Around the world, we entrust our political leaders to run the country, balance budgets, create new opportunities and build relationships with other nations. In most cases, we elect these leaders from a pool of potential candidates, often hoping we’ve made the right choice. Through the daily grind, political summits or during international crises, we judge these leaders and assess their abilities and weaknesses. Yes, the cameras are almost always on them and no matter where you turn there always seems to be a story about a world leader like Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin. In a way, they are the political version of the Kardashians – only more relevant, more influential in world affairs and generally more deserving of the attention paid to them.
Yet, like the Kardashians, there always seems to be a lot of scandal, controversy or talking points surrounding various world leaders. They are, after all, human. They say stupid things, do things without thinking about the consequences first and suffer occasional slip-ups here and there. We’d like to think that the people we vote into office are smart, composed and articulate. This is not always the case. Unfortunately, every now and then we read a story or see a video clip of a politician or leader that makes us cringe or laugh. Such gaffes make great ammunition for the comedians and critics alike.
The following looks at 18 of the most embarrassing slips or gaffes by world leaders. They are in no particular order because they are all so different. Ahead you’ll find presidents saying politically incorrect things, leaders literally tripping and falling, improper gestures being made and people doing just generally dumb and unfortunate things. With cameras and microphones on you all the time, is it any wonder why world leaders age so quickly?
18. Bill Clinton Dozes Off
It’s no doubt tough being a world leader, and even if you are a former President of the United States, you can still have a very busy day filled with ceremonies, speeches and other public duties. Former President Bill Clinton remains active as a public speaker and in humanitarian work. How does he manage to stay so active? He reportedly takes small naps during the day to keep his energy up. Unfortunately, in 2008, nap time came at a rather bad time. Probably exhausted from all the campaigning he was doing for Hillary, cameras caught the former president nodding off during a memorial ceremony for Martin Luther King Jr. at a Bronx church. Naturally, the media had a field day linking Clinton’s inability to stay awake with King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
17. Prince Philip in Australia
Like Bill Clinton, Prince Phillip is known for his love of naps and has often been pictured catching some shut eye during various outings. In 2002, during a Royal visit to Australia, there were no doubt many who wished the Prince had taken one of his naps instead of going to a cultural display for Australia’s aboriginal peoples. During the visit, the Prince reportedly turned to one of the founders of the cultural park and asked; “Do you still throw spears at each other?” Prince Philip is known to have a sense of humor which can border on the politically incorrect and some believe he was referring to either the inter-tribal warfare which occurred in Queensland in the past or the long-retired practice of testing young warriors’ manhood by throwing spears at them. In any event, the comment made more than a few people cringe.
16. Ahmadinejad’s Hug
On March 8th 2013 various dignitaries and leaders travelled to Caracas, Venezuela to attend the funeral of President Hugo Chavez. Iran’s then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was one of the attendees, having been relatively good friends with the Venezuelan leader. At the funeral a picture was taken of Iran’s leader having an emotional moment with Chavez’s mother, Elena Frias. For most people, the moment was genuine and touching. For the conservative Islamic clerics in Iran, however, the physical contact between the two was unacceptable because they believe that a man should not touch a woman who is unrelated unless it is during some sort of emergency situation. It probably also didn’t help that during the same funeral Ahmadinejad eulogized that Chavez would rise with Jesus Christ and Al-Imam al-Mahdi.
15. Mission Accomplished
Following the end of major ‘conventional’ combat operations in Iraq in 2003, then-President George W. Bush took part in an obviously choreographed PR stunt which saw him land aboard the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln to announce that the hard part of the war in Iraq was over – the whole time with a banner hanging behind him that stated ‘Mission Accomplished.’ Eight years later, approximately 5,000 coalition dead and at least 120,000 verified Iraqi civilian dead demonstrated that the whole Mission Accomplished stunt was more than a little premature. Bush later said the banner was aimed at the crew of the ship but regretted the overall message that came out of the whole presentation.
14. Obama’s ‘Special Olympics’ comment
Back in April 2008, President Obama, like all presidential candidates, worked his best to try and win over voters. In this instance, he was trying to win over blue-collar voters in Pennsylvania by showing them he could bowl. Putting up a brutal score of 37, the President became the target of much ridicule. Jump a head a year to March 2009 and Obama made an appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He commented that he now bowled a 129 to which Leno sarcastically congratulated him. Amidst the laughter, Obama commented that it was like it was the Special Olympics. It was one of those moments anyone would want to take back immediately and the President apologized to Tim Shriver, the Special Olympics Chair, even before the episode was aired. Nonetheless, the damage was done.
13. George Bush Sr. Barfs on his Host
When I was little, I had the flu and remember throwing up all over the dinner table with my whole family there to see. It was embarrassing but I was too sick to care at the time. In any event, there are no photos or videos of the episode to remind me of that moment. George Bush Sr. was not so lucky. During a trip to Japan, Bush was the dinner guest of the Japanese Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa. The President was reportedly suffering from a case of the flu and his dinner guests were all made graphically aware of this during the dinner. A camera was rolling to catch Bush overcome with nausea, throwing up all over himself and his host. Comedy shows everywhere had a field day with the event and even the Japanese referred to the incident as ‘Bushu-suru’ – To do a Bush.
12. Michelle Obama and the Queen
Everyone knows there is all sorts of etiquette and many rules you are supposed to follow when greeting and talking to the Royal family. No microphones are allowed to record conversations between the Queen and others, people are expected to bow or courtesy when presented and no one is supposed to touch the Queen. Apparently, nobody told Michelle Obama that in 2009. During the visit to Buckingham Palace, the First Lady caused the mouths of Royal-watchers everywhere to hit the floor when cameras caught her with her arm around the Queen. In fairness, those same Royal critics did mention that the Queen had initiated contact but it was still something which wasn’t supposed to happen.
11. David Cameron and the Chinese Poppy
In North America and much of the British Commonwealth, the wearing of a poppy around Remembrance Day is a common tradition. Therefore, it wasn’t strange to see British Prime Minister David Cameron wearing a red poppy in November of 2010. The problems came when he and the British delegation to China decided to wear the poppy even after they were asked not to by their Chinese counterparts. In Chinese history, the poppy has a darker and more humiliating meaning thanks to the Opium Wars which opened China to Western subjugation, including the loss of various territories to European powers. Critics understood why the British chose not to remove their poppies, but argued that it may have been a better political move to remove the symbols for a couple days, given the situation.
10. Merkel’s Massage
If you ever want to see a video that makes you feel as awkward as the people in it, just look up the Bush-Merkel back rub incident. At the 2006 G8 summit in Russia, world leaders were doing what world leaders do when they all get together. Well, not all of them. At one point during the proceedings, President George W. Bush walked over to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and proceeded to give her a back rub. The German leader was clearly uncomfortable (like most of the others who witnessed this) and quickly reacted to get the President’s hands off her. Criticism came fast and furious with people pointing out that as a woman and a national leader it was a double whammy for Bush to put his hands on Merkel. It was also just plain unprofessional considering the G8 summit is supposed to be a formal and serious affair.
9. Margaret Thatcher Takes a Tumble
In 1982, riding high from the victory in the Falklands War, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher travelled to China to discuss, among other things, the future of Hong Kong. The island had been part of the British Empire since the Opium Wars and China was pushing to have the territory reintegrated sooner rather than later. Reports said the Chinese were taking a hard stance on the issue and Thatcher was equally tough, albeit weakened by a cold. The image of the Iron Lady, and indeed the British negotiating position over Hong Kong, suffered a significant symbolic blow when cameras caught Thatcher tumbling down the stairs of the Great Hall leading into Tiananmen Square. Indeed, the symbolic nature of the images of the British PM on her knees before the mausoleum of Mao Tse-tung’s was not lost on anyone.
8. Ted Stevens and his Tubes
Ok, so he wasn’t technically a world leader, but Senator Ted Stevens deserves a place on this list simply because of his epic rant about the internet and its use by big companies and personal users. As part of a 2006 committee charged with regulating the internet and related laws, Stevens was actually talking about net neutrality and bandwidth usage – although his confused language and metaphors certainly didn’t help his case. When he told reporters that his staff sent him an ‘internet’ which took a few days to arrive because it was tangled up with commercial aspects of the internet, people snickered. Then he came out and said that the internet was not a truck but a series of tubes that can get clogged. Yes, if you read or listen to the statement we all know what he’s trying to say – it’s just so clumsy and imprecise that it’s even become its own internet meme.
