So, is Harry Reid the Democrats' Trent Lott?
Recall the Trent Lott incident. It was a birthday bash for his old buddy, Strom Thurmond, who had turned 100. Lott was perhaps a little Bourbon-lubricated and got carried away with shameful celebratory words. Did he truly believe the country would have been better off if the old Dixiecrat had been elected president and the Jim Crow South had survived? Doubtful.
But Lott made a bad scene much worse with his pathetic groveling on Black Entertainment Television and elsewhere--his call for a bipartisan "task force of reconciliation" and newfound enthusiasm for racial preferences. He became an embarrassing supplicant trying to cling to his post as Senate majority leader, and, in doing so, conceded leadership on race-related issues to the Democrats and traditional civil-rights groups. It was a sorry moment in a long list of racially sorry moments in the nation's tortured racial history.
The Harry Reid story is quite different. He said what he clearly thought--seemingly safely out of public earshot. He didn't have to mention Jesse Jackson, but the point was clear: Jesse had been unelectable, but Obama was different. Obama made whites comfortable. He was what blacks have long called "high yellow" (a ticket to the black social elite) and, as Reid put it, he had "no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."
Of course, as many have said, Reid's analysis was correct. Jackson was an inevitable loser; Obama was a winner. It's not an acceptable excuse. In a private conversation Reid sounded . . . well, borderline racist. Language matters. Academics like Randall Kennedy can use the word "Negro" in a conscious manner to make a professorial point, but it's no longer an acceptable term in casual conversation. Blacks can use the n-word--and do. But whites can't (for good historical reasons), and it's not okay to suggest the wrong shade of brown is a disqualification for high office.
Democrats who are giving Reid a pass blur the distinction between partisan preferences and racial sensibilities. A racial boor is a racial boor--whether on Left or Right.
Abigail Thernstrom is an adjunct scholar at AEI.