Why Aren’t Republicans Allowed To Misspeak?

David Benkof Contributor
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Secretary of State John Kerry’s claim that the Charlie Hebdo attacks had “a legitimacy” – he quickly corrected himself to say “a rationale” – has been widely condemned by conservatives, and widely ignored by the media. (For example, The New York Times ran an 11-paragraph Reuters story about Republican reactions to the remarks, but did not cover the comments themselves.)

Now, I’m willing to give Kerry the benefit of the doubt that he merely expressed himself poorly in saying the attacks were legitimate (although as I’ve written elsewhere, “rationale” was nearly as bad). So fine, let a Democrat misspeak once in a while.

By why aren’t Republicans allowed to misspeak?

Minor incidents of important Republicans misspeaking have ended their careers. while Democrats get a pass for much worse utterances.

In 2002, at the 100th birthday party of Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott praised the centenarian, saying of his home state of Mississippi, “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 the years, either.”

Because Thurmond had run in 1948 on the segregationist Dixiecrat (States’ Rights) ticket, Lott was accused of sympathy for Jim Crow.

It’s hard to argue, though, that Lott’s praise was anything more than an ill-thought-through pat on the back for an elderly politician. To believe Lott was using the opportunity to praise the days of separate drinking fountains, one has to think a master politician like Lott was either unaware that a pro-segregation stance wouldn’t play well in the 21st century; or didn’t care.

In any event, Lott quickly apologized, saying he certainly hadn’t intended to praise segregation. He told Sean Hannity’s radio show “obviously, I am sorry for my words, they were poorly chosen and insensitive and I regret the way it has been interpreted.”

Didn’t matter. To put the scandal behind him, Lott was forced to resign from the Republican leadership.

And then there’s “macaca.” During the 2006 Virginia Senate campaign, Republican candidate George Allen (then widely considered presidential material) referred to Democratic field operative S. R. Sidarth, an Indian American who was videotaping Allen on the stump, as “This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is.”

Unfortunately for Allen, the nonsense syllables he chose are also both a rarely pronounced scientific name for a genus of monkey and a European slur against black Africans that is so obscure it doesn’t even appear among the more than 600 worldwide terms for blacks included in the Racial Slur Database.

Think about it: why would a Senate candidate use a racist slur against someone he was literally observing videotaping him? It makes no sense.

Allen, too, was effusive in his apologies. When questioned about it, he insisted he was unaware of any racial content to the term, telling the Washington Post, “I would never want to demean him as an individual. I do apologize if he’s offended by that. That was no way the point.”

Didn’t matter. The incident took the steam out of Allen’s ultimately failed campaign, and ended all speculation of a future Allen Administration.

But Democratic Vice President Joe Biden’s career has flourished despite his well-documented condescending remarks about people of color.

During his campaign for the 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination, then-Senator Biden met an Indian-American on the stump, and bragged of his “great relationship” with Delaware’s growing South Asian population. “You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking!”

Later, he had the following to say about his rival for the nomination, Barack Obama as “the first sorta mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”

Were those remarks even examples of “misspeaking?” They are extended, organized (if racist) comments making a specific point, as opposed to broad platitudes praising an aged politician or a nonsense term with an unfortunate obscure meaning.

Media elites perceive racial or otherwise insensitive comments to be revelations of normally hidden pernicious beliefs of conservative politicians – and thus news. By contrast, when Joe Biden demeans South Asian or black Americans, he’s just teasing.

As important as racial reconciliation is in America, it’s hardly the fate of civilization. The fight against ISIS and similar groups, though, is.

If the citizens of our country grant our top diplomat dispensation for “misspeaking” about the difference between legitimate and illegitimate reasons to gun down opponents of Islam, we’ll be sending the world a clear signal about America’s uncertainty and weakness in the face of global threats.

David Benkof is Senior Political Analyst at the Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.