Commentary: Racial comments prove Steele, Reid aren’t so different |

Commentary: Racial comments prove Steele, Reid aren’t so different

Dana Milbank
The Washington Post

So Michael Steele thinks Harry Reid should watch his mouth. Honest Injun.

Reid, the Senate majority leader, is in trouble yet again over a verbal gaffe, this time for praising Barack Obama as a “light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Now, just in time for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the political world is off to the race races again: Republicans condemning Reid’s insensitivity, Democrats circling the wagons, and both showing a good bit of hypocrisy. Reid went before the cameras on Monday to affirm that he’d “apologized to everyone in the sound of my voice that I could have used a better choice of words.”

But what makes this particular brawl unusual is the man leading the demand for Reid to quit as Senate Democratic leader: Republican National Committee Chairman Steele, who just a week ago was in trouble for a variety of verbal slips, including his “Injun” slur.

The Steele cage match has pitted against each other two of the biggest and most dangerous mouths in Washington, both prone to unpredictable and ruinous outbursts. Their fight is a World Series of the word-challenged, a Grand Slam event on the U.S. Pro Gaffer Tour.

Steele accusing Reid of careless racial talk is the pot calling the kettle black – a phrase, for would-be accusers, that comes from Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.”

Just a week ago, Steele was on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show promoting his new book when he declared that the GOP platform “is one of the best political documents that’s been written in the last 25 years. Honest Injun on that.” Native American groups were not pleased with the African American party chairman.

The next morning, Steele was on NBC’s “Today” show:

Meredith Vieira: “A lot of people thought that you’d be toast by now. What happened?”

Steele: “Well, brother’s still here kicking.”

Vieira: “Brother’s still here?”

Steele: “Brother’s still here, yeah.”

Steele had earlier raised eyebrows when, in a radio interview, he offered some “slum love” to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, linking the Indian American politician to the film “Slumdog Millionaire.” He also speculated, unhelpfully, that the GOP base rejected Mitt Romney “because it had issues with Mormonism.”

Then there was the time Steele sat down with bloggers and said he would reach out to “diverse” audiences by saying “Y’all come!” and “I got the fried chicken and potato salad!” That may be what Steele had in mind when he promised to reach “urban-suburban hip-hop settings” as part of his “off the hook” party-building effort. He joked that white Republicans were “scared” of him.

In fairness, Steele’s foot-in-mouth disease isn’t limited to issues of ethnicity. He got in trouble with party faithful for calling Rush Limbaugh “incendiary” and “ugly.” He created trouble when he started at the RNC by spending $18,500 redecorating his office, which he had called “way too male for me.”

Steele’s mouth has been causing problems for the rest of him since at least 2006, when as a Senate candidate in Maryland he referred to his Republican “R” as a “scarlet letter” and a “hurdle I have to overcome.” In recent days, the party chairman acknowledged on television that he doesn’t think Republicans can take over the House this year, saying “I don’t know” if the party is ready to govern.

That self-injury came only a couple of weeks after Steele, in a news conference, blurted out: “I’m tired of the Congress thumbing their nose and flipping a bird to the American people.”

Flipping the bird? Steele came in for fierce criticism for that one – from Harry Reid, who declared himself “worried about an example being set by a party leader with something so obscene.”

Steele has a worthy adversary in Reid, who was racking up verbal mishaps long before his “Negro dialect” dialectic. He called the chairman of the Federal Reserve a “hack,” President George W. Bush a “loser,” the war in Iraq “lost,” a Supreme Court justice an “embarrassment,” and Capitol tourists smelly. A former boxer, Reid challenged his opponents to “go behind the pool hall” to settle a dispute. He once predicted it would take a “miracle” for Democrats to gain control of the Senate.

Reid’s gaffes became so numerous that aides limited his news conferences and appearances on talk shows. But his mouth could not be stopped. Last month, Reid went to the Senate floor and likened opponents of health-care legislation to slaveholders and racists who opposed civil rights. Republicans are using the “same excuses” and “same filibuster threats,” he argued.

Steele, in a TV interview, demanded that Reid retract the accusation, saying he is “sick and tired” of Democrats’ tendency to “play that race card.”

A month later, Steele is the one playing the race card – against Reid. “Racism and racist conversations have no place in America!” he said Sunday on “Meet the Press,” calling for Reid to resign.

It was an artful flip of the bird, from one Pro Gaffer to another.