The Peter Principles: The Byrd standard

By PETER ROFF, United Press International  |  May 12, 2003 at 6:59 AM
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WASHINGTON, May 8 (UPI) -- Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum is the newest addition to the long list of prominent Republicans done in or damaged by their own public gaffes. President Gerald Ford fired Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz over a joke Butz told to a group of reporters that was unprintable in a family newspaper.

Interior Secretary James Watt had to leave the Reagan administration after describing his staff as being "A woman, a black, two Jews and a cripple."

Dan Quayle never overcame the damage inflicted by Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" response after Quayle compared his age and time in public life to Kennedy's. It was a devastating remark, cementing the idea the GOP running mate was in way over his head.

The clock began running on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich after he complained to reporters that Bill Clinton failed to meet with congressional leaders to discuss the federal budget impasse while on Air Force One during the long flight back from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's funeral. That was translated as a temper tantrum by the New York Daily News, whose "Crybaby Newt" headline was the beginning of the end.

The uproar over Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott's suggestion America might have been better off if Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948, made while speaking at one of the ex-segregationist's 100th birthday celebrations, only ended after Lott surrendered his leadership post.

Which brings us back to Santorum, who seems to have weathered the political crisis that began when he seemed to equate homosexual sodomy with incest, bigamy, polygamy and adultery in a recent wire-service interview.

His point, which had to do with how the Supreme Court might apply -- or misapply -- the right to privacy in a case involving a Texas anti-sodomy statute, was far more nuanced than the debate indicated.

Santorum's slippery slope argument was ignored while pressure groups portraying the Pennsylvanian as a bigot called for his GOP colleagues to formally sanction him or remove him from his Senate leadership post.

These incidents could be interpreted as the application of a Forrest Gump-like "Stupid is as stupid does" iron law of politics. A politician who makes ill considered, poorly formed or just plain dumb statements opens the door to partisan vultures waiting to swoop in and cause trouble.

This law, if it exists, is not equally applied. Partisan considerations frequently impact the complaints, especially when the media plays a significant role in publicizing a gaffe or fanning the flames of outrage.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., explained Osama bin Laden's influence in the Middle East to a high school honors class by praising him. "He's been out in these countries for decades, building schools, building roads, building infrastructure, building day-care facilities, building health-care facilities, and these people are extremely grateful. We haven't done that."

She received considerable criticism for the "good Osama, bad U.S." comparison in the mainstream media. Those in the elite media whose self-appointed role is to make and break American politicians, and who excoriated Santorum, remained silent.

Democrats are not always immune. When U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., suggested the American Jewish community was behind the war in Iraq, the debate did not die down until he relinquished his party leadership position.

Former Sen. Jean Carnahan claimed she was the White House's No. 1 target since "They can't get Osama bin Laden." It crossed the line but voters in Missouri had the last word.

It might be the remark's nature or the politician's record, rather than partisan affiliation, that drives the controversy. If it were not for the example of Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., this might be a credible explanation for the bias.

Byrd, a former majority leader, the Democrat's leader on the Appropriations Committee and an influential figure in the budget process, is one of the Senate's most powerful members.

He serves as President Pro Tem when the Democrats constitute the majority. "Election of a senator to the office," the Senate historian's office says, "has always been considered one of the highest honors offered to a senator by the Senate as a body."

In 2001, Byrd, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, said on Fox News Sunday, "There are white niggers, I've seen a lot of white niggers in my time." As conservative media critic Brent Bozell said, "Nobody held a 'will-he-survive' vigil over that." (Byrd has called his Klan membership a mistake.)

Those who lie in wait, ready to pounce on any Republican who even hints of such things, were largely mute. Those in his party and in pressure groups who offer token criticism appeared to be driven only by political concerns. No Democrat or pressure group called for him to relinquish his Appropriations Committee post or said, when the Democrats regained control later in the year, that he should not again be President Pro Tem.

In 2003, with the Democrats again in the minority, Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., led the chamber in designating Byrd President Pro Tempore Emeritus. The post is purely honorary. It could easily have gone to someone else. Yet no Democrat complained.

Had Democrat Byrd been held to the same standard as Republicans Lott