Kinsley gaffe: A truthful statement told accidentally, usually by a politician. Named for the man who originally defined it, American journalist Michael Kinsley (1951-). Kinsley was the founding editor of Slate and later held editorial positions at the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Harper’s. He is now on the editorial board of Bloomberg View, an editorial and opinion website.
Wikipedia gives this definition:
A Kinsley gaffe or “gaffe in Washington” in American politics is an occurrence of someone telling the truth by accident. Typically, it refers to a politician inadvertently saying something publicly that they privately believe is true, but would ordinarily not say publicly because they believe it is politically harmful.
According to Barry Popik’s website, The Big Apple, Kinsley first wrote “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth” in the June 18, 1984, issue of The New Republic. One month earlier, writing in the Los Angeles Times (“Mondale Tries Demagoguery on Mortgage Interest Issue”), Kinsley had tried out a formulation:
The dictionary defines “gaffe” as a social error or faux pas. (...) A “gaffe” is the opposite of a “lie”: It’s when a politician tells the truth. It doesn’t take much to commit a gaffe.
In an article published in Time in February 2007, Kinsley further clarified:
It used to be, there was truth and there was falsehood. Now there is spin and there are gaffes. Spin is often thought to be synonymous with falsehood or lying, but more accurately it is indifference to the truth. A politician engaged in spin is saying what he or she wishes were true, and sometimes, by coincidence, it is. Meanwhile, a gaffe, it has been said, is when a politician tells the truth--or more precisely, when he or she accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on in his or her head. A gaffe is what happens when the spin breaks down.
Nice touch, that “it has been said.”
The first appearance in print of “Kinsley’s Law of Gaffes” may have been on January 17, 2008, when Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in a post about a Democratic candidates’ debate in his New Yorker blog:
No article or blog post of this kind can be complete without a reference to (Michael) Kinsley’s Law of Gaffes, which states that a gaffe occurs when a politician accidentally tells the truth. Perhaps this should be supplemented by the notion of a Deductive Slip, meaning something a politician says, however inadvertently, that can be shoehorned into a pre-existing “narrative.”
(Side note: “Narrative” has become so ubiquitous in the current political season that a similar story published this month probably wouldn’t require quotation marks. See, for example, this string from the American Dialect Society’s listserv.)
Kinsley gaffe appeared in Slate on August 16, 2011, in the lead paragraph of a story by Dave Weigel, “Fear of a Fed Planet”:
Rest easy: Rick Perry probably isn’t going to execute Ben Bernanke. When he told a crowd of Iowa Republicans Monday that “we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas” if the chairman of the Federal Reserve “print[ed] more money between now and the election,” it wasn't exactly a Kinsley gaffe, defined as when a politician tells the truth. Instead, call it a “Perry gaffe”: when a politician doesn’t mean what he says, but means to say it.
Note, too, that Mark Twain is said to have said (or written): “When a politician tells the truth he delights half the people and astonishes the rest.” I say “said to have said” because I can’t find the quote anywhere except in the Big Apple entry. But it sure sounds like Twain, doesn’t it?