Harry and Trent: A Tale of Two Gaffes

January 12, 2010

I’ve been kind of absent from the blogosphere recently, except for my weekly Magical Words posts. The “Robin Hood” project was pretty consuming, and I just haven’t had much time to comment on politics or sports or life itself. I’m finally finished, though, and, it seems, just in time. It’s as if in the last week or so the entire world has gone crazy. The Baseball Hall of Fame vote, Mark McGwire’s non-admission admission of steroid use, the tragic deaths of the CIA operatives in Afghanistan.

And, of course, the craziness surrounding the release of the book GAME CHANGE and the revelation that early in the 2008 campaign, Harry Reid said in private that [mostly paraphrasing here] Barack Obama was an ideal African-American candidate because he was “light-skinned” and spoke “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Since the book’s release, Republicans have been equating Reid’s remarks with racially insensitive statements made by then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott in 2002, and have been accusing Democrats and progressives of having a double standard when it comes to racial gaffes of this sort.

In my mind these are two separate matters, and they need to be addressed as such.

Let’s start by looking more closely at the comparison between Lott’s remarks and Reid’s. What Harry Reid said is certainly “inartful” to use the President’s word. It could even be called offensive or at the very least insensitive. It was also, at root, true. Anyone who doesn’t believe that Barack Obama was more successful than previous African-American Presidential candidates because his mother was white and because he speaks without the inflections stereotypically associated with African-American men, is kidding himself. Should Reid have said this? Probably not. But he did so in a private conversation, and while his words were awkward, they were not outrageous.

Compare that with Lott’s statement. Speaking on December 5, 2002, at a public celebration of Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday, Lott, a Mississippi Republican, said this:

When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we [the state of Mississippi] voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years, either.

Thurmond ran for President in 1948 as a Dixiecrat, on a strict segregationist platform. In essence, Lott was embracing racist views that Thurmond himself had long since repudiated. If we take him at his word, he actually believed that electing a segregationist in 1948 would have made this country a better place. That’s not “inartful”. That’s not awkward. That is bigotry — unvarnished, raw, shocking. Equating Reid’s remarks with Lott’s is utterly ridiculous, and those who are doing so for political gain ought to be ashamed of themselves.

But what about that second point. Is there a double-standard when it comes to racially insensitive remarks? Is a Republican who says something stupid more likely to be accused of racism than a Democrat who does the same?
To paraphrase Fox News’ newest analyst, “You betchya!”

My question is, why shouldn’t they be?

Let’s look at Reid and Lott again. Reid has been a stalwart supporter of Civil Rights throughout his career. He has been a supporter of affirmative action, of Federal hate crimes legistation, of aid to minority and women owned small businesses. His voting record rating from the NAACP is consistently above 90%.

Trent Lott, on the other hand, opposed the creation of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, opposed affirmative action, and opposed renewal of both the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. The NAACP consistently rated him well below twenty percent.

Is it any wonder that progressive African-Americans are more inclined to give Reid the benefit of the doubt on this occasion? Even if you think his remarks are offensive, there can be no denying that they stand at odds with everything he has stood and fought for in his years of public service. On the other hand, Lott’s remarks, even if cast in the most favorable light possible, reinforced his longstanding record as an opponent of racial justice and equality. There is a double standard. Absolutely. By consistently positioning themselves against Civil Rights over the past forty years, Republicans have earned it and then some.

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One Response to “Harry and Trent: A Tale of Two Gaffes”

  1. Well said!

    While it’s true our actions speak louder than our words, those same actions can also augment our words making them louder, sometimes louder than we intended and sometimes louder than they deserve to be.  

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