8 of the Pettiest Incidents in Political History

Go back to the entire Petty Hall of Fame.

It all started back in 2013, when the Chinese meme-generating public noticed that a recent photo of their rotund president, Xi Jinping, positioned next to the lanky Barack Obama looked a liiiittle bit like Winnie-the-Pooh walking next to Tigger.

POOH PICS. Then someone discovered that a 2014 photo of Xi with Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe looked like the bear alongside longtime friend Eeyore, and, well, the Pooh really hit the fan. By last year, anything related to digital dissemination (or search) of the character had been banned by the Chinese government. (The 2018 feature film Christopher Robin was also banned in the country, prompting Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to tweet, “Make no mistake: All bears are created equal in Taiwan.”)

“There’s a long history in the Chinese population mocking or satirizing government leaders, but Xi’s efforts to secure his position as China’s leader have made the current leadership particularly sensitive to this,” says Dr. Winnie King, a specialist in Chinese international relations and economic reform at the University of Bristol. “And Chinese people are very, very creative, but the government has an army to trawl its internet, censor content and images, and secure the Communist Party’s political narratives.”

PEPPA TOO? Pooh is not the only illustrated children’s character to be given the boot in China: earlier this year, China added Peppa Pig to the no-fly list.

His nickname really sums it up.

SULTAN OF SWIGS. Why does a leader feel the need to overrun borders in order to grow his or her empire? Ego, mostly … or money. In the case of Selim II, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1566–1574, legend has it that the leader invaded the island of Cyprus in 1570 for its treasure—namely, grapes that were made into delicious wine. (The sultan’s nickname was “Selim the Sot.”) Venice, which controlled Cyprus, fought back, but by 1573, the war was over and the Ottomans had won Selim II his wine.

A tough, culinary-based stand against our ally, France.

POTATO HEADS. In 2003, Republican congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina made a powerful statement in support of American troops in the Middle East. “I represent a district with multiple military bases that have deployed thousands of troops,” explained Jones. “As I’ve watched these men and women wave goodbye to their loved ones, I am reminded of the deep love they have for the freedom of this nation and their desire to fight for the freedom of those who are oppressed overseas. Watching France’s self-serving politics of passive aggression in this effort has discouraged me more than I can say.”

Jones was, of course, suggesting that the congressional cafeteria rename its French fries “freedom fries” to fight back against France’s opposition to the war in Iraq. The actual effort was taken up by another Republican congressman, Bob Ney—whose committee actually oversaw the cafeteria administration—and roundly ridiculed by Americans all across the country, as well as by other members of Jones’s own party, including majority whip Tom DeLay, who said, “I don't think we have to retaliate against France.”

There’s often a bit of showmanship in politics. And then there’s petty.

TINY FURNITURE. When Turkish ambassador Ahmet Oguz Celikkol was made to sit on a tiny sofa during a meeting with Israel’s deputy foreign minister in 2010, it seemed to be an unprovoked attack to the Turks. Does it seem excessive that Turkey would temporarily suspend diplomatic relations with Israel after the incident, which was commemorated with a photograph? Well, would you look at these seats?

The history of Saddam Hussein and the United States is long and bloody, but it is also petty.

A LITERAL DOORMAT. In 1991, on the eve of the first Gulf War, the Iraqi president decided to decorate the entrance way of a Baghdad luxury hotel called the Al Rashid with a mosaic of then president George H. W. Bush. Designed as an insult—visitors would have to walk on Bush’s face to enter the building—the mosaic was intentionally unflattering, with a twisted scowl and text reading “Bush is criminal” adoring the doormat.

PETTY DIDN’T SKIP A GENERATION. Then, in 2003, after Saddam Hussein’s defeat and capture, the next President Bush got the murderous dictator back when the US ordered that mosaic destroyed and another image, that of Hussein’s face, installed in its place. According to Fox News, American soldiers relished their unusual task of installing the piece. “Everybody walked over it and wiped their feet on it,” said Lieutenant Colonel Rick Schwartz, the battalion commander.

