Worst Political Gaffes: Rape Jokes to Slurs

Todd Akin (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images);Trent Lott (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Todd Akin (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images);Trent Lott (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

(The Root) — This week Republican Senate candidate and current Missouri Rep. Todd Akin made what many consider to be a career-ending comment. While defending his no-exceptions position on abortion, the congressman dismissed the issue of pregnancies caused by rape by saying, "If it's legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."


I missed this little nugget of wisdom in sex-ed class, and apparently others, including many of Akin's fellow Republicans, did as well. The backlash to Akin's comments has been bipartisan and swift. He was considered virtually a shoo-in for election to the Senate, with Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill viewed as one of the most vulnerable Democrats facing re-election.

Not anymore.

But Akin is not the first politician to commit political suicide by choking on his foot.

Below is a list of some of the most offensive political gaffes in the modern political era.

1. 1989: Councilman Jim Westmoreland uses a racial slur to joke about a deceased black congressman.

Houston Councilman Jim Westmoreland was a comfortable, 16-year incumbent when a news report included off-the-record comments he made about efforts to rename a Houston airport in honor of Rep. Mickey Leland. Leland, who was African American, died in a plane crash on a humanitarian trip to Ethiopia in 1989. According to reporter Andrew Kirtzman, Westmoreland said, "The idea now is to name the airport Nigger International. That way it would satisfy all the blacks." Westmoreland claimed he actually said "Negro International." Despite this attempted defense, he lost re-election to a black woman, Beverly Clark. 

2. 1990: Gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams jokes about rape. No one laughs.


Clayton Williams was a multimillionaire Texas energy mogul when he ran for governor of that state in 1990 against long-shot Democratic candidate Ann Richards, who was the state's treasurer. Williams led by as much as 20 points before an off-the-record joke came back to bite his campaign in a big way. According to a reporter, Williams had this to say about rape: "As long as it's inevitable, you might as well lie back and enjoy it." The remark mortally wounded Williams' campaign. Richards would go on to become governor of Texas and a Democratic Party legend.

3. 2002: Sen. Trent Lott celebrates a segregationist.

At a party celebrating the 100th birthday of Sen. Strom Thurmond, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said, "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either." There was just one problem: When Thurmond ran for president in 1948, he ran on a strictly segregationist platform for the Dixiecrat Party. According to CNN, the party's platform read in part, "We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race." Though Lott tried to make amends for the comments through apologies and an interview with BET, the remarks, which were criticized by then-President George W. Bush, cost Lott his majority-leader post.


4. 2008: Rep. Geoff Davis calls President Obama "boy."

A white man referring to a black man as "boy" wouldn't be that shocking in the South in 1958, but in the halls of Congress in 2008, particularly when the white man is a member of Congress and the "boy" in question is the president, the comment was shocking and generated headlines. Rep. Geoff Davis of Kentucky admitted to referring to then-senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama as a boy during remarks at a private fundraising dinner. Davis was quoted as saying, "I'm going to tell you something: That boy's finger does not need to be on the button … He could not make a decision in that simulation that related to a nuclear threat to this country." Davis later sent Obama an apology, which read in part, "I offer my sincere apology to you and ask for your forgiveness."


5. Year unknown: Gov. Edwin Edwards jokes about dead girls.

Former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards has long been considered one of the most colorful, and corrupt, political figures in American politics. Edwards, a Democrat, became infamous for his brushes with the law, as well as for coining one of the most quoted lines in political history. He joked that he'd always be re-elected unless he was caught "in bed with a dead girl or a live boy." The decades-old line continues to pop up in print or television every election cycle to describe a campaign victory that has been deemed inevitable. Edwards' crass prediction appears to have been somewhat accurate. He served 16 years as Louisiana governor off and on from the 1970s through the 1990s. Afterward he served nearly 10 years in prison for extortion. Since his release last year, the 85-year-old has become engaged to a 32-year-old woman and is said to be shopping a reality show.


Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter