Sunday, January 17, 2010

Not So Wild About Harry (Updated)

Latest Newspaper Column (Director's Cut):

I find myself in a somewhat strange position when writing about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his recent "gaffe."

In case you hadn't heard, a recent tell-all book about the 2008 presidential campaign quotes Reid as saying that Barack Obama could be elected president because he is a "light-skinned" African-American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

Republicans immediately jumped on the statement, started clutching their pearls, and began having attacks of the vapors as only they can.

They acted as if Reid had appeared in blackface at the Democratic National Convention and made jokes about stealing watermelons. Every Republican from RNC Chairman Michael Steele on down demanded, at the very least, Reid's immediate resignation.

This puts me in an odd situation, because, you see, I've never had a whole lot of use for Harry Reid. He's one of those Democrats that I describe as 'Republican Lite." He's anti-choice and thinks Roe v. Wade should be overturned. He voted in 2003 for Dubbya's War. Anyone who'd call Harry Reid a "liberal" can immediately be dismissed as an ignoramus.

I hadn't thought anyone could be more useless and spineless as Reid was as minority leader, until he became majority leader, where he continues to act as if he's afraid of the Republicans, even though his party has the majority. When I read a few weeks ago that Reid might be having trouble holding on to his seat, my first reaction was, "Good. Let's get a majority leader with a backbone."

But when this started becoming the scandal du jour, I found myself in the same position that I was in during the presidential election in regards to Hillary Clinton. As you may remember, I had little use for Mrs. Clinton then, but some of the attacks on her, like the whole brouhaha over whether she left a tip at a diner or the fretting about whether she showed too much cleavage at some campaign function, were just too silly not to make fun of.

Here, likewise, there are plenty of reasons I'd like to see Harry Reid gone, but this is just silly.

The thing is, I haven't heard from a single black person, even Michael Steele, who's said they're personally offended by Reid's statement. President Obama (whom Reid supported during the election) accepted Reid's apology and has said he considers the matter closed. Dear Lord, even Al Sharpton hasn't gotten indignant, and he gets indignant about everything.

No, the entire Republican argument is based on that most cherished of Republican values: payback.

The argument, such as it is, goes that Reid should step down because Trent Lott had to step down for his own racial remarks back in 2002. Lott, you may remember, was majority leader back in the days when the GOP brain trust was smugly looking forward to a "permanent Republican majority."

At a 100th birthday party given for South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, Lott crowed that "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 all these years!"

Now, people had a problem with this because Thurmond's presidential campaign was explicitly based on white supremacy and opposition to desegregation and civil rights. Lott was nostalgically endorsing a campaign in which Thurmond gave a speech saying, "There's not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches."

That's the sort of "problem" Lott was saying we could have avoided had we only voted Strom in. And remember, it wasn't just Democrats criticizing Lott. Even President George Dubbya Bush called Lott's comments "offensive and wrong." That, more than anything else, is what sealed Lott's fate.

Certainly what Reid said was boneheaded and insensitive, not to mention archaic (does anyone even use the word "Negro" seriously anymore?) But it's not a double standard to distinguish between saying, "You know, that guy doesn't sound black" and saying, "Doggone, wouldn't things have been a lot better if we'd elected a president who'd have vetoed civil rights legislation for black people and kept them out of the theaters, swimming pools, and churches?"

I wouldn't mind seeing Harry Reid return to Nevada. But not for this.


Frank Rich's Op_Ed at the NYT sheds some light on what might be Steele's real motivation:

On Jan. 9 The Washington Post ran a front-page article headlined “Frustrations With Steele Leaving G.O.P. in a Bind,” reporting, among other embarrassments, that the party had spent $90 million during Steele’s brief reign while raising just $84 million. Enter “Game Change,” right in the nick of time for Steele to pull off his own cunning game change. On Jan. 10 he stormed “Fox News Sunday” and “Meet the Press” to demand Reid’s head. There has been hardly a mention of Steele’s sins since. He can laugh all the way to the bank.

His behavior is not anomalous. Steele is representative of a fascinating but little noted development on the right: the rise of buckrakers who are exploiting the party’s anarchic confusion and divisions to cash in for their own private gain. In this cause, Steele is emulating no one if not Sarah Palin, whose hunger for celebrity and money outstrips even his own.