Political Gaffes? Welcome to America

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Earlier this month while on the campaign trail, Sen. George Allen (R-VA) referred to a staffer for his opponent using the derogatory term "macaca." Allen is still dealing with the negative fallout. Racially charged name-calling has long affected the political scene.

DANIEL SCHORR reporting:

Once again we learn the danger of the ill-considered word in politics.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

NPR's senior news analyst Daniel Schorr.

SCHORR: Especially in a day when opposition cameras are there to record it and the Internet is there to send it coursing around the country.

The latest verbal misstep in politics was committed by Republican Senator George Allen of Virginia, who is seeking a second term in the Senate and possibly the presidency. At a fundraiser in southwest Virginia, he referred to a man in his audience as a macaca. Macaca is literally a genus of primate and used in some circles as a pejorative reference to any dark-skinned person. The 20-year-old man is of Indian descent and it was his camera that caught the slur. So Senator Allen offered apologies, but the word macaca is now an indelible part of the campaign.

I looked back to other verbal transgressions. Senator John McCain, running for president in 2000, referred to his prison guards in North Vietnam as gooks. I hate the gooks, he said. I will hate them as long as I live. But gook is also a more general pejorative word for Asians. Senator McCain caught some flack but he stuck to his verbal guns.

Then there was Reverend Jesse Jackson running for president in 1984. He referred to New York City as Hymietown and to Jews as Hymies. He said it in what could be construed as a private conversation with a Washington Post reporter, but it ended up in the Post under the byline of a different reporter. In the end, Jackson admitted guilt and asked for forgiveness.

And then Earl Butts, Secretary of Agriculture in the Nixon and Ford cabinets, forced to resign for making remarks about blacks. I'll tell you what the coloreds want, he told reporters on a Ford campaign plane. What followed was too obscene to repeat on the air.

And finally, Senator Trent Lott, the former majority leader. He sought to pay a compliment to Senator Strom Thurmond on his 100th birthday by saying the country would have been better off if the presidential bid by Thurmond had been successful. That was 1948, a time when Thurmond openly supported segregation. Senator Lott is majority leader no longer.

Why do they do it? In most cases because they don't grasp the effect of their bigoted words on others. But a tin ear is no great qualification for high office.

This is Daniel Schorr.

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