The List

Is This Thing On?

The 8 worst "hot mic" blunders of all time.

The microphone has long been both a politician's best friend and worst enemy. In 1948, for example, Thomas E. Dewey got himself into trouble when the train he was traveling on lurched backward toward a crowd of supporters in Illinois, just as the Republican presidential candidate was preparing to speak into a microphone. "That's the first lunatic I've had for an engineer," Dewey huffed. "He probably should be shot at sunrise." Never one to miss an opportunity, Democratic incumbent Harry Truman praised the "all Democratic" train crew, while the "lunatic" engineer himself declared, "I think as much of Dewey as I did before, and that's not very much."

You'd think we would have learned a thing or two in the six decades since, but apparently not. President Barack Obama has been stung by the open mic on three separate occasions. And on Monday, it happened again. Microphones caught Obama telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev after a meeting in Seoul that he would have more "flexibility" to deal with issues such as missile defense after the U.S. presidential election. Here's a transcript and video of the exchange, per ABC News:

Obama: On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it's important for him to give me space.

Medvedev: Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you...

Obama: This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.

Medvedev: I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.

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The conversation has sparked an outcry among conservatives. Mitt Romney's campaign pounced, tweeting, "@BarackObama: I'll have more flexibility to _______ after the election," prompting followers to fill in the blank with everything from "impose peace plan" on Israel to "act more European." The Republican National Committee has already come out with an ad asking, "What else is on Obama's agenda after the election that he isn't telling you?"

Just a tip: if you have to ask "Is this thing on?" better to be silent than sorry. Here's a look at the worst tempests in a teacup roiled by the open mic. And if you think Obama put his foot in his mouth, just wait until you hear Putin's rape joke or recall what Reagan's slip of the tongue almost caused.

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During a G-20 summit in Cannes, France, in November 2011, journalists who tuned into a translation before they were instructed to do so overheard French President Nicolas Sarkozy calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a "liar" who he couldn't "bear" while discussing France's vote in favor of the Palestinian bid for UNESCO membership with Obama. "You're fed up, but I have to deal with him every day," the U.S. president reportedly responded.

The comments caused a stir in the United States (then-Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann urged Obama to apologize to Netanyahu) and in France (Sarkozy met with leaders of the French Jewish community to explain his comments), but they also generated a great deal of debate in Israel.

"I was embarrassed to read what Sarkozy thinks about our prime minister, and I was even more embarrassed to hear that the U.S. president agrees with him," Labor Party legislator Daniel Ben-Simon told the Jerusalem Post. "If [Netanyahu] lies so easily to important officials, just imagine how much he lies to us." On the other end of the spectrum, Danny Danon, a lawmaker who belongs to Netanyahu's Likud Party, declared that "Obama's true face was revealed, as were his cold and disrespectful policies towards Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu."

The Israeli press was equally divided. Over the course of several days, op-ed headlines included, "Don't Trust the French," "Don't Trust Barack Obama," "Obama, Talk Is Cheap," "Our Friend in Paris," "Why Should Anyone Believe Netanyahu?" and "Netanyahu Is Less of a Liar Than Past Israeli PMs."

In March, Netanyahu "had" to cancel a visit to Paris but did meet with Obama at the White House. This time, Obama spoke of "friendship" and "unbreakable" bonds -- at least when the microphones were on.

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During a Democratic fundraiser in Chicago in April 2011, Obama, not realizing that CBS News's Mark Knoller was still recording his remarks after a question-and-answer session with reporters, informed donors that Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, "is a big booster, big promoter of democracy all throughout the Middle East. Reform, reform, reform -- you're seeing it on Al Jazeera." But, he added off the cuff, the emir "himself is not reforming significantly. There's no big move towards democracy in Qatar."

What made the comments particularly embarrassing is that, earlier in the day, Obama had met with Thani in Washington and praised Qatar's leadership in Libya and "when it comes to democracy in the Middle East" (the emir, in turn, promised to send Obama tickets to the 2022 World Cup, which his country is hosting).

The Qatari daily The Peninsula quickly issued a pointed rebuttal:

We strongly believe that change and democracy should come from within and should never be imported or we will have what happened in Iraq. Maybe in Qatar, our pace is slow but we have no doubt we are in the right direction. We are sure that we will achieve all that we have set for in our Vision 2030, likely eight years ahead when you come for World Cup 2022. We believe Qatar is on the learning curve and we are making progress in practicing democracy -- from media to public debate and education....

