Wild about Harry



In the ongoing matter of Harry Reid, it has long been established that the beleaguered Senate majority leader occasionally stomps on his tongue, impolitically so. He himself has acknowledged this. On page 20 of his 2008 memoir, he recounted an incident when he had foolishly run his mouth, and then he remarked, "Could I have couched my words more carefully? Maybe...I speak bluntly...This has not always served me well, but it is who I am. I can be no one else."

So Harry was certainly being Harry, as quoted in the new book Game Change, when he lauded the presidential prospects of then-Senator Barack Obama several years ago by describing the future candidate as a "light-skinned" guy who had "no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." Reid was arguing that Obama would therefore be acceptable to a significant percentage of white voters, but we can all agree that he could have couched his words more carefully. Yeeesh, "Negro?" I think that word went out of affirmative fashion around the time that the Beatles stopped touring.

But leave it to the Republicans to go overboard. In recent days, they have been demanding that Reid resign his Senate leadership post - just as their man, Trent Lott, was compelled to resign his Senate leadership post back in December 2002 after making some remarks deemed offensive to blacks. The Republicans purport to believe that the two incidents are exactly the same, that what was good for Lott should be good for Reid, and that any argument to the contrary is tantamount to a "double standard."

The GOP stance is actually the belly laugh of the week - at least until Sunday night, when Ricky Gervais hosts the Golden Globe Awards.

Let's start by comparing the Lott and Reid remarks. You've already seen the Reid quote. Here is what Mississippian Trent Lott said on Dec. 5, 2002, while praising former segegrationist presidential candidate Strom Thurmond on his 100th birthday, at a Capitol Hill event broadcast on C-SPAN:

"I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president (in 1948), 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 all these years, either."

In 1948, 87 percent of all Mississippi voters supported Thurmond, whose Dixiecrat candidacy was grounded on the principle of racial segregation (or, as Thurmond himself declared back in '48, "All the laws of Washington, and all the bayonets of the Army, cannot force the Negro into our homes, our churches, and our places of recreation"). Yet here was Lott, 54 years later, insisting that he was still "proud" of Thurmond's presidential bid, and that if only the rest of America had felt the same, there wouldn't be "all these problems."

And now we're supposed to believe that Reid's remarks are equivalent to Lott's remarks? The opposite is closer to the truth. Reid expressed himself badly while making the case for electing an African American to the presidency; Lott expressed himself badly while waxing nostalgic for a time when African Americans couldn't even share places of recreation, much less run for national office.

Context is also important here. Reid may have spoken clumsily, but he has a long history, in Washington and Nevada, of working for minorities - which is one big reason why civil rights groups are shrugging off his impolitic remarks. Lott, by contrast, took a serious hit on his Strom Thurmond nostalgia because those remarks were merely the latest manifestation of his racial intolerance.

Lott had once given an interview to Southern Partisan, a magazine that celebrated the Old Confederacy; in that interview, he said that the national GOP embraces the same things "that Jefferson Davis and his people believed in," referring to the Confederate president whose soldiers fought to defend slavery. On another occasion, he sought in a speech to woo support from the Council of Conservative Citizens, a southern group whose most prominent members were known to be proponents of white supremacy and foes of interracial marriage. Lott told his listeners that they "stand for the right principles and right philosophy." He later distanced himself from the group in time to run for re-election in 2000.

President Bush and his chief strategist, Karl Rove, engineered Lott's downfall within 15 days of his Strom remarks because they well understood that the spectacle of a Dixiecrat-friendly Senate leader would further alienate blacks from the GOP. By contrast, President Obama and other Democrats are sticking with Reid today because they know that, despite his quoted remarks, he is well within the contemporary mainstream on racial issues. (And besides, the Democrats can't afford any intramural Senate turmoil, not with health care reform on the cusp of passage.)

Moreover, Reid's underlying point has been largely overlooked. What he said so badly was basically true: Political scientists have concluded in studies that white voters favor light-skinned black candidates, and a 1999 article in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology reported widespread "negative reactions" to what linguists now call "black or African-American vernacular English." Reid was essentially acknowledging the political reality that candidate Obama might appeal to whites because he spoke in a way that could make whites feel comfortable.

And as for Reid's suggestion that Obama might adopt the "dialect" only if he "wanted to have one," Obama himself has said much the same thing. In 2005, Obama told The Chicago Tribune: "I know if I'm in an all-black audience that there's going to be a certain rhythm coming back at me from the audience...That creates a different rhythm in your speaking."

So, on the one hand, we have Harry Reid, civil rights supporter, trying and failing to navigate the nuances of contemporary racial politics; on the other hand, we had Trent Lott, a fan of Jefferson Davis, pining in public for the good old days of Jim Crow. And the Republicans somehow think that these are the same?