The Decline of the Racist Insult

The Harry Reid scandal is entirely the creation of journalism. Reid will survive, but the press has a lot to answer for.

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.

On the other hand, even Lott’s Dixiecrat flub is unimpressive by historical standards. Racist remarks just aren’t what they used to be. In 1976, on an airplane, the singer Pat Boone asked Earl Butz, President Gerald Ford’s Secretary of Agriculture, why there were so few black Republicans. Butz replied that “the only things the coloreds are looking for in life is a tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit.” (Or, as the New York Times put it in Butz’s obituary in 2008, “satisfying sex, loose shoes, and a warm bathroom.”) Now that is what I call a racist remark. It was deliberate, insulting, vulgar, cruel. And it didn’t even answer the question. If all you wanted in life were these three items, the Republican party might be just your foot size.

Harry Reid will survive this scandal. If he is defeated for re-election in the fall, it won’t be because the voters of Nevada objected to his observation about President Obama’s skin tone. And maybe, if we’re really lucky, this episode will mark the beginning of the end of the age of Umbrage, when the basic move in the chess game of politics has been to take offense at something the other guy said.  The offense is phony—Republicans are delighted to have a stick to beat Harry Reid with, just as Democrats enjoyed the opportunity to wreck Trent Lott’s career. And even if it weren’t phony, the politics of umbrage trivializes civic discourse. We have more important things to talk about.

The press has a lot to answer for here. Journalists often make a lot out of a little, but usually there is a kernel of a real-life development in there somewhere. Even stone soup needs a stone. The Harry Reid story is especially remarkable for being entirely the creation of journalism. Reid spoke the fateful words in an interview with two reporters who, if they found his remarks shocking, nevertheless had the discipline to keep them quiet for months until their book came out. Or almost: Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic managed to get a copy of the book a few days ahead of its publication date. (Go, team!) At that point the Atlantic and the book’s authors had a shared interest in hyping the hell out of anything even faintly newsworthy. Soon the entire Washington news establishment (including me) had a vested interest in blowing this story out of proportion.

At least the other revelations in the book—concerning something Hillary Clinton allegedly said to President Obama, a dramatic gesture by Elizabeth Edwards, and so on—were things that would have happened even if there were no reporters with a book to write. They are trees that fell in the forest whether or not anyone was around to hear. Not so the Harry Reid quote. It is entirely the creation of the process of publicizing it.