From the moment Perry announced that he would be seeking the presidency again in 2016, we’ve known that his acceptable margin of error is slimmer than that of any other candidate. Other candidates can misspeak and then release clarifications after the fact. Rick Perry, though, has an entire nation awaiting another “oops.”
On Friday, Perry came very close to “oopsing” his way out of the race, more than eight months before the Iowa Caucuses. In an interview on NewsMax TV, Perry used the word “accident” to describe the murder of nine African Americans in a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a man who claimed that he was there “to shoot black people.”
Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry characterized the recent shooting in Charleston as an “accident” during an interview on Friday, accusing President Obama of using the massacre, which claimed nine lives, as a pretext for pushing a gun control agenda.
“This is the MO of this administration anytime there is an accident like this,” Perry said during an appearance on Newsmax TV. The former Texas governor said the president “doesn’t like guns,” so “he uses every opportunity” to tighten restrictions on gun ownership. Video of the appearance was posted on YouTube by Right Wing Watch.
A Perry campaign spokesperson quickly clarified that the former governor intended to say the word “incident.” That’s certainly a plausible claim. It’s impossible to believe that Perry actually thinks that the shooter killed nine people by “accident.” And seizing on that word—while a satisfying gotcha for people who wanted to laugh at another “oops” moment—misses some things about what Perry is doing in that interview that deserve our attention more.
Two days after nine people were brutally murdered in their own church for being black is a weird time for Perry to go after Obama on his support for gun control. Perry can differ sharply from the president on guns, and he can make that a central part of his campaign. But was now really the right time for that? Even if Perry meant “incident,” that doesn’t make the rest of his sentence well-considered.
By Saturday, Perry had course-corrected: rather than simply stressing that he had misspoken, Perry used unequivocal language to condemn the incident. He repeatedly used the word “hate crime” to describe what happened, calling it “clear” and “heinous.” Those are the right words to use.
But it’s also worth pointing out that phrases like “hate crime,” “mass murder,” “racist killing spree,” and “terrorist attack” don’t sound anything like the word “accident.” It’s easy to mix up “incident” and “accident,” because they’re both hedging words that avoid characterizing the shooting in Charleston as what it actually was.
In other words, Perry’s flub came about, in part, because he sought to downplay what happened in Charleston in order to attack Obama. You don’t hear sentences like “This is the MO of this administration anytime there is a mass murder like this,” because if you’re talking about something with the gravity of a mass murder that happened two days earlier, it sounds downright petty to go after a political opponent the way that Perry did.
Other candidates can risk that, because they can afford the occasional unforced error. But Rick Perry can not. The entire country looks at the things that Perry says through the harshest possible lens, so ambiguity does him no favors—there is an endless supply of pundits, commentators, comedians, and talk show hosts who are only too delighted to assume, whenever his precise meaning is unclear, that he intended to say the dumbest possible thing.
Perry’s not a dumb man, and he can run on a platform that includes “If only there were more guns in churches, this wouldn’t have happened” if he chooses. It might even win him some support. But he needs to say exactly what he means going forward because right or wrong, he can’t afford an accident like saying the word “accident.”
(Photograph by AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)