The 36th US president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, was a man of incredible ego. But as leadership expert John Baldoni tells Topic, acting from ego isn’t necessarily being petty.

‘BLOOD FEUD.’ There was one arena of total pettiness for LBJ, though, and that was his relationship with Bobby Kennedy. “It went back with the days Bobby was working with Senator Joseph McCarthy,” he says. “He didn’t stand up to acknowledge LBJ when they first met, and then [their bad relations] escalated.” This relationship has been termed by LBJ biographer Robert Caro as “perhaps the greatest blood feud of American politics in the twentieth century.”

So what happened, exactly? It wasn’t just that Bobby didn’t rush to shake LBJ’s hand. As Caro has detailed, LBJ seized the moment and forced Bobby to accept a crushing squeeze, in full view of the Senate cafeteria. From that meeting came more petty moments. Once, LBJ gave a shotgun with a violent recoil to Bobby, on purpose, just to see Bobby fall on the ground after firing the gun. After his brother’s assassination, Bobby took every opportunity to hurt LBJ, doing things like delaying the new president’s move into the Oval Office and coming late to cabinet meetings.

EPITAPH. The bad feelings morphed into such an intense hatred that when word came that Bobby had been shot, LBJ’s reported response was, “Is he dead yet?”

The former New Jersey governor has been the object of much public scorn, much of it unfairly related to the shape of his body. But he’s also one of American politics’ most Shakespearean characters: a man who has seen his fortunes fall due to his own acts of petty hubris.

CROSSING BRIDGEGATE. The most famous incident, of course, is the bridge imbroglio. In 2013, the then governor took the totally unnecessary and ill-conceived action of retaliating against the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, for not endorsing him in the previous election. This retaliation took the form, three weeks later, of closing down busy lanes on the George Washington Bridge under the flimsy pretext of a “traffic study,” causing massive backups and many raised middle fingers. It was the first day of school, and there were reports that even short trips were taking longer than four hours. People were pissed, emergency services were affected, and the Fort Lee mayor was helpless against the state’s actions.

By spring of 2015, whispers about the real reason for the road closures began to leak out. What had started as a minor, if annoying, incident became a multiyear scandal, resulting in the convictions of two top Christie aides. The man himself avoided being charged with a crime, but his political career never recovered. A fitting coda of petty, however, occurred in the twilight of his governorship, when in July 2017, another closure made the news.

BEACHGATE RISES. In this case, it was the closure of public beaches throughout the state thanks to a state-government shutdown. Enterprising reporters got wind that Christie was on vacation, and took some aerial shots of the man on one of the shuttered beaches, surrounded by his family and no one else, enjoying the warm day.

It’s hard to know where to begin with Donald J. Trump.

SMALL HANDS, PETTY HEART. His pettiness goes back decades—think, for instance, of when he promised the Metropolitan Museum of Art that he would donate some Art Deco panels on a historic building that he was razing, and then went back on that promise when he learned it would cost him $32,000 to safely remove them, saying, “The merit of these stones was not great enough to justify the efforts to save them.” (The budget of the construction project was around $100 million.)

COMMANDER IN CHIEF OF PETTY BRIGADE. But for the purposes of this list, let’s focus on some of Trump’s presidential pettiness. The death of John McCain was a low-water mark. The two men had clashed openly throughout Trump’s campaign, and when McCain provided the surprising vote denying Republicans the chance to gut Obamacare, Trump declared war through a series of nasty tweets. Though Trump issued a brief, vague tweet, saying his “deepest sympathies and respect” went out to McCain’s family following the senator’s death, the president also reportedly rejected a statement written by his staff that would refer to him as a “hero.” On the Monday following McCain’s death, flags in the capital remained at half-staff, which is normal when a sitting senator dies—but the White House flag was flying high, and the president ignored reporters’ questions about McCain.

Our forefathers fought for our right to be this petty. See the full list.

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