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Year In Review: Unfortunate Public Missteps In 2011

  • Heather Maher

Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and Barack Obama have at least one opinion in common.

Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and Barack Obama have at least one opinion in common.

Everyone makes mistakes, but most of us suffer our embarrassments in private. Not so people in the public eye, whose gaffes and missteps make instant headlines.

Here, in no particular order, are some of this year's most memorable red-faced moments caused by open microphones, flubbed translations, and politically incorrect tweets.

Test, Test, Is This On?

At November's Group of 20 summit in Cannes, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. President Barack Obama were talking behind closed doors while they waited for a press conference to begin. Neither one realized that the microphones attached to their coat lapels had already been turned on.

About a half-dozen journalists in the audience who were listening through headphones heard at least three minutes of the two presidents discussing their difficult relations with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Sarkozy told Obama: "I cannot stand him. He's a liar." Obama replied: "You're fed up with him? I have to deal with him every day."

The remarks initially went unreported by journalists, on the feeling that they were made in private. But when a French website published the exchange, a reporter from Reuters confirmed it, and the story went global. None of the three leaders has commented.

Things That Go Tweet In The Night

On the night of December 6, hours after Moscow riot police had quashed another street protest over the disputed parliamentary elections, someone retweeted a crude message on Twitter that read: "Today it became clear that a person who writes in their blog the words 'party of swindlers and thieves' is a stupid, c***sucking sheep :)."

The author of the tweet was a Duma deputy named Konstantin Rykov. The author of the late-night re-tweet was President Dmitry Medvedev.

Unless you believe the Kremlin's version of what happened.

It seems blogger Aleksei Navalny has few friends in high places.

It seems blogger Aleksei Navalny has few friends in high places.

Russians who saw the tweet from Medvedev's account knew that the reference to a "sheep" could only mean opposition blogger Aleksei Navalny, who at that moment was sitting in jail for his role in the protests. On his website, Navalny had referred to the ruling United Russia party as a "party of swindlers and thieves" and a video clip of him yelling about said sheep was all over the Internet.

The Kremlin press office admitted, and then deleted, the tweet, and issued a statement. "Tonight an incorrect retweet of an entry appeared on Dmitry Medvedev's Twitter account. A check revealed that during a routine password change, an employee in charge of technical support for the account made an inadmissible interference in @MedvedevRussia's feed. The guilty will be punished." Or maybe just suitably embarrassed.

Ukraine In Spring!

In January, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, whose first language is Russian, ran into trouble during a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. First, he failed to correctly pronounce the slogan for Ukraine's Euro 2012 soccer championship, which Ukraine is co-hosting with Poland.

Then, Yanukovych advised potential investors to visit Ukraine in spring, which is apparently when its women start taking their clothes off.

Here's part of the painful speech, which the "Ukrayinska pravda" website posted: "Today I invite you, ladies and gentlemen, to Ukraine, to taste Ukrainian borscht. This slogan [he tries three times to pronounce "turn on" in Ukrainian],'Turn on Ukraine,' is the slogan of our Euro 2012 campaign. To 'Turn on Ukraine,' it is enough to see it with your own eyes, when the chestnuts start blooming in Kyiv and the weather gets warm and Ukrainian women start undressing. You will see such beauty! It is magical!"

Campaign Catastrophes

The pressure of campaigning for president can take its toll on a candidate -- all those speeches and handshakes and facts to remember! In Mexico this fall, the front-runner to be the next president, Enrique Pena Neito, made a campaign stop at the Guadalajara International Book Fair. But he found himself at a complete loss for words when a reporter asked him to name three books that had influenced him.

Critics of the movie-star-handsome candidate have questioned whether he has the brains to be president. His response didn't reassure. The BBC described what happened: "For minutes, he hesitated, before mentioning that he had read 'parts of' the Bible. He then rambled on, confusing titles, forgetting the names of authors, and sometimes mismatching them."

"The Economist" described it as "an excruciating embarrassment" (see video here, in Spanish).

A similar brain-fail happened to one of the leading candidates for U.S. president this November, on live television.

Rick Perry, the current governor of Texas and one of several Republican politicians competing to challenge President Obama in next year's election, was participating in a nationally televised debate.

He delivered an impassioned speech about how, as president, he would shrink the size of government. And then he forgot what he wanted to say.

"And I will tell you; it's three agencies of government when I get there, that are gone," Perry began. "Commerce, education, and the, um, what's the third one there? Let's see. [laughter] Oh, five, okay, so: Commerce, education and the, um, um...."

Over laughter from the audience, the debate moderator pressed Perry to name the third agency he felt so strongly about closing down, asking, "You can't name the third one?"

"The third agency of government I would do away with: the education, the, um, commerce, and let's see, I can't," he replied. "The third one I can't, I'm sorry. Oops."

Onetime leading Republican presidential candidate -- and now former candidate -- Herman Cain, didn't embarrass himself as much as he did the American electorate when he mocked the idea that the U.S. president needs to know the names of foreign leaders in a television interview:

"When they ask me, 'Who's the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan?' I'm going to say, 'You know, I don't know. Do you know?'" Cain said. "And then I'm going to say, 'How's that going to create one job?'"

Group Gaffes

Public humiliation is always less painful when you've got company.

In Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi's government collapsed this year, a Canadian math professor was mistakenly named to the new cabinet. Italian-Canadian Francesco Braga woke up early one morning at his home near Ontario to grade papers, and saw his name listed on an Italian newspaper website as the new junior agriculture minister. Italy's new agriculture minister was even quoted as saying nice things about Braga, whom he admitted he only knew "by reputation."

Braga left Italy almost 30 years ago and has no political affiliation. Several phone calls later, it was revealed that the position was actually meant to go to Franco Braga, a professor of civil engineering at Rome's Sapienza University.

And finally, one more Canada-related gaffe: Fifty Swedish professors voted on October 3 to award this year's Nobel Prize for medicine to Canadian scientist Ralph M. Steinman, along with two others, for his pioneering work on the immune system. Sadly, the 68-year-old Steinman did not live long enough to learn that he had won; two days before the decision, he died of cancer.

Stunned Nobel Committee officials said it was the first time in the prize's 110-year history that a chosen winner had died before the announcement. But after a brief deliberation, they made this year the first time their policy of not awarding a prize posthumously was ignored.