7. Joe Biden’s Racist ‘Compliment’
If Queen Elizabeth has Prince Philip, then President Barack Obama has Vice President Joe Biden. When the VP speaks, people listen – but usually because he says some rather strange and controversial things. Whether telling reporters you can’t go into a Delaware 7-11 or Dunkin Donuts without an Indian accent or standing in front of 50 African leaders and telling them Africa is a country (not a continent), Joe loves coming out with jaw-dropping statements. In 2007, leading up to the presidential campaign, Biden ‘paid’ a compliment to the future President by calling Barack Obama the first “mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and nice-looking…” Interestingly enough, Biden only felt the need to clarify the use of the word ‘clean’ in that statement.
6. Silvio Berlusconi Meets the Obamas
Staying on the topic of racism and the Obamas, enter former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The Italian always seemed to be at the center of controversy during his time in charge. In September 2009, Berlusconi addressed a crowd in Milan, informing them “I bring you greetings from a person who is called… a person who is suntanned… Barack Obama.” The PM then went on to say that Michelle Obama was also tanned because they went sunbathing at the beach. It wasn’t the first time he had used the ‘suntanned’ reference in respect to the US President. Berlusconi defended himself by saying that anyone who found the comment racist didn’t have a sense of humor and was an imbecile.
5. George Bush Sr. Gives the Wrong Sign
In most of the world, if you want to tell someone where to go, you give them the middle finger. In some places, however, there are different gestures used to get this point across. For instance, in Great Britain and Australia putting up a “peace” gesture with the palm facing you is considered comparable with ‘the finger.’ Nobody told George Bush Sr. that when he visited angry farmers in Canberra, Australia in 1992. To begin with, the farmers were upset over unfair trade regulations which existed between the two countries. The situation was made worse when the President, probably thinking a peace sign would help, flashed ‘the forks.’ To Bush, the sign meant “hey, let’s get along.” To the farmers, a foreign leader had just told them, “up yours.”
4. Vladimir Putin or Indiana Jones?
Oh Putin, one minute you’re some sort of overly-macho superman and the next you are a perfect villain for a Bond film. Whether wrestling bears, riding shirtless on a horse, playing hockey or hunting tigers, the Russian leader has done it all. When he’s not invading neighboring countries or taming wildlife, Putin apparently loves hunting for ancient treasures. In 2011, video surfaced showing the ex-KGB agent scuba diving in the Black Sea and ‘discovering’ rare Greek urns. How convenient. Like a champ, the President grabbed the urns and hoisted them up to the surface for all to see. Standards of propaganda must be far lower in Russia than elsewhere because everyone knew the whole event had been staged – something later confirmed by a Putin spokesman.
3. Sarah Palin’s Epic Interview
Say what you will about George W. Bush or Barack Obama, but Sarah Palin could have actually been in a position of power in the US government had the voting turned out a bit differently. Scared? If not, just load up the interview she gave with Katie Couric in 2008. From questions about which newspapers she read to Palin’s possible thoughts on foreign policy, the entire interview was deemed a train-wreck by Conservatives and Liberals alike. Having watched the CBS special you can only hope Palin fired the cast who was supposed to prepare her for such an exchange. Many analysts cite this interview as the turning point in the election because it frightened many undecided voters to the liberal camp. In any event, the damage was done and comedians everywhere were handed more than enough material for the next few years.
2. Sarkozy and Obama Talk Candidly
As a world leader you always need to be aware that wherever there are cameras and microphones you could be getting recorded. It’s always amazing how many world leaders at various conferences forget this. At the 2011 G20 Summit in Cannes, France, French leader Nicolas Sarkozy and US President Barack Obama had a candid discussion about Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that was caught on tape. In references to the Israeli leader, Sarkozy stated that he couldn’t stand him and that Netanyahu was a liar. Obama replied “You’re fed up with him? I have to deal with him every day.” One can only imagine how uncomfortable each leader felt the next time they met face-to-face with their Israeli counterpart.
1. German Chancellor Puts Out the Flame
Among all of the death and destruction of the Second World War, one aspect which is remembered is the Holocaust which involved the killing of 6 million Jews. As a monument to the victims of the Holocaust, the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem was constructed. Part of the memorial is a flame which burns eternally in memory of those lost. In 2000, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder visited the memorial with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Schroder was supposed to turn a handle that would make the flame rise. Instead, the Chancellor reportedly turned the handle the wrong way and extinguished the flame. The symbolism of a German leader extinguishing a flame related to Jewish survivors was not lost on anyone. It was a gaffe which left everyone feeling more than a little uncomfortable.