Rep. Johnson gaffe: Guam might capsize

Published April 2, 2010

WASHINGTON -- Is the island of Guam in danger of tipping over and capsizing?

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, Democrat from Lithonia, recently worried that it might be, according to a videotaped congressional hearing that is getting plenty of play online and over the airwaves.

Johnson's comments came during a House Armed Services Committee meeting as he questioned Adm. Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, about the impact of U.S. troops on the little island.

"My fear is that the whole island will become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize," Johnson said, straight-faced and seemingly serious.

The admiral seemed to take the question seriously, too. "We don't anticipate that," he said, proceeding to describe the population on Guam.

The derision online quickly gained momentum Thursday.

A note from a reader to a blog at National Review Online said, "My son is stationed on Guam. I just sent him the video and told him to run to the other side of the island. He said one of his shipmates showed up to work with a life vest on!"

On YouTube, about 75,000 visitors had viewed the video exchange through Thursday afternoon.

"Please Georgia, you gave us Cynthia McKinney, now Hank Johnson?" one commenter wrote.

Johnson issued a written statement Thursday as the mockery mounted.

"I wasn't suggesting that the island of Guam would literally tip over," he said. . Johnson said he was "using a metaphor" to describe how adding more military personnel to the tiny island "could be a tipping point which could adversely affect the island’s fragile ecosystem and could overburden its stressed infrastructure."

"Metaphors work because there's a thin line between what is literal and what is not," said University of Maryland professor James Klumpp, who specializes in political speech and communication. "When politicians get on the wrong side of that line, that's when they get into trouble."

Of course Johnson is hardly the only Peach State politician whose convoluted commentary has caused confusion.

A few of the more memorable miscues:

  • In 1996, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Atlanta, a Republican, made an unusual up-in-the-air link between beach volleyball and freedom. "A mere 40 years ago, beach volleyball was just beginning. No bureaucrat would have invented it, and that's what freedom is all about," Gingrich said at the Republican National Convention.
  • In 1976, Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter answered a question about public housing by saying people should be able to maintain the "ethnic purity" of their neighborhoods. Some saw Carter's remarks as a suggestion of segregation. He later explained he was referring to how people of particular nationalities sometimes like to live in concentrated areas.
  • More recently, in September 2008, Republican U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Coweta County referred to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama and wife Michelle as "uppity" -- a pejorative historically used by white Southerners to describe well-to-do African-Americans. Georgia-born Westmoreland later said he never heard the term used in a racially derogatory sense.

Klumpp, the speech and communications professor, pointed out that the verbal gaffes that can beguile any politician can also affect anybody else.

“If you’re a user of language, at some point you’re going to feel like an idiot,” he said.