Who knew a simple tuber could do so much damage?
In 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle was visiting Rivera Elementary School in Trenton, New Jersey, and jumped in to help facilitate a spelling bee. William Figueroa, age 12, was called to the board to demonstrate how to spell “potato.” With a stick of chalk and perfect penmanship, Figueroa carefully spelled the word correctly on the board. The student stepped back, satisfied—until the Veep himself urged the young man to tack another letter on to the end to make the spelling “correct.”
Despite the ensuing applause from the adults in the room, Figueroa knew he had spelled it correctly the first time. “I kept thinking, ‘How the hell did I spell ‘potato’ wrong?’” he later said.
What most people don’t know (or don’t remember) is that Quayle was looking at a flash card provided by the school that had the “correct” answer on it, spelled incorrectly. So, yes, Quayle did mess up—but so did the school.
Whether Quayle should have known better (yes) or the school should have known better (yes), that one little letter was the vowel heard ‘round the world, damaging Quayle's credibility and adding to the public's perception that the vice president wasn't the brightest crayon in the box. Quayle was embarrassed, of course. He later wrote in his memoir Standing Firm that “It was more than a gaffe. It was a ‘defining moment’ of the worst imaginable kind. I can’t overstate how discouraging and exasperating the whole event was.”