Is Harry Reid the Next Joe Biden?

Does everyone need to muck up their political careers by talking carelessly about how Obama speaks?

Now, the new Heilemann/Halperin book seems to have really gone full-court press at digging up unpleasant dirt. The part on the Edwardses is nasty and the use of an anonymous account of a dead dude’s comment to smear Clinton seems par for the course as well. Of course Halperin, who critiqued Obama’s lack of party going recently, seems to embrace the Washingtonian society mentality and seems to consider recording the gripes of jilted staffers anonymously trashing their foes to be high journalism.

Of course, Reid seems to be his trophy buck. Reid seems to have told Halperin on background, who promptly reported it on foreground, that Obama could have been the first black president due to his lighter skin tone and his ability to forgo a manner of speaking that would be racially coded as black. Except Reid used a less politically correct way of saying it, saying that Obama could “speak with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Now obviously Reid was stupid to have used that word since when the adjective embattled has already been added to your name as an additional title you probably want to avoid having the phrase “race controversy” as the object of any sentence in which you are a subject. And while plenty are defending him or attacking him, I’d add two separate points.

First off, its pretty funny to see the linguistic contortions people are making to rephrase Reid’s remarks. Ebonics gets used to describe what Reid was going for. Various people have referred to a black dialect or an African-American dialect. A commenter on Matt Yglesias’ blog describes it as “Urban African American Vernacular English.” As for me, I think Yglesia’s phrasing, speaking “in a manner racially coded as black,” kinda hits the mark. It’s not like what’s being described is only spoken by black people. Whites, Asians and Native Americans all can use it. Furthermore, obviously enough, not all black people use it. Instead, what is the object of discussion is a way of speaking that is coded racially and used by people of a variety of races.

Second, fuck all Republicans who compare Reid’s comments with Trent Lott’s. This is not to say that Reid’s comments should (or shouldn’t) be excused, that’s a different debate. What I am saying is consider the meaning of what each uttered, regardless of poor word choice. Reid said that Obama’s electoral chances improved due to how he looked and how he spoke. Reid’s political assertions may say something about us and his poor word choice may say something about him. But, on the face of it he was making an accurate statement about our political climate. Lott’s statement asserted that things would have been much better had Strom Thurmond been president. Unless Thurmond had some surprise policy positions (getting a head start in the fight against global climate change), what Lott meant is that under Thurmond, racial segregation would have been expanded and extended and that is a good thing. On the face of it, Lott was making a statement that a racist society would have been a better society.

I think, on the whole, the reasonable next step for all of American society would be to avoid this latest bit of backstabbing and rumor-mongering and to further ignore all future writings of Halperin. Digby pretty well evokes how I feel about this whole mess.



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