Mr. President, we have often written about U.S. foreign policy having double standards and being unmindful of the process of the change in Middle East. We do not want U.S. to export democracy to us because we don't want to repeat the Iraq experience. But be assured, we can build our own process.

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At the end of an October 2006 press conference between Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Moscow, a reporter caught the Russian president cracking a joke about rape charges against his Israeli counterpart Moshe Katsav (the Israeli president was later found guilty). "What a mighty man he turns out to be!" Putin reportedly quipped. "He raped 10 women -- I would never have expected this from him. He surprised us all -- we all envy him!"

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov later admitted that Putin made the wisecrack but argued that it "in no way means that President Putin welcomes rape." For good measure, he added that "Russian is a very complicated language, sometimes it is very sensitive from the point of view of phrasing" (Putin, for his part, claimed that journalists probably "heard something and began to have ideas").

The Russian daily Kommersant may have summed up the controversy best. "This was one of those moments when you just can't believe your ears," the paper marveled.

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In July 2006, during a G-8 lunch in Russia, a live microphone caught President Bush venting to British Prime Minister Tony Blair about the United Nations' stance on the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. "See the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it's over," Bush noted in reference to Syria's alleged support for the Islamic militant group (about 1 minute into the clip).


Bush didn't think much of the incident ("he rolled his eyes and laughed" after seeing the transcript, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow told reporters), but the famously plainspoken president did catch some flak in the press. Tony Blair faced withering criticism as well. Here's how Ireland's Sunday Tribune described the exchange, referencing Bush's apparent greeting of "Yo, Blair!" (some reports translated this line as "Yeah, Blair").

"Yo Blair," the leader of the Free World greeted his gofer. He proceeded to slap down the prime minister's efforts to intervene in the Israeli bombing of Lebanon. Tony sidled away, tail between his legs, his subservience captured for posterity on Bush's microphone.

During a visit to parliament a couple days after the summit, Blair was reportedly heckled with cries of "yo!" from opposition lawmakers.

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This doesn't technically qualify as a hot mic gaffe, but it's too good to exclude. In July 2005, French journalists overheard French President Jacques Chirac making fun of British food with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Vladimir Putin. "The only thing [the British] have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow" disease, Chirac reportedly joked. "You can't trust people who cook as badly as that. After Finland, it's the country with the worst food."

The Brits, needless to say, weren't happy. Under the pun-riddled headline, "Chirac's reheated food jokes bring Blair to the boil," the Guardian quoted British chefs saying "a man full of bile is not fit to pronounce on food" and "I'd serve him langoustines followed by good Aberdeen Angus beef and then give him a heart attack with some sticky toffee pudding."

But when London was selected over Paris as the host city for the 2012 Olympics days later, it was the United Kingdom's turn to gloat. As an op-ed in the Sunday Mercury put it:

If Jacques Chirac had not stuck his size nines in it before the vote by having a pop at Britain and their less-than-appetizing cuisine, then maybe Paris would have won.

In the end, it was London's hunger to get the Games, rather than Paris's apparent self-confidence that they would win, that triumphed.

Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images


While waiting for President Bill Clinton to arrive at a NATO meeting in Madrid, Spain in July 1997, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien (pictured above, third from right) issued a scathing critique of the United States that was picked up by a television network's audio system. "In your country, in my country, all the politicians would be in prison because [the Americans] sell their votes," he told the prime ministers of Belgium and Luxembourg, in reference to the U.S. political system. He bragged about Canada standing up to the United States and even joked about starting the meeting without Clinton.

Clinton later shrugged off the remarks (calling Chrétien a "great leader" and "superior human being," and vowing to "get even" on the golf course), but the prime minister's comments proved more divisive in Canada. "Mr. Chrétien has managed to insult the American political process, the president, the Congress, state and municipal leaders, and the U.S. public service," Preston Manning, the leader of Canada's opposition at the time, declared. But an editorial in Canada's Globe and Mail was more glowing:

For years, our diplomats in Washington have had to focus on Congress. Whether the issue was acid rain, softwood lumber, a global ban on landmines, or a treaty on chemical warfare, Canada has often had to put its case not just to the president, but to Congress, as well as interest groups, who wield enormous power in the system.

Thus, when Mr. Chrétien laments the inability of Mr. Clinton to get his way on NATO or Haiti, he shows a critical understanding that a Canadian prime minister must have of the reality of Washington.

Mr. Chrétien should speak from the heart more often. Candor becomes him.

