Politics

Foot-in-Mouth Fallout: Blunder or Bigotry?
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's comment about Barack Obama not having a "Negro dialect" unless he wants one has ignited a storm of controversy in Washington. Democrats say the Nevada senator had the best of intentions and basically bungled what was meant as a compliment toward Obama. Republicans suggest Reid's remark is comparable to Sen. Trent Lott's praise for the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, a former segregationist, in 2002. The fallout, or lack thereof, in Reid's case helps define the ever-changing threshold in Washington for when a remark crosses the line from unfortunate to unforgivable. Here is what happened to some other well-known political figures who planted their feet firmly in their mouths.
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Former President Bill Clinton

Jan. 26, 2008: Clinton, while campaigning on behalf of his wife in the 2008 presidential race, was already under fire for making condescending remarks about Barack Obama when he uttered one that was, to some, beyond the pale. 

Trying to account for Obama's big win in the South Carolina primary, Clinton compared Obama to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a black man who had previously run for president, but with nowhere near as much appeal. 

"Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in '84 and '88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here," Clinton said.

The Outcome: Got a pass. Despite taking heat from civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, Clinton continued to campaign for his wife and eventually made amends, at least in public, with Obama. His speech was one of the highlights of the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

(Reuters)

Vice President Joe Biden

Jan. 31, 2007: On the day Biden launched his campaign for president, he already was in trouble for comments he made to The New York Observer about his fellow U.S. senator, Barack Obama, who was about to be his rival in the race for the Democratic nomination. 

"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," Biden told the newspaper. "I mean, that's a storybook, man." 

The Outcome: Got a pass. Biden, as he is accustomed to doing, backpedaled after the quote came out. He issued a statement of regret, told reporters that the word "clean" was taken out of context and called Obama to express those points. Judging by Biden's current office, Obama forgave his loose-lipped colleague.

(AP)

Former Sen. George Allen

Aug. 11, 2006: While running for re-election, Allen, a Republican, used the term "macaca" to refer to S.R. Sidarth, a young campaign worker of Indian origin who was working for the  campaign of Allen's Democratic opponent, Jim Webb. Unfortunately for the incumbent, Sidarth's job was to film Allen, who was widely considered a leading contender for the 2008 presidential race. The term was caught on videotape and widely circulated. 

"This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is. He's with my opponent. He's following us around everywhere. And it's just great," the senator said. "Let's give a welcome to macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia." 

The Outcome: Got nailed. To this day, it's unclear what Allen actually meant when he used the word "macaca." As The Washington Post noted in coverage immediately following the release of the video footage, the word could mean "a monkey that inhabits the Eastern Hemisphere or a town in South Africa" or be a "racial slur against African immigrants." The Allen campaign gave varying explanations for the meaning, or lack of meaning, behind the term. But in the end, Webb won. Allen lost. And few thought the "macaca" moment did anything but hurt Allen's campaign.

(AP)

Former Sen. Trent Lott

Dec. 5, 2002: Lott, the Senate minority leader, was at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party when he offered some praise that, for many in Washington, was too flattering. 

"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 all these years," he said. 

If Thurmond had been practically any other politican, Lott's compliment would have been just that. But Thurmond was a well-known segregationist when he ran for president in the 1940s.

The Outcome: Got nailed. Though Lott apologized and publicly criticized Thurmond's former segregationist views in the wake of the comment, he resigned his leadership post later that month. 

He has since resigned from the Senate.

(AP)

Sen. Robert Byrd

March 4, 2001: In an interview with "Fox News Sunday," Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat who in the 1940s was active in the Ku Klux Klan, twice used the term "white niggers" when asked about race relations. 

"My old mom told me, 'Robert, you can't go to heaven if you hate anybody.' We practice that. There are white niggers. I've seen a lot of white niggers in my time. I'm going to use that word. We just need to work together to make our country a better country, and I'd just as soon quit talking about it so much," he said. 

The Outcome: Got a pass. Byrd apologized for the comment shortly afterward and won re-election in 2006. He is the Senate's longest-serving member.

(AP)

Sen. John McCain

Feb. 17, 2000: They don't call it the Straight Talk Express for nothing. 

McCain, who spent five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp during Vietnam War, invoked the term "gook" while talking to reporters on his campaign bus during his 2000 run for president. 

"I hated the gooks," he said. "I will hate them as long as I live." 

The Outcome: Got a pass. Despite fielding some criticism, McCain explained that he was only referring to his former captors, not the Vietnamese or Asians as a whole. McCain lost the 2000 GOP race to George W. Bush, but the comment did not come back to haunt him when he was the Republican nominee for president in 2008.

(Reuters)

The Rev. Jesse Jackson

1984: During his first presidential race, Jackson referred to New York City as "Hymietown" -- a reference to the city's Jewish population -- in a conversation with Washington Post reporter Milton Coleman. Jackson apparently thought the exchange was private, but the Post published the remark. 

The Outcome: Got a pass. Jackson at first denied the comment. He then accused Jews of conspiring against him. But he finally admitted the remark and apologized for it. He lost the 1984 race for president and ran again, unsuccessfully, in 1988.

(AP)

Former Interior Secretary James Watt

Sept. 21, 1983: Watt, interior secretary under President Ronald Reagan, was apparently trying to make a positive statement about the diversity of a government commission when he stepped into it big-time. In a speech describing the staff of the commission, he managed to offend four different groups of people at once. 

"I have a black, I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple," he said. "And we have talent." 

The Outcome: Got nailed. Watt resigned after the comment.

(AP)

Former Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz

1976: Butz, President Gerald Ford's agriculture secretary, made an incredible comment in what he apparently thought was private company on a plane. 

According to a 1976 account in Time magazine, Butz was chatting with singers Pat Boone and Sonny Bono, along with former White House counsel John Dean, when the conversation turned to the question of why Republicans can't attract more black voters. 

"The only thing the coloreds are looking for in life are tight p---- , loose shoes and a warm place to s---," Butz reportedly said. 

Unfortunately for Butz, Dean was a writer for Rolling Stone, and he used the quote. Dean did not use Butz's name, but his identity later emerged. 

The Outcome: Got nailed. After calls for his head, Butz resigned his post.

(AP)

Foot-in-Mouth Fallout: Blunder or Bigotry?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's comment about Barack Obama not having a "Negro dialect" unless he wants one has ignited a storm of controversy in Washington. Democrats say the Nevada senator had the best of intentions and basically bungled what was meant as a compliment toward Obama. Republicans suggest Reid's remark is comparable to Sen. Trent Lott's praise for the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, a former segregationist, in 2002. The fallout, or lack thereof, in Reid's case helps define the ever-changing threshold in Washington for when a remark crosses the line from unfortunate to unforgivable. Here is what happened to some other well-known political figures who planted their feet firmly in their mouths.

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