Those who hope to make their careers in the hurly-burly of US politics are wise to accept the accusations that come their way from political opponents as all part of the game. The best advice is to grow a thick skin and hope that most of the mud slides off.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has fair amount of mud thrown at him over the past few days, so much in fact that he’s practically wading through it. 70 year-old Mr Reid is the senior Democratic senator from Nevada, and is now a key player within President Obama’s government. You can imagine the zealous glee in which the media and his political opponents jumped on some comments he made in an apparently private conversation to journalists who were writing a book about the 2008 Presidential election campaign. Mr Reid attributed part of Mr Obama’s success to his being ‘light-skinned’ and having ‘no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one’, characteristics which made him more palatable to white voters.
Shouts of ‘racist!’ immediately filled the air and the airwaves. Is Mr Reid really a bigot? Was what he said actually a racist remark? During his long political career, there is not a shred of public or private evidence to suggest that Harry Reid is a racist. By all accounts, he has a very close and cordial working relationship with President Obama and other ethnic minority Democratic politicians. If we dispense with hysteria and name calling, and look at the content of his statement, we can see that it is roughly factual. Mr Obama does indeed have a lighter skin-tone than many African Americans because his mother was white. It is also true that he adopts a linguistic style more akin to the Martin Luther King-esque pulpit preacher when talking to a majority black audience, with all the religious imagery and lilting cadence that that involves. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Obama plays down this style down when he speaks to white or Latino audiences. There is nothing unusual or wrong with this; many politicians, most notably our very own Tony Blair, have different ways of speaking to different groups of people. The bone of contention with Reid’s statement lies in his use of the word ‘Negro’, but we are perhaps wise to regard this as a slip of the tongue, a poor choice of words, as Reid himself admitted. ‘Negro’ is rightly no longer an acceptable word in US society, deemed too close to the other despicable N-word. However, can Reid really be so harshly castigated for using the term when it still appears of the US Census form?
If Harry Reid is obviously not a racist, why has there been a huge stramash over his slip of the tongue? It can be boiled down to two things – the voracity of the media, and the shamelessness of Reid’s Republican opponents. Television media is by the far the most pervasive and influential part of the third estate in the US. It is dominated by the endless, all consuming pursuit of high ratings. Producers and editors figured out long ago that viewers are more likely to watch a piece about some juicy scandal, or a shouting match between two political opponents, rather than an in depth investigation of unrest in Iran or analysis of the healthcare debate. As a result, politicians are now relentlessly scrutinised and subjected to hails of criticism for even the slightest verbal slip or gaffe.
The Republicans have added fuel to this fire by demanding Reid’s resignation to avenge former Republic Senator Trent Lott, whom the Democrats forced to resign from his position as Senate Leader after he made a racist comment in 2002. Fair enough one might say, tit for tat and all that. Except anyone who claims any equivalence between what Lott said and what Reid said is being dishonest. At most, Reid is guilty of choosing his words poorly, rather than aiming to give offense. Lott, on the other hand, whilst attending the birthday party of famous (or infamous) US segregationist Strom Thurmond, said that he was proud of voting for segregation, and suggested that had that system been maintained, ‘we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years’. Sadly, dishonesty seems to be the Standard Operating Procedure of the Republican Party at the moment. Anger over Reid’s comments ran along party lines, not racial ones. The Republicans seem to be the only ones who have got their knickers in a twist over this, alongside the predictable media furore. Harry Reid shouldn’t resign, but should perhaps be more careful about how he phrases his thoughts from now on. Thanks to the relentless pressure of modern media, the gaffe prone politician will perhaps soon have to become an extinct creature in US politics.