Literally: I don't give a shit.
These kinds of inadvertent gaffes happen all the time in politics, and they generally fall into two camps: statements that are ill-considered but mainly harmless, and statements that are genuinely revealing of something the speaker believes. I think that Kerry's gaffe falls into the former category; his "botched joke" explanation rings perfectly true, given that the wording of the actual joke is so close to what actually came out of Kerry's mouth. Another famed example, I think, of gaffes that don't reflect what the speaker believes is Gerald Ford's "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" in his 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter; ditto the diastrous Ronald Reagan joke that we were about to start bombing Russia in five minutes.
Gaffes that are actually revealing of character? Well, Trent Lott's idiotic paean to Strom Thurmond leaps to mind, as does Dick Armey referring to Barney Frank as "Barney Fag". And of course, there's a third category: gaffes which were never gaffes at all, but which thanks to relentless pressing of talking points and a passive media that presents talking points as news, come to be seen as gaffes. Here we have Kerry's old "I voted for it before I voted against it", and Al Gore's "claim" that he had "invented the Internet".
So I don't give a shit about what John Kerry said. What I do care about is how much ink is being spilled over it, and the media's fascination with it. I actually don't have a problem with Republicans pounding it; that's the way the game is played. But it pisses me off that the media just lets this non-story become a huge story. Really: how much consideration should Kerry's tongue-tripping be given by a voter in, say, Virginia, when said voter comes to pull the lever for George Allen or Jim Webb? Obviously, none whatsoever.
Serious things are decided by our elections -- and yet, here we are, acting like kittens who have just seen a ball go bouncing by. Ugh.
UPDATE 11-3-06: In comments, Lynn states that she thinks Kerry was indeed voicing how he actually feels about the troops (i.e., that they're stupid). This is an unbelievable stretch, given that there is no evidence at all other than this gaffe that Kerry believes any such thing, and given that the actual prepared remarks of the speech contain the joke as it was supposed to have been read. What's more plausible, then? That Kerry simply mangled his prepared text, or that he mangled it in such a way as to reveal something simmering deep in his subconscious? Note that Kerry himself enlisted in the armed forces after graduating from an Ivy League institution, so it would be a bit odd for him to believe that enlisted men are dolts who only go into the armed forces because they can't do anything else.
On a related note, Kevin Drum notes how weird it is that so experienced a speaker as John Kerry would botch a prepared text like that. But that's not weird at all! Remember all those "blooper" shows that used to be on TV, all the time? The ones that would consist of nothing but clips of newsreaders mangling prepared texts that were right in front of them? Remember Ronald Reagan, when reading from a prepared text in greeting Prince Charles and his wife, addressing Diana, Princess of Wales, as "Princess David"? Remember George H.W. Bush, reading from a prepared text, tripping over the line "We've had setbacks" and saying instead, "We've had sex"? Remember the 1980 Democratic National Convention, when in his acceptance speech, Jimmy Carter paid tribute to a long line of historical Democrats, which went very nicely until he got to Hubert H. Humphrey and called him "Hubert Horatio Hornblower"?
People screw up prepared texts all the time, whether they're Great Communicators or tongue-tied peanut farmers. That's one reason public speaking scares so many people. That's why the scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral when the Anglican Priest completely bungles his first-ever trip through the marriage liturgy ("Father, Son, and Holy Spigot") is funny. That we're making this big a deal out of Kerry bungling his speech says far more about us than it does about John Kerry.
UPDATE II: I'm shutting off comments on this post now. There's really nothing useful to be gained in hashing over the degree to which John Kerry is an arrogant SOB, after all. He's not on any ballot this year, and should he end up on a ballot in 2008, nothing I say here is going to convince anyone that Kerry doesn't secretly loathe the men and women in our armed services.