The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes, National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru, and Power Line's Paul Mirengoff are among the conservatives to recently reject comparisons trumpeted by other right-wing media figures of Sen. Harry Reid's controversial comments about President Obama to former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's past comments in support of Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential campaign. Hayes, Ponnuru, and Mirengoff join several civil rights leaders and other media figures in rejecting that comparison.
Some conservatives reject comparison of Reid's comments to Lott's
2008: Reid reportedly said that he "believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate" like Obama who is "a 'light-skinned' African American 'with no Negro dialect.' " In their book on the 2008 election, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin reported that Reid was enthusiastic about then-Sen. Obama's potential candidacy to challenge then-Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. Heilemann and Halperin reported that Reid's "encouragement of Obama was unequivocal. He was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama -- a 'light-skinned' African American 'with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,' as he later put it privately." From Heilemann's and Halperin's Game Change:
Years later, Reid would claim that he was steadfastly neutral in the 2008 race; that he never chose sides between Barack and Hillary; that all he did was tell Obama that he "could be president," that "the stars could align for him." But at the time, in truth, his encouragement of Obama was unequivocal. He was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama -- a "light-skinned" African American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one," as he later put it privately.
Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama's race would help him more than it hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination. (pages 35-36)
2002: Lott declared that the U.S. "wouldn't have had all these problems" if Thurmond's segregationist presidency campaign had been successful. In 2002, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) reportedly said of Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign -- which Thurmond conducted on a segregationist platform: "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had of followed our lead we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either." Lott resigned his leadership in 2002 following the comment, but Republicans elected him as Senate minority whip in 2006.
Many conservatives in the media decried a "double standard" because Democrats criticized Lott. As Media Matters for America documented, numerous conservatives in the media accused Democrats of having a "double standard" for defending Reid's comments after criticizing Lott in 2002.
Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes: Reid's comments are "different in substance" from the "offensive," "racist" comment by Lott. During the January 11 edition of Fox News' Special Report, Stephen Hayes noted that he "[thought] Republicans are making a mistake" by making the comparison between Reid's and Lott's comments because "they're different in substance." He added that "The plain meaning of Trent Lott's words was offensive and it was racist," and said that Reid's remark "doesn't rise to the same level."
Ramesh Ponnuru: Reid comments aren't "within a lightyear" of Lott comments. In a January 11 post to his Washington Post blog, Ramesh Ponnuru wrote:
Republicans and conservatives are comparing Harry Reid's comment about "Negro dialect" to Trent Lott's remark about how we would have avoided a lot of problems if Strom Thurmond had been elected. Just as Republicans turned on Lott and forced him to give up the Senate majority leadership, they say, so Democrats should turn on Reid and make him resign his post.
But the comparison is off the mark. Lott's comment implied that the country would have been better off keeping segregation and enforced white supremacy. What Reid said isn't within a lightyear of that.
Power Line blog's Mirengoff: GOP chairman Steele "and many others are wrong to equate Reid's comment with Lott's." In a January 10 post on the conservative blog Power Line, titled "Harry Reid and Trent Lott -- A Specious Comparison," Paul Mirengoff wrote:
[Republican National Committee chairman Michael] Steele is correct that there is a double standard in these matters, but he and many others are wrong to equate Reid's comment with Lott's. Trent Lott lauded the presidential candidacy of an avowed segregrationist, suggesting that things would have gone better if that candidate had been elected. His comments were normative and, if he meant what he said, racist because they implied that segregration was preferable to integration. We condemned Lott at the time.
Reid was not discussing who should be elected president. He was merely commenting on Barack Obama's viability as a presidential candidate. His view was that Obama's race would not hurt him with voters who might be disinclined to elect a black man because he is light-skinned and able to talk white, as they say. I strongly suspect that many politicians and pundits made similar sorts of assessments. Even if incorrect, they are not improper, provided one is assessing how others might vote, as opposed to deciding to vote one's self.
Reid's analysis was a bit crude. The main thing that differentiated Obama from unsuccessful candidates like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton was his ability to employ moderate-sounding rhetoric, not his skin-tone and "dialect." But it isn't racist to believe that these two characteristics would also help differentiate Obama to his benefit, as indeed they may have done.
