If Harry Reid's defenders are right that he was really doling out compliments, then I sure don't want to be around when he starts hurling insults.
If nothing else, the Senate majority leader has impressive damage-control skills. Of course, when you do as much damage as he does with careless and insensitive remarks, you get a lot of practice.
According to the new book "Game Change" by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Reid said privately during last year's election campaign that Barack Obama could win because he is "light-skinned" and speaks "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." In a hurriedly prepared statement, the Nevada Democrat apologized for "using such a poor choice of words." President Obama accepted Reid's apology, though he called the comments "unfortunate." Eric Holder, the nation's first African-American attorney general, said the remarks were "unfortunate" but that he didn't think "there is a prejudiced bone in (Reid's) body." Then there was the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members are known for putting politics before the interests of the folks they claim to represent. The CBC assures us that Reid is good people and that all is forgiven.
What a relief. Here I thought Reid made comments that were racist and condescending.
The part about how Obama doesn't speak with a "dialect" rang a bell. Years ago, while I was covering an anti-immigration protest in Phoenix, one of the protesters recognized the name on my press ID, referred to me as "Senor," and commented that I spoke "good English." "Yes," I said. "It's my mother tongue. Besides, most Ivy League graduates speak good English." Now here was Harry Reid wondering why another Ivy League graduate — a former president of the Harvard Law Review, for crying out loud — didn't converse in Ebonics.
It's interesting that Obama and Holder both used the word "unfortunate" to describe Reid's comments. So did White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
The 70-year-old Reid has been in unfortunate scrapes before due to racially inappropriate remarks.
It was unfortunate when Reid accused Senate Republicans of being on the wrong side of history by opposing health care reform. Reid compared it to those who fought the abolition of slavery — even though the Republican Party was born out of an opposition to slavery and it's the Democratic Party that has the spotty history on race relations.
It was unfortunate when Reid opposed then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's selection of Roland Burris to fill Obama's former Senate seat over the objection of Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who warned of the implications of Reid and other Senate leaders standing in the way of seating the nation's only black senator.
It was also unfortunate when, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, Reid allegedly tried to convince Blagojevich that other possible replacements — Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., Rep. Danny Davis and state Sen. Emil Jones — were unacceptable because they might not win re-election. All three are African-American.
Reid is lucky to be a Democrat since that party gets the benefit of the doubt on racial issues. If he were a Republican, Reid could wind up in the Senate Hall of Shame alongside the late Sen. Jesse Helms and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.
Helms went after an African-American opponent with a TV ad showing white hands holding a job rejection letter while an announcer laments that the employers had to give the job "to a minority because of a racial quota." And Lott wished Sen. Strom Thurmond a happy 100th birthday by suggesting that America would not "have had all these problems over the years" had the Dixiecrat been elected president in 1948.
Republicans want Reid to resign his leadership post. He won't do it, and Democrats won't force him. No matter. He's up for re-election this year, and he's in free fall. More than half of Nevadans are unhappy with Reid, according to a new poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Still, Reid's racial gaffes shouldn't be excused away so easily or so quickly. As liberal critics of Helms and Lott went to great lengths to remind us, it matters that our elected leaders be people of good character who don't see others as beneath them. From the sound of it, that's not Harry Reid.
Now that's unfortunate.
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THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE