 to debate what initially appeared to be a strong challenge from Bill White. My mistake.

    2. Scott Berkun

      James: You’re right. The question is – how many of the people judging Perry based on this 60 second clip know the backstory that you do?

      Perhaps these clips are more likely to surface for him because he’s earned a reputation with press/media similar to the one you describe, and it’s a good reflection of reality. But I suspect for many they assume the existence of a flub signifies, on its own, a great deal about a candidate.

      If I wasn’t latching on to the story of the day in this post, the point I’m making in the previous paragraph would be my central aim.

  5. Bryan Garwood

    I totally agree that judging someone on a 60 second clip is not smart and something our society does all the time, but I do think it is appropriate in some cases. We are all forgetful and make mistakes, but I wouldn’t categorize this in the “flub” department.

    My thinking is this. When you talk about shutting down Federal Government Departments, it isn’t something flippant. It is something that you should have deeply considered. The fact that Perry couldn’t remember the third, makes me draw the conclusion that there was no deep thought or planning behind his plan. It was likely something he thought would sound good that someone else came up with that he never seriously planned on doing.

    Think about it this way. If I just started working at a company and am hearing my CEO speak (to the whole company) for the first time. At the beginning of his speech he says he agenda is to discuss the 3 key initiatives for our company that Quarter and he forgets one of them and can’t remember it after 30 seconds of floundering. I, personally, would lose a ton of respect for him instantly. As a leader, these 3 initiatives should be things that he has thought about a ton and are the main subjects of his talk. I think I would be justified in losing respect for him, like I did for Perry in 60 seconds.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Bryan: I’ve looked for the entire debate online but haven’t found it. I’d like to watch it in context so I can respond to your assertion, which might very well be true. But a context free clip makes it hard.


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