There Is No Such Thing as Off the Record

I want to begin this blog by expressing my sorrow for the victims of the recent terrorist attacks in Libya, as well as their families. My thoughts and prayers go out to them. Regarding my main topic for today, I want to start off by saying that September has not been Mitt Romney’s month. First, he blundered into a controversy by using the violence in Libya as a vehicle to attack President Obama for allegedly promoting appeasement. He quickly found out that the facts contradicted his claim and that the public generally thought that he was acting opportunistic and sleazy. Now, Mitt Romney has stepped into something again. At a fundraiser where, unbeknownst to him, he was being videotaped, the former governor stated, “There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax…[M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Oops. Abraham Lincoln once told a joke about a farmer’s son who ran to tell his father that “sis and the hired man” were in the hayloft of the barn, and she was lifting up her skirts while he was dropping his pants. The panicked boy went on to say that his older sister and the hired hand were “gettin’ ready to pee all over our hay.” The farmer quipped, “Son, you’ve got your facts absolutely right, but you’ve drawn a completely wrong conclusion.” The same could be said for Mitt Romney. Many of the 47% that Romney referred to pay other taxes, such as payroll taxes. To imply, as Romney did, that these 47% all pay no taxes of any kind is misleading. Look, I am a fiscal conservative. More often than not, Neal Boortz and I are in agreement on issues. I believe in government providing a basic safety net, but I am against handouts. I also believe that conservative politicians must come to grips with the disconnect between their rhetoric of laissez faire, up-by-your bootstraps capitalism and the fact that so many of them support corporate subsidies and pork barrel spending. At any rate, I do not think it is at all appropriate to trash the people who essentially make up the less wealthy half of our population. Furthermore, even if you take the matter of decency off of the table, Mitt’s statement was an asinine political move. And it made me think about a problem that a lot of politicians and political candidates have. They frequently think that they can speak “off the record” in mixed company and say offensive things without being them being revealed to the public. Perhaps one of the first of such cases was in the autumn of 1976, shortly after the Republican Convention. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz was on a commercial flight to California with Sonny Bono, Pat Boone, and Richard Nixon’s old White House counsel, John Wesley Dean, who was working on an article about the convention for Rolling Stone. Boone wondered out loud why most black voted Democrat. Instead of pointing out the activities of the GOP over the past twelve years, Butz decided to tell an extremely racist joke about the three things that he believed black people wanted. Dean unsurprisingly decided to reveal the quote to the public, and no ifs, ands, or butz!—the secretary of agriculture was rightly fired. Timothy Noah over at Slate describes the incident as a turning point in that it demonstrated to white political figures that white reporters would not cover for them if they made racist remarks. In the 1980s, Jesse Jackson would learn that he could not expect black reporters to cover for him if he made anti-Semitic remarks. Given the fact that many Jews from New York had been heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and in the case of Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, were killed in Mississippi standing up for racial equality, it is somewhat surprising that Jesse Jackson would feel bigoted towards Jewish New Yorkers. Yet indeed he did. Thinking that he was speaking off the record in a conversation with Washington Post reporter, Milton Coleman, Jackson referred to Jews as “hymies” and New York City as “Hymietown.” Coleman revealed the slurs to a fellow Post writer, who exposed them to the public, and Jackson’s campaign ground to a halt. Apparently having not learned his lesson, Jackson made a comment in 2008, expressing a wish to deprive Barack Obama of his testicles, and found out too late that he was sitting next to a live microphone. Butz and Jackson are far from the only public figures to have learned the hard way that nothing is off the record. In 2003, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott seemed poised for a promising political career on Capitol Hill. He had tried to stop his fraternity from integrating back in college, lambasted the Voting Rights Act as a youthful politician, lionized Jefferson Davis, and palled around with the racist Sons of Confederate Veterans and the equally racist Council of Conservative Citizens. But the majority of Mississippi voters, as well as the Republican Party leadership, seemed to have no significant problem with all of this, and Trent Lott’s habit of serving up pork for his constituents made it seem as if blue skies were ahead for the white supremacist Senator. That is, until he was at a birthday party for 100 year old Dixiecrat-turned-Republican Strom Thurmond. At the party, Lott boasted of the fact that Mississippi had voted for Thurmond during his 1948 presidential run and said that, “if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years, either.” Probably, Lott thought comments at a birthday party would be private. However, he was soon facing calls from liberals, moderates, and even conservatives to resign. Within fifteen days, Thurmond was feeling very flattered, and Lott was back to being an ordinary senator. It couldn’t have happened to a nastier guy. All of these stories must demonstrate that nobody involved in politics should ever say anything that they would be uncomfortable with the public hearing. Mitt Romney had apparently not learned this before his recent flap, but he may have time to reflect on it after November while accepting a job teaching business classes at Liberty University.

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