Every decade has its mistakes, of course, but one nice thing about the past 10 years’ foibles, foul-ups and flubs is that so often they came with neat, two-word monikers, almost like keepsakes: “Wardrobe malfunction.” “Mission Accomplished.” “Balloon boy.”
Here’s a review of 10 what-were-they-thinking moments.
Bernie Madoff has been called many names. For one federal regulatory sleuth, he was ... “a wonderful storyteller.” For years, the Securities and Exchange Commission received detailed complaints that Madoff’s investment operation was certainly fishy and probably criminal (“Nothing more than a Ponzi Scheme,” a tipster wrote in 2000, eight years before Madoff confessed). SEC examiners found, instead, “a very captivating speaker” who assured them he was not “greedy” and all was OK. An SEC branch’s decision to shelve the probe turned out to be a mistake — one of, oh, several billion blamed on Madoff, who’s now charming fellow inmates in prison.
White House flight of fancy, 2003: Planners had almost everything right: the golden sunset light, President George W. Bush’s dramatic landing on the carrier deck, the speech. But that giant “Mission Accomplished” sign, with years of mission still ahead, who came up with that? Reporters launched the “bannergate” investigation.
White House flight of fancy, 2009: We always thought Air Force One takes a good picture in any setting — but an aide to President Barack Obama thought a few snaps with lower Manhattan as a backdrop would be dramatic. How’s this for drama: panicked office workers, seeing the low-flying 747 shadowed by a fighter plane, streaming out of buildings, phrases like “stupid and alarming” coming from local officials, and pretty much everybody mad about the taxpayer-funded photo op’s price tag: $328,835. The aide was, er, grounded.
Aerial ambitiousness also gave us the balloon boy. When a homemade foil-covered balloon supposedly slipped its tether with a 6-year-old inside, we all held our breath — except some heavy-breathing cable anchors. The balloon finally landed — empty — and the kid was found safe at home, hiding, his father said. But why? “You had said that we did this for a show,” the tyke told Dad, a would-be reality TV star, live on CNN. Whoops. Hoax charges followed.
Publishing mistake of the decade, coming in 2006: “If I Did It,” O.J. Simpson’s book about how the murders of which he was acquitted might have been carried out. Amid furious protest, the project was aborted, the book was ordered “pulped,” and the publisher acknowledged its “ill-considered project.” And that wasn’t the biggest faux pas of the decade for OJ. No. 1 was going to that Nevada hotel with weapon-toting friends to “reclaim” his sports memorabilia. “It was,” said the sentencing judge, “much more than stupidity.”
In 2006, after former Vice President Dick Cheney shot an orange-clad hunting buddy who looked nothing like a quail, the pockmarked victim graciously allowed that accidents happen. How did others react? A Texas Monthly cover threatened: “If you don’t buy this magazine, Dick Cheney will shoot you in the face.” A hockey team held a “Cheney Hunting Vest Night” — “Don’t Shoot, I’m Human,” the vests said. Even Bush joked about his veep’s middle initial: “B. stands for Bull’s Eye.”
Looking for guv in all the wrong places. That’s how you might categorize a couple of high-profile statehouse mistakes. South Carolina’s family-values Gov. Mark Sanford missed the Appalachian Trail and ended up in Buenos Aires, with his Argentine “soul mate.” New York’s crime-fighting Gov. Eliot Spitzer turned up far from Albany and as “Client-9” in a hooker’s black book.
“So, we were watching the boob tube Sunday...” So began an editorial in the Lebanon (Pa.) Daily News, commenting on the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show during which Justin Timberlake tore away part of Janet Jackson’s costume, momentarily exposing her breast in what was later called a “wardrobe malfunction.” Knowing the offense given to millions of live viewers (plus those offended again and again as they cued up the YouTube rerun), Federal Communications Commission smut-busters imposed a fine — but that, too, turned out to be a mistake. Arbitrary and capricious, a federal appeals court ruled.
What caused California’s energy crisis back in 2000-2001? Deregulation? Too many hands on the AC switch? What about “creativity” by Enron employees? On Jan. 17, 2001, amid rolling blackouts, a fellow at the energy-trading firm told a power plant worker to “get a little creative” and find a reason to shut down, tightening electricity supply. “OK, so we’re just coming down for some maintenance, like a forced outage type thing?” the worker offered. “I knew I could count on you,” his colleague replied on a tape revealed in a lawsuit. California’s grid eventually stabilized, but Enron itself blinked out — under hefty fines and criminal charges.
Finally, it must be acknowledged there were a few mistakes in the entertainment world — and we’re not just talking about “American Idol” auditions. No, at least those didn’t cost $100 million, the amount investors plowed into the 2002 movie “The Adventures of Pluto Nash.” Basically, nobody showed up at the box office. Well, not quite nobody. “I know two or three people that liked this movie,” said the star, Eddie Murphy. Who knew there’d be no audience for a comedy about a nightclub arson on the moon?