By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services
There’s no such thing as an “off-the-record” comment. That’s usually one of the first lessons any politician learns. But poor Harry Reid had to learn it the hard way.
After 44 years in politics, Senate Majority Leader Reid should have known better than to expect his “off-the-record” comments about Barack Obama to stay off the record. Instead, they exploded in his face as one of the juiciest tidbits served up by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann in their new book, “Game Change.” Reid told the authors early in 2008 he was confident Obama would do well at the head of the national ticket because he was “light-skinned” and didn’t speak with a “Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
Ironically, as Halperin revealed on my radio show, Reid was actually trying to praise Obama. In fact, Halperin and Heilemann walked out of their meeting believing their big scoop was that Reid, while publicly neutral in the primary, had encouraged Obama to run for president and was privately supporting him — in order to block the nomination of Hillary Clinton.
But it was Reid’s use of the words “light-skinned” and “Negro” that got all the attention. Reid immediately called President Obama to apologize, and Obama accepted his apology, but that didn’t stop Republicans Michael Steele, Jon Kyl and John Cornyn from calling Reid a racist and demanding that he resign — comparing his fate to that of an earlier, Republican majority leader. It’s just like Trent Lott, they insisted. If Lott had to resign because of unfortunate remarks he made, then so should Reid. And the fact that Democrats weren’t also demanding Reid’s head on a silver platter, fumed John McCain, represented a “stunning double standard.”
Oh, please. Don’t insult our intelligence. The two aren’t even close.
Anybody with half a brain can see there’s a big difference between Trent Lott and Harry Reid. Back in December 2002, presiding over arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday, Lott bragged: “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we 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.”
Off the cuff or not, Lott was clearly saying we’d all be better off if Thurmond had defeated Harry Truman in 1948 and presumably carried out the agenda he laid forth when announcing for president: “And I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the “n—-” race into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches.”
By contrast, Reid encouraged America’s first African-American president to run for the job, campaigned for him, and has been his chief ally in Congress since Obama got to the White House. In other words, Reid was supporting a black man for president; Lott was supporting a white supremacist. How can anybody compare the two?
Nor, by the way, is “Negro” a racist term. It’s inartful. It’s awkward. It’s right out of the ’50s. But it’s not racist. Just ask anybody connected with the United Negro College Fund, still thriving today. Checking the word “Negro” is also offered as an option, under race, on the 2010 Census form.
There’s one other important difference between Reid and Lott. President Obama immediately accepted Harry Reid’s apology and vowed to move on. But, to this day, President George W. Bush has not uttered one word of forgiveness for Trent Lott. Why not? Because he knew that what Lott said was so repulsive.
In the end, while he did phrase it clumsily, Harry Reid wasn’t suggesting anything different than what most political commentators were saying: that Americans might not be ready to elect any African-American as president, they were ready to elect Barack Obama — because he was such an attractive and articulate candidate.
Colin Powell, in fact, who supported Obama for president, said the same thing about himself. When asked in 1995 to explain his appeal to white Americans, Powell explained: “I speak reasonably well, like a white person. And I ain’t that black.”
Harry Reid was right. What worked for Colin Powell worked for Barack Obama.
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