It’s beg your pardon time as politicos trip over lips

Posted Jan. 15, 2010, at 7:06 p.m.

Two stories on the same page of the Tuesday morning newspaper suggested a couple of things to readers: 1) The double standard in politics remains alive and well; and 2) Politicians operating with no adult supervision can sure say some dumb things.

The first story reported that President Barack Obama had accepted the apology of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for comments Reid made during the 2008 presidential campaign as newly reported in the book “Game Change.”

Reid had described Obama as a gifted candidate who was a “light-skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Predictably, that sent Washington’s chattering class into a tizzy. Republican critics — adept at recognizing a fat home run pitch when they see one lobbed their way — called for Reid to step down as majority leader.

If a prominent Republican had made those remarks, Democrats surely would be calling for his head on a platter, the critics charged. If this wasn’t a textbook example of a double standard it would suffice until something better popped up.

But the president, with an eye toward preventing the controversy from sabotaging health care legislation, magnanimously let Reid off the hook. The majority leader was merely trying to praise him, however inartfully, Obama said. His remarks may have been inappropriate, but they were not mean-spirited. Potential offendee had exonerated alleged offender, and the book could now be considered closed, Obama suggested.

Well, not quite. If Obama wasn’t offended, plenty of blacks were, and said so for the record. Republicans seemed happy to add the incident to a growing bill of particulars against Reid that they hope will cost the majority leader his Senate seat in the November election, and Senate Democrats their 60-seat supermajority.

A second news story in Tuesday’s paper sporting the same theme of politician’s foot-in-mouth disease reported that ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich had also apologized — presumably to Obama, as well as to blacks in general — for boasting in the February issue of Esquire magazine that will hit newsstands on Tuesday that he is “blacker” than the president.

Blagojevich — driven from office for, among other things, allegedly trying to sell Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder — reportedly attempts to portray himself in the article as a staunch ally of the black community by telling the writer, “I’m blacker than Barack Obama. I shined shoes. I grew up in a five-room apartment. My father had a little laundromat in a black community not far from where we lived. I saw it all growing up.”

In his apology, Blagojevich acknowledged that what he said was “stupid, stupid, stupid. I deeply apologize for the way that it was said, and for having said it. Obviously, I am not blacker than President Obama.”

The Blagojevich and Reid failures to engage their brains before putting their mouths into gear are only the latest in a string of such racially provocative lapses of judgment. Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi was forced to step down as majority leader in 2002 after appearing to have endorsed segregation in his praise of old-time segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.

According to The New York Times, the National Republican Senatorial Committee recently circulated comments that Reid allegedly had made at the time of the Lott controversy. “If you tell ethnic jokes in the back room, it’s that much easier to say ethnic things publicly,” Reid had said then. “I’ve always practiced how I play.”

Three years ago, then-Sen. Joe Biden, the Delaware Democrat who would become Obama’s vice president, apologized to Obama after offering his version of inartful praise. Biden had characterized the future president as “The first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”

As Monday’s national holiday honoring slain civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. looms, one wonders what the man who gave his life in pursuit of his dream of racial equality might have made of it all.

I’m guessing he would have inspired the slow learners among us to do better, and he would have done it eloquently and without need of apology the morning after.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.net.

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