Congressman Doug Lamborn, U.S. representative for Colorado, was recently on a radio show discussing President Obama, the president’s economic policies, and the debt ceiling deals being debated. Lamborn used the phrase “tar baby” to describe working with the president.
“I don’t even want to have to be associated with him. It’s like touching a tar-baby, and you get it — you know, you’re stuck, and you’re part of the problem now, and you can’t get away,” Lamborn said on the Caplis and Silverman show in Denver.
Nearly all definitions say it refers to a “sticky situation.” It originated with a doll made of tar and turpentine that entrapped Br’er Rabbit in the second Uncle Remus story.
Lamborn, who has apologized to Obama, should certainly have known better than to use a phrase that needs to die. This will call into question his judgement and his attitude toward black people. At the same time, those who are terribly sensitive to racism in politics should put this in context. Former President Harry Truman paid to join the Ku Klux Klan. The late Sen. Robert Byrd was an enthusiastic recruiter for the Klan and rose to become Exalted Cyclops of his local chapter.
He was the only senator to vote against both African-American nominees to the Supreme Court, the liberal Thurgood Marshall and the conservative Clarence Thomas. He filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He repeated the n-word on “Fox News Sunday” in 2001. Yet he was among the more revered statesmen of the Democratic party until his death in 2010.
Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black was a Klansman, and President Woodrow Wilson had a horrific record on race.
But that’s history. Racism in the political sphere today has become so insulting that it makes “tar-baby” seem benign. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews expressed his affection for Obama after hearing an eloquent speech in 2010. Matthews was astonished that a black man could be so smart.
“You know, I forgot he was black tonight for an hour,” Matthews said. Sick.
In 2008, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid was so taken by Obama’s fine qualities that he described Obama as a “light-skinned African American with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Is he racist or insane?
As a senator in 2007, Vice President Joseph Biden spoke to the New York Observer about Obama: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
Let us all stop saying “tar-baby,” for sure. For using this phrase, Lamborn will pay. He is mired in a controversy that will get worse as he fights against it. But let’s keep perspective. Relative to the racial hatred and insensitivity that permeates political rhetoric of the past and present, this should be far from a major-league scandal.