The enlightenment of gaffes: What we learn about politicians from their inadvertent mistakes

"They're very dangerous. They trap you. Especially these furry ones. These furry guys that get you in real trouble. They can reach out and listen to something." —President George H. W. Bush, in 1991, on the perils of open microphones.

Not all gaffes are created equal. Some gaffers like Sarah Palin expose their ignorance: "We've got to stand with our North Korean allies." Some like Dan Quayle butcher slogans: "What a waste it is to lose one's mind." Some just tell the truth where propaganda might be expected, as Mitt Romney did: "I'm not concerned about the very poor."

But the latest political blunders—Romney's recent "humorous" anecdote about his father's shuttering a factory in Michigan; Rick Santorum's salty smackdown of a New York Times reporter; and President Barack Obama's Machiavellian-sounding suggestion into a hot microphone that he'd be "more flexible" to discuss missile defense after the election—open a window on these politicians' psyches.

What so-called gaffes have in common is that they are unscripted or at least unvetted by handlers. They're often psychologically revealing, even if all they reveal is how sleepy the gaffer is. And they're sometimes (especially when the speaker is George W. Bush) uproariously funny.

Arguably gaffes are the most significant part of any campaign. They're the most endearingly human—and thus most useful to audiences struggling to determine who these vote-ravenous creatures demanding our attention might be. By their gaffes we know them.

Sure, Romney appears polished on the stump, but many of his gaffes have exposed his penchant for inadvertently flaunting his wealth or his experience as a job-eliminating Bain Capital boss. He comes across as the wealthy CEO who just fired you.

By contrast, Rick Santorum's fans applaud his natural, unscripted nature, which makes him seem human rather than handled. But this quality gets him into trouble. When Santorum lashed out at New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny Sunday night in Wisconsin, viewers were treated to an extraordinary moment: a four-letter word for excrement—compounded with "bull"—uttered by the proudest "family man" in the race.

The Santorum tantrum was more than just a bark of barnyard language. It was a vivid duet between a social conservative and a reporter from a supposedly liberal paper who might be assumed to dislike him. Moments like that one change minds.

[Related: As pressure builds, Santorum shows a dark side]

In the clip, Santorum comes across as a man who believes he has taken pains to be specific in a speech criticizing his opponent, Mitt Romney—and is being willfully misunderstood.

But what was the exact misunderstanding? Earlier, Santorum had said of Romney: "He is the worst Republican in the country—" and then he had paused, "—to put up against Obama," he finished. In context it was clear that Santorum meant that Romney's health care policy was too close to Obama's for him to present meaningful opposition to him on a major issue.

Zeleny wasn't the first reporter on the rope line to seek clarification. A group of other reporters had asked about the very issue right before Santorum approached Zeleny's spot. But when Zeleny asked, "You said that Romney is the worst Republican in the country. Is that true?" Santorum flew off the handle.

"What speech did you listen to?" Santorum asked Zeleny, acidly. Both his belligerence and his deep blush suggested he was at least one gram anxious about what speech he'd given. In any case, Santorum's complete words sounded like this:

"Why would we put someone up who is uniquely—pick any other Republican in the country—he is the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama?"

Every politician is bound to stumble into thickets of language and meaning and mood at one time or another.

Santorum had a serious and consequential point—about Romney's similarity to Obama—that he marred with overstatement. Perhaps feeling some shame at having obscured the argument, he jumped down a reporter's throat. Thus headline-making profanity was used.

As a result of the minor drama at the rope line, Santorum got to make his point more clearly on news broadcasts. He also got credit for seeming to beat down a Times reporter.

[Related: Santorum: You’re not 'a real Republican’ if you haven't cursed out a Times reporter]

What do we learn about Santorum from the gaffe? We learn that he has a real point to make about Mitt Romney. We learn that he seemingly doesn't trust himself entirely to make it. And we learn that he may project his guilt about his own missteps onto anyone who calls attention to them. Those are all useful lessons. No platform statement could reveal a candidate more elegantly than this minute-long gaffe.

It's enlightening to see some good gaffes this election season. After the glorious bonanza for gaffe connoisseurs that was the presidency of George W. Bush, Americans have right now in Barack Obama a studied and mostly gaffe-averse president, a figure who doesn't let any cameras but his own close. Campaign claims of having visited 58 states notwithstanding, Obama has an almost maddeningly remote and calculated physical and rhetorical style. Even at the global security summit on Sunday, at which he could be heard promising he'd have "flexibility" post-election—moral flexibility?—to discuss missile defense with Russia, even then Obama seemed to be calculating. "I can't do this while people are watching," he seemed to say; "because that would be a gaffe. But sotto voice it's OK."

In "The Audacity of Hope," Obama describes himself as deliberately short on tics: "a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." A tabula rasa, then. Not to say an Etch-a-Sketch.