When Republican party chairman Michael Steele demanded the resignation of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid over some unfortunate remarks Reid made about Barack Obama, he neglected to even pretend to be offended. Reid told the authors of Game Change, a book about the 2008 political campaign, that Obama was “light-skinned” and “had no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one.” Steele is the Republican chairman and a good example of the maxim that there is no such thing as an un-famous black conservative. You’ve heard of every single one of them. This is partly because the Republican party and the conservative media put every black conservative on display like a trophy (“Y’see? We’ve got some too.”), and partly because the media of all political slants and none at all have a need for symmetry. African Americans may have voted overwhelmingly for President Obama and other Democrats, but if you’re a Sunday talk show producer putting together a panel, and you’ve got a black liberal, you need a black conservative for balance.
As many have pointed out, Reid’s comment was a “gaffe”—a statement that gets you in trouble because it’s true. The sense that Obama was a different kind of black politician—not part of the southern civil rights movement or the great migration north—may have made some African Americans suspicious (though I would like to meet a single black American who voted against him for this reason), but undoubtedly helped him among whites.
But even the black chairman of the Republican party could not bring himself to claim that he was offended by Reid’s remarks. Or maybe it didn’t even occur to him that he needed to claim offense in order for his call for Reid’s head to make any sense. Steele demanded Reid’s resignation on the grounds that Democrats had demanded the resignation of Republican Trent Lott back in 2002, when Lott celebrated the 150th birthday of Senator Strom Thurmond by saying that America would have been a lot better off if the South had won the Civil War. (Actually, Lott said that if America had voted for the southern segregationist Dixiecrats back in 1948, when Thurmond was their standard bearer, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems for all these years.” And it was only Thurmond’s 100th birthday.)
Indeed I read or heard of no one who was actually offended by Reid’s remarks. The disagreement about whether to take them seriously and force Reid to resign broke down entirely on party grounds, as opposed to racial ones. Every Republican pol from their chairman on down said he should resign, and every Democratic pol from Obama on down said he should stay. Even Al Sharpton, who will fly to the site of a racial misstatement like the FAA rushing to the scene of an air crash, decided to take a pass on this one. The Republican argument boiled down to sauce for the goose. Rules are rules, and the rule is, you commit a racial gaffe, you resign. The accusation was of a double standard. Democrats replied: this is different, because of intent and context. Trent Lott was saying America would be better off if it was still segregated by race. Reid’s remark, by contrast, was intended to praise Obama and clearly came in the context of wishing him well and hoping for his success.
What Lott’s remarks and Reid’s have in common is that both slipped out accidentally. Both men would take them back in a heartbeat if they could. And why can’t they? It’s one of the perversities of gaffe politics that you are held to anything you say, even if you know it’s a mistake as it comes out of your mouth, and even if your regret at having said it is patently sincere. The public, or at least the media, suspects that you only regret the gaffe because of the furor it has caused: that your slip of the tongue revealed your true nature or beliefs. But nothing in Reid’s past or in his remark itself gives any reason to suspect he’s a racist. The same cannot be said of Trent Lott.