Ponnuru, Hayes, Mirengoff join media figures, NAACP, Sharpton in rejecting comparison
Al Sharpton: "What Harry Reid said is nowhere near comparable to saying you wish a segregationist had been the president." On Fox & Friends, Sharpton said Reid's words were "very poorly chosen" but that his comments are "nowhere near comparable" to Lott's because Lott "commended a Dixiecrat for running for office, who left the Democratic Party to run to fight integration." From the January 11 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:
SHARPTON: I was offended by the reference of "negro dialect." I think, though, to say that what he said is anywhere near comparable as your last guest, to what Trent Lott said, is insulting to the intelligence of the American people. Trent Lott commended a Dixiecrat for running for office, who left the Democratic Party to run to fight integration. How do you compare Trent Lott saying that I wish this guy -- we'd had those days where blacks would have been at the back of the bus, because that's what the guy was running on -- to a guy saying why a black could be elected president.
Now, he said it in an insensitive way, but he's electing a black president, compared to a guy that was saying, "I wish this guy would have won that would have kept blacks in segregation." I mean, come on. This is outrageous.
DOOCY: Do you see -- do you see when people say, well, there's clearly a double standard, because all the Democrats just said, OK, we apologize -- you apologized --
SHARPTON: How could it be a double standard when you're comparing something that is an offensive, race-based analysis --
DOOCY: But remember, you just said you found his comment to be offensive.
SHARPTON: If you said to me, Reverend Sharpton, you are a word -- and used the racial term -- that's racist and offensive. If you said Reverend Sharpton, you've been overweight, I would be offended, but it's not the same thing. What Harry Reid said is nowhere near comparable to saying you wish a segregationist had been the president. In fact, he was saying the opposite. He was talking about why a black could be the president.
Jonathan Capehart: People making Reid-Lott comparisons are "getting it all wrong." On MSNBC's Way Too Early, Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart similarly argued that people comparing Reid's comments to Lott's are "getting it all wrong. Strom Thurmond was a segregationist candidate. Senator Lott at the time said -- was seen whispering that we wouldn't have all these problems if Strom Thurmond had won that presidential election. That has all sorts of negative implications for the country, and particularly for African-Americans. So, you know, Harry Reid is guilty of stupid language, of insensitive language, and actually ignorant language, but for him to have to resign over this, I think, goes way too far."
Cokie Roberts said Reid's comments "very different" from Lott's. On the January 11 edition of NPR's Fresh Air, senior news analyst Cokie Roberts said, despite "Republicans comparing [Reid's comments] to remarks that then-Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott made," the comments were "very different" because Lott's comments were "made about how the world might have been better if Strom Thurmond, a segregationist at the time, had been elected president."
NY Times quoted Harvard Law professor Guinier saying comments are "not in the least bit comparable." In a January 11 article, The New York Times quoted Lani Guinier, "the Harvard Law School professor whose nomination as assistant attorney general for civil rights in 1993 was pummeled by conservative groups and eventually withdrawn by President Bill Clinton," as saying the comments are "not in the least bit comparable." From the article:
Mr. Lott's remarks, Ms. Guinier said, seemed to be expressing nostalgia for the segregationist platform of Mr. Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign, while Mr. Reid comments seemed to be addressing "an unfortunate truth about the present." That truth, she said, is that Mr. Obama would have had a more difficult time getting elected if his skin were darker and if he spoke in a dialect more identifiable as "black.
NAACP's Shelton: "Lott was actually supporting and embracing the agenda of Strom Thurmond, which was a segregation agenda." On the January 11 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom, NAACP Washington bureau director Hilary Shelton said Lott's and Reid's comments are not the same because "Lott was actually supporting and embracing the agenda of Strom Thurmond, which was a segregationist agenda as he ran for president as a Dixiecrat. For him to hold those up and say, 'I wish I'd been able to support him, if he had become president our country will be a better place on a race relations issue,' raises some major concerns. Harry Reid, on the other hand, is someone that has fought for racial inclusion. He's fought for fairness, and he's fought for democracy for all Americans, regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity -- to the point he's even put his political career on the line to take some very courageous positions."