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For Reid, Motive Does Matter

A Commentary By Joe Conason

Friday, January 15, 2010

If Harry Reid's private remarks about the skin tone and speaking style of Barack Obama were offensive, the Republican crusade to oust him from his leadership position is worse. For Republicans to claim that he deserves the punishment inflicted on Trent Lott -- the former Republican majority leader forced to resign because of a racial gaffe -- shows their bad faith and their misunderstanding of the GOP's own troubled racial history.

What did Reid say that outraged these racially sensitive Republicans? In a background interview, the majority leader suggested that electing Obama as the nation's first African-American president was likelier because he is "light-skinned" and speaks with no "Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one."

However ineptly expressed, those observations about the president's racial identity -- and the way that white voters perceive him -- are truisms that have been widely discussed both within and outside the black community. Although "Negro" is now considered archaic, Reid's use of that term implied no hostility to black Americans and no nostalgia for the racist past.

So after hearing the Nevada senator apologize for his choice of words, which sounded especially inappropriate coming from an older white man, the nation's black leaders have publicly forgiven him, explaining that his career record on civil rights and racial tolerance is unblemished from their point of view.

He "has been a stalwart champion of voting rights, civil rights," the president noted in a CNN interview. "This is a good man who has always been on the right side of history. For him to have used some inartful language in trying to praise me and for people to try and make hay out of that makes absolutely no sense."

Case closed, as far as Obama and the leadership of the civil rights community are concerned. Yet that verdict has not discouraged the Republicans, whose insistence on comparing Reid to Lott only reflects poorly on them. The Republicans complain about a "double standard" that permits Reid to survive politically while Lott was forced to walk the plank. But the circumstances aren't alike or even similar. The easiest way to understand the difference is to recall the Lott utterance precisely -- and to place it within its real context.

The occasion was a birthday party for Strom Thurmond, the centenarian senator from South Carolina who has since passed to his reward. Lott took the microphone to make a few congratulatory remarks, recalling Thurmond's third-party presidential campaign in 1948 (whose slogan was "Segregation Forever!"), which led to his departure from the Democratic Party. "When (Thurmond) ran for president, we voted for him," said Lott, then the Senate majority leader. "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."

That vile statement echoed similar public comments that Lott had made more than two decades earlier at a Reagan presidential rally -- and highlighted the Mississippi senator's long and intimate relationship with racist and ultra-right organizations such as the Council of Conservative Citizens.

When videotape of the Lott speech first aired, several prominent conservatives leapt to his defense. They soon retreated as revulsion spread within their own ranks. Neither Democrats nor the "liberal media" could have ousted Lott had The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, The Washington Times and finally President Bush not abandoned him. While protesting that Lott should not have to be sacrificed to "political correctness," they simply could not afford to keep him. He had to go because he represented a strain of prejudice that has infected his party for decades, despite the best efforts of decent Republicans to extirpate it.

Today, the Republican National Committee has a black chairman, but even he still plays games with race. Listening to phony expressions of outrage over the word "Negro" by the Republicans, including RNC chair Michael Steele, is an insult to every American's intelligence. Do they think everyone has forgotten how Rush Limbaugh repeatedly mocked President Obama on radio as "the magic Negro"? That didn't disturb any of the politicians and pundits who now angrily demand the head of Harry Reid. Their nasty hypocrisy is far more shameful than his clumsy sincerity.

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