Politicians, Meet Your Constituents: Top 10 Awkward Moments

We journalists fancy ourselves quite good at asking probing questions of politicians. But as Rick Perry reminded us on Monday, sometimes queries from the crowd reveal the most about a pol’s true colors. It all began with a simple enough question during a backyard gathering in Iowa: What would Perry do about the Federal Reserve? To which Perry said this:


It remains to be seen what impact, if any, Perry’s suggestion of Texas-style justice for Fed chief Ben Bernanke will have on his nascent presidential bid. It was, however, a reminder of one important way ordinary people can impact the political process (and perhaps an explanation for rumored presidential aspirant Paul Ryan’s decision to start charging constituents $15 to attend his town halls). From the inspiring to the depressing to the downright bizarre, here’s a look back at some great moments in citizen-pol encounters.  

1. April 19, 1960: JFK tackles the Catholic question.

Echoing widespread concern about the prospect of America’s first Catholic president, an audience member at a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, asked Senator John F. Kennedy how he could preach “democracy on one hand and support an authoritarian view on the other in which he took orders from above”—an obvious reference to the Pope. Kennedy rejected any contradiction between his religious and political beliefs. He proclaimed, “I am going to go to church where I please regardless of whether I’m elected president or not.” Five months later, Kennedy sounded similar notes in a historic speech at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.



2. October 15, 1992: Candidate Clinton shows his empathy.

In the first-ever presidential town hall debate during the 1992 election, one audience member’s question about how the national debt had personally affected the candidates exposed the “empathy gap” between President George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Bush hemmed and hawed, but Clinton seized the opportunity to show that he could “feel your pain.”



3. March 16, 2004: “I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”

Rarely has a presidential candidate self-inflicted so much damage with so few words. After sewing up the Democratic nomination in early March, Kerry appeared before a group of veterans at West Virginia’s Marshall University in a bid to boost his commander-in-chief cred heading into the general election. Instead, asked by an audience member about his vote against an $87 billion supplemental appropriation for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kerry said, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” His campaign’s desperate attempts to walk back the remark proved futile as the conservative attack machine pounced to paint Kerry as a dishonest, windsurfing, French-speaking flip-flopper.



4. December 8, 2004: “You go to war with the army you have…”

As the American body count climbed in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld faced a lukewarm reception from US troops at a town hall in Kuwait, and he didn’t do himself any favors. Asked by Spc. Thomas Wilson of the Tennessee National Guard why soldiers had to resort to armoring their vehicles with scrap metal from local landfills, Rumsfeld callously replied, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” He then added this comforting observation. “You can have all the armor in the world on a tank, and a tank can be blown up.”



5. July 23, 2007: YouTube question opens foreign-policy rift in Democratic field.

In the first debate of its kind, CNN presented the Democratic presidential candidates with questions submitted by the public via YouTube, and one opened the largest policy divide to date between the leading contenders for the nomination, then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Stephen Sorta from California asked the candidates whether they’d be willing to meet with the leaders of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela without preconditions. Obama said he would. Clinton, and later John McCain, slammed Obama for his foreign-policy naivete.



6. October 12, 2008: Joe the Plumber becomes Republican cult figure.

On a campaign stop in Holland, Ohio, Samuel J. Wurzelbacher (a.k.a. “Joe the Plumber”) confronted Obama about his plan to increase taxes on Americans making more than $250,000 a year. Obama’s clumsy reply about “spreading the wealth around” quickly became fodder for right-wing pundits, and Joe the Plumber grew into a household name. In the presidential debate three days later, he was mentioned no fewer than 25 times. Since then, Joe the Plumber has weighed in on everything from the economy to Middle East policy, and last year he was elected to his Ohio county’s Republican Party central committee.



7. April 27, 2009: Condoleeza Rice channels her inner Nixon.

Visiting Stanford, where she served as provost before joining the Bush White House, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice succumbed to a Nixonian moment under student questioning. Asked whether waterboarding is torture, Rice replied, “The United States was told, we were told, nothing that violates our obligations under the Convention Against Torture, and so by definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture.”



8. August 18, 2009: Barney Frank hits back at health care hysteria.

Members of Congress returning home for the August 2009 recess faced a barrage of incendiary rhetoric from constituents at town halls, as rumors of death panels freely flowed. Back in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was having none of it. When one woman asked the longtime congressman why he was supporting a “Nazi policy,” Frank retorted, “On what planet do you spend most of your time?” He then added: “Trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining-room table. I have no interest in doing it.”



9. April 6, 2010: Bartergate/Chickengate.

Asked at a candidate forum for her alternative to Obamacare, Nevada GOP Senate hopeful Sue Lowden suggested bartering with doctors. She proceeded to double down on the answer, explaining later, “You know, before we all started having health care, in the olden days, our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor.…I’m not backing down from that system.” Predictably, Lowden’s “chicken” plan spawned many a YouTube parody. Lowden, until then the front-runner in the race, lost handily in the June primary to tea party darling Sharron Angle. 



10. April 19, 2011: “When you have your town hall you can stand up and give your presentation.”

Rep. Sean Duffy’s (R-Wis.) April town hall seemed civil, his constituents firmly but gently pressing him on the details of the Ryan budget. That is until one man in the audience challenged the congressman’s contention that health care reform had taken $500 billion out of Medicare, triggering Duffy’s epically passive-aggressive response: “Let me tell you what. When you have your town hall you can stand up and give your presentation.”



Special thanks to Ari Melber at The Nation for his early contributions and Micah Sifry, whose initiative on citizen questions at the Personal Democracy Forum this project grew out of. Front page image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr


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