It's been a week since Sen. Chris Buttars put his senatorial foot in his mouth, and only now is the controversy beginning to fade, after demands for his resignation, apologies, public outcry, etc. all of it right on schedule.
By now we've got this public excoriation thing down pat. You know the drill. Some public figure says something incredibly stupid, pundits call it offensive and racist, and we're off and running again with public indignation, demands for a resignation or firing, letters to the editor, media commentary and condemnation, an apology and so forth.
We've been down this road over and over again, with Howard Cosell, Don Imus, Michael Richards, Jimmy the Greek, Fuzzy Zoeller, John Rocker, Fisher DeBerry and many more. We could do this routine in our sleep.
The Buttars faux pas began during a debate on the Senate floor, when the senator expressed his disgust for a proposed bill by saying, "This baby is black, I'll tell you. This is a dark, ugly thing."
Nobody can defend what Buttars said. It was a terrible metaphor. The first time you hear it, it sounds appalling.
But eventually you expect calmer heads to prevail. Where is common sense? Why are Americans so unwilling to cut someone some slack?
Before you dash off that nasty letter to the editor in response to the above paragraph, take a deep breath and read on.
Does anyone think that a veteran politician like Buttars was thinking of an African-American baby when he said that?
Why would he do this to himself?
Buttars says he never meant it as a racist term, although it certainly sounded that way. As dumb as his verbal gaffe was, maybe he should be given the benefit of the doubt. He could have said what he meant and avoided a lot of trouble if only he had substituted "thing" in place of "baby." Black is often used metaphorically "black sheep" of the family, operating a business "in the black." Maybe the reason he used the term "baby" is because Sen. Howard Stephenson had already called the bill "the ugly baby bill."
Even a seasoned politician like Sen. John Valentine said, "I didn't take it as a racist remark, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was inappropriate and a breach of decorum."
This wasn't Michael Richards using vulgar racist language to put down hecklers in the audience; this wasn't John Rocker spouting his racism and hate in a long magazine interview; this was a spur-of-the-moment accident.
Apparently, people once placed great trust in Buttars by electing him to office. But after a couple of sentences, they're ready to kick him out of office.
Why are people so quick and eager to rush to judgment in this country?
Many years ago, Howard Cosell, the famed TV commentator on Monday Night Football at the time, was watching a wide receiver run with the ball when he exclaimed, "Look at that little monkey go!" The player was black. You can imagine what happened next.
Howard Cosell was called a racist and the predictable controversy unfolded. Cosell was a lot of things obnoxious, overbearing, opinionated but racist was not one of them. He was an established friend and proponent of the black athlete. He had simply meant to demonstrate how quick and agile the player was. Finally, the likes of Jesse Jackson, Rachel Robinson (Jackie's widow) and Bill Cosby came to his defense, and Cosell was not reprimanded or fired (although it seems every biography of Cosell's long and distinguished broadcasting career still includes a retelling of the incident, some 25 years after it happened).
Nowadays, Cosell would be suspended or fired a la Don Imus, and Jesse Jackson would be picketing his office. Early last month, Kelly Tilghman, an anchor on the Golf Channel, was discussing Tiger Woods' dominance of the golf tour when she noted that the young players on the tour should "lynch him in a back alley." It was a shocking juxtaposition the black athlete and lynching but did anyone really think she had that in mind when she said it? It was an accident. She was suspended for two weeks, and the incident will follow her the rest of her career.
It's remarkably easy to make a mistake these days. Donna Brazile, manager of Al Gore's 2000 campaign and a CNN commentator, recently discussed about how guarded everyone must be. According to an AP report, she has warned CNN against referring to a "back row" of commentators on its New York set because it could be taken wrong if the "back row" contains black commentators.Beware, it's a verbal minefield out there.
Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesdays. Please send e-mail to [email protected].