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In July 1993, British Prime Minister John Major let frustration over his difficulty in securing approval of the European Community's Maastricht Treaty spill over during an off-the-record chat with a television reporter, not realizing that he was still being taped. Most famously, Major called three of his Euroskeptic ministers "bastards" for opposing European integration. (The prime minister never identified the Cabinet members by name, though that didn't stop the British press from speculating about their identities.)

The gaffe only further aggravated the divisions within Major's Conservative Party over the treaty and continued to resonate in the British political arena for quite some time. In 2004, the Independent reported that several Tory lawmakers who had by then embraced the term "bastards" reunited to raise "their glasses to Mr. Major's fit of pique."

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In August 1984, President Ronald Reagan made the mother of all microphone blunders. "My fellow Americans," he joked during a sound check for a radio address. "I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." (The radio address was actually about a much more mundane subject: religious groups meeting in public high schools.)

Reagan aides and reporters may have laughed at the president's playful banter, but America's Cold War enemy was not amused. When the audio leaked, Politico notes, the Soviet military briefly went on high alert, U.S. officials had to assure the Kremlin that Reagan's remark had been in jest, and Reagan's poll numbers against Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale temporarily slipped.

A few days after the incident, the Associated Press reported that a Soviet commentator named Genrik Borovik had appeared on television to criticize Reagan and his "maniacal idea" of destroying the Soviet Union. "People say a man's level of humor corresponds with the level of his thinking," she observed. "If this is so, then isn't this too base for the president of a great country?"

As we've learned in the decades since Reagan's scandalous sound check, even presidents of great countries sometimes forget to turn off the microphone.

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The List

The Great Rumor Mill of China

Something strange is going on in Beijing. Here are the five most virulent conspiracy theories making the rounds -- and a stab at the likelihood of them panning out.

The public hasn't seen or heard from high-ranking Communist Party leader Bo Xilai since he was sacked last week in Beijing, and the Chinese Internet has been awash with debate over what's actually going on behind palace walls. "People are nervous, there's not much information available," Bo Zhiyue, an expert on Chinese elite politics at the National University of Singapore, told AFP. "They are hungry for new information, and if there's nothing new, they will make up new information."

Speculation is rife that a coup might have happened, with the only general consensus being that something big is going on in Beijing. What follows is a curated guide to the "information" -- read: wild rumors and speculation -- floating around online in Chinese about Bo Xilai's surprising fall from grace and what his sacking means for the future of the Chinese Communist Party.

1. Bo Xilai was sacrificed in the name of party unity.

The rumor: Although Bo had widespread support in the high leadership, current President Hu Jintao and former President Jiang Zemin (who's not dead, though this was rumored, too) agreed to kick him out to facilitate a smooth power transition for Xi Jinping this fall. The 85-year old Jiang, an ally of Bo's now deceased father, turned on Bo Xilai for the good of the Communist Party.

Really?: For a party bent on showing a united front to outsiders, Bo Xilai, with his loud populism and his overt (at least for China) thirst for power, apparently proved too dangerous. Analysts sometime classify Hu Jintao as belonging to a different faction of the party than Jiang Zemin, but the two leaders have worked together to houseclean in the past; apparently cutting a deal to depose a powerful Shanghai party chief in 2006.

The source: Various Taiwanese and Hong Kong media websites that tend to mix assertion with fact when reporting on elite Chinese politics.

Likelihood: Possible but unprovable at the moment, at least until someone releases better sourcing or better documentation.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

Mao Zedong's grandson will come to power.

The rumor: General Mao Xinyu will be promoted to Bo's position, or another high ranking post, to fight corruption in the name of his glorious grandfather and make the country strong once more.

Really?: General Mao, possibly the world's most obese major general, is a tragicomic figure in Chinese politics. Imagine if Jimmy Carter's embarrassing brother mixed with a slovenly version of Kato Kaelin were the venerated grandson of your nation's founder. Because of his illustrious lineage, though, he still appears at major meetings to present information, with the added benefit of entertaining reporters.

Jamil Anderlini, who interviewed him last year for the Financial Times, writes:

Unlike other "princelings," as the children of revolutionary heroes are known, General Mao has never been accused of using his pedigree to advance his business interests. On the contrary, he is considered incapable of doing much of anything besides memorizing a few tracts of his grandfather's famous quotes, something that every Chinese child in the 1960s and 1970s could do.

General Mao's penmanship is so childish it has even spun a parody account on Weibo, "Mao Xinyu the Calligrapher."

Source: Scattered comments on Chinese microblogs.

Likelihood: Slightly better than the Mayan Apocalypse.

Feng Li/Getty Images 

3. Another high-ranking leader has been purged.

The rumor: Zhou Yongkang, ostensibly a Bo Xilai supporter, has been detained by order of President Hu Jintao in the biggest leadership shake-up, and possibly the most destabilizing, since the Mao's death in 1976.

Really?: Nine men currently sit on the Politburo Standing Committee, the top decision making body in China. Zhou, officially ranked last, oversees state security and the police, but some analysts see him as one of the Standing Committee's most powerful men. A former oilman who grimaces even when he smiles, imagine Zhou as a Dick Cheney with a slightly lower rank. Xinhua has reported that the Political and Legislative Affairs Committee, which Zhou chairs, will host a training of more than 3,300 provincial, city, and county-level officials in April, but it's unclear what this says about Zhou's grip on power.

The source: A Chinese edition of the Epoch Times (the paper affiliated with the banned-in-China Falun Gong sect) compares Zhou's detention -- which no one else can corroborate -- to the arrests of the Gang of Four in 1976. The paper, however, sources this to "indications." The English edition is a bit more circumspect; in an article entitled "China's Security Chief Zhou Yongkang Pulled from Power?" they qualify their statement with the helpful phrase: "News of Zhou's arrest remains unconfirmed."

Likelihood: Not outside the realm of possibility, but the chance of this happening appears minuscule. It's more likely wishful thinking. The Epoch Times has written good stories and broken news, but on trustworthiness appears to fall somewhere between the Washington Times and The Epoch Times also has an axe to grind here: given Zhou's role in the Falun Gong crackdown, it's a safe bet that many in that newspaper, and its shadowy backers, would be happy to see him go.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

4. The son of Bo Xilai was killed in a Ferrari crash.

The rumor: Bo's son Guagua was driving the Ferrari that crashed on Sunday night in Beijing, killing him and injuring his two unnamed female companions.

Really? Bo Guagua, Bo's dapper, Oxford-educated son, has long been a favorite target of the Internet set. Bo is currently a student at Harvard's Kennedy School, and the snarkier corners of the Chinese web treat him like the worthy subject of Gawker-like attention.

Source: Comments in articles about the mysterious and censored Ferrari crash.

Likelihood: Almost impossible. The Wall Street Journal reported that Bo the younger drove a Ferrari to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for a dinner last year, but that -- and his father's troubles -- appear to be the only thing linking him to the accident. The Weibo account assumed to belong to Bo has been active since, and, at the risk of stating the obvious, just because he hasn't been seen since his father's sacking doesn't mean he died in a Ferrari crash.


5. Armed chaos in Beijing.

Rumor: Yesterday saw gun-battles in Beijing, the airport has been sealed, and martial law had been imposed on the Avenue of Eternal Peace (the street perpendicular to Tiananmen Square and that runs alongside many important government buildings).

Really? There appears to be something strange afoot in Beijing, but fears of a return to June 4, 1989 -- when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square and the capital fell under martial law, a response both to a student protest movement and disagreements among members of the Politburo Standing Committee -- seem outlandish.

Source: Chinese articles published on overseas websites, trying to explain and debunk the current rumors floating around the Internet. Mostly they're just adding to them. As Foreign Policy's Christina Larson pointed out, this is when a Chinese Peter Jennings would be useful.

Likelihood: It's possible there was sporadic gunfire in Beijing -- though it's a city where guns are heavily restricted. But sealing the world's second-busiest airport and imposing martial law on a major thoroughfare in a city filled with millions of bloggers, hundreds of foreign journalists, and thousands of international observers without any credible source reporting this seems, well, impossible.

* * *

So what are we to make of all this? For the time being, it's too early to say. Silence from official channels, and lack of information, has fueled a lot of speculation. Yesterday, in the state-run Global Times, an unsigned essay -- perhaps the longest and most direct mention of what is happening in China in mainstream media -- didn't even mention Bo Xilai by name, instead referring to "The Chongqing Incident." Unsurprisingly, it urged people to place their trust in the highest levels of the Communist Party.

"Because we now have become more diversified, we have other choices, we have realized that trusting in the Party Central Committee, implementing the path of the Party, is more dependable than any methods other people teach us," it reads. It's an odd time to talk about other paths, other teachers. The essay, which has been widely re-posted online, appears to have been taken down from the Global Times website, which could mean that someone chose to comment on a subject before the Communist Party decided the party line.

And when the party line doesn't even know what it wants to communicate, it's fuel to the flames of conspiracy.

TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images 

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