Informally interviewing Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele in his State House office earlier this summer, I came away with the impression of a gentle giant. He’s a tall, commanding guy, but he’s a smooth talker, and he’s got a soft soul.
Perhaps that compassion comes from his training as a Catholic priest. Or, perhaps he was a little laid back that balmy afternoon because we were just “kicking it,” with some smooth sounds playing in the background.
On Wednesday, Mr. Steele commanded his full height and was anything but soft when I asked him how he felt about being characterized as the black “poster boy” for the Republican Party at its convention in New York City.
“Poster boy? How stupid is that?” he asked. “Offended,” he went from patient priest to prickly politician in a New York minute as he defended what he claims needs no defense — being a Republican, plain and simple.
“Criticize me for my pro-life stance, criticize me [about] how I feel about how the sun comes up and goes down every day,” he said, but don’t criticize him for who he is.
Some critics have suggested that the promising Mr. Steele was asked to speak during the convention and introduce Vice President Dick Cheney only to provide a black role model for television audiences as a counter to Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama. Mr. Obama gave a unifying “We Are All Americans” speech during the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July.
A few detractors insinuated that the Republican Party is “pimping the brother.” Mr. Steele bristled during our Wednesday telephone interview and said, “It’s that kind of backward thinking that keeps blacks from progressing beyond a bankrupt philosophy.” Of the need for black Americans to become active members of both major political parties, Mr. Steele said, “We all know the needs, we all know what has to be done, but we can’t do it with everybody sitting on one side of the boat; we have to spread the weight if we don’t want to sink the boat.”
He’s right. Blacks don’t think alike, talk alike, act alike or have like lifestyles, so they sure don’t cast their votes for the same candidate. Why does that outdated racist’s reality need to be repudiated in 2004?
“Racist” is a charged word we’ve heard misused a lot this week. Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. set off a firestorm here at home when he screamed “racist” to counter those, especially Democrats, who dismissed Mr. Steele’s “rock star” role this week as nothing more than black tokenism. The gabby governor also charged Democrats with assuming that “if you have black skin, you have to believe one way … or you’re a traitor to your race.”
Mind you, Mr. Ehrlich is the top elected official in the Free State who dismisses multiculturalism as “bunk.” Mr. Steele, he added, “breaks the mold — he’s a conservative Republican.” Mr. Steele agrees about the “crazy concept” even though his own mother, Mabell Turner, a lifelong Democrat whose honesty and values he invoked during his speech, said, “If you’re not a Democrat, and you’re not a liberal, then there’s something wrong with you.” But, Mr. Steele added, “My mother also taught me that we are very diverse, and we have different experiences and we should bring all that to the table.”
Ah, that proverbial political table. Indeed, Mr. Steele is absolutely on point. Blacks of every ideological stripe — as well as whites and all “others” — should be sitting at every public-policy and decision-making table even if all we are offered or able to offer are crumbs.
Note, the Republican Party boasted that the number of its delegates has doubled in four years. (Sorry, that’s still not much diversity in Madison Square Garden.) Of course, Mr. Steele defended his boss’s remarks, saying that his “point is one of legitimate discussion.” Then, Mr. Steele turned the tables and rightly asked, “Where was the NAACP or the black Democratic leadership when [Maryland state Sen.] Mike Miller called me an Uncle Tom? I didn’t hear from any of them then.” He added that if any member of the state Republican leadership had made a similar remark about a black Democrat, “You know the first words out of their mouths would have been to call him a racist. Where is the outrage from the other side?”
Hey, actions speak louder than words. Studies indicate that blacks do not trust the Republican Party, but all Americans ought to read the fine print in these party platforms and demand that every politician of every party demonstrate how he made good on his election-year promises.
“I’m a little tired of the double standard but I am thankful for the opportunity to give this speech, not in the context of what the Democrats do or don’t do, not in the context of what happened in 2000 or before, but at this moment and at this time,” Mr. Steele said. He was equally insulted by an interview in which “Hardball’s” Chris Matthews asked Mr. Steele to compare his speech with Mr. Obama’s. “I don’t [care] about Obama’s speech, I wanted to talk about my speech,” he said. Mr. Steele said he felt good about his speech, which gave a historical perspective of black participation in the Republican Party. He thought his remarks “resonated with the audience inside the house,” especially when he said the new civil rights struggle was about economic empowerment.
The delegates, he surmised, wondered what all the criticism was about. “I think they felt this brother’s not that scary,” he said.
He conceded that there needs to be more discussion about “our party’s failure sometimes to really engage the African-American community.” But he hoped that with his rising stature, he will be able to bring more minorities into the Republican tent.
In the end, this unproductive political name-calling has got to stop. The reason this nation is so bitterly divided is because of fear mongering, race baiting and self-serving smear campaigns about individuals instead of common concerns and issues that know no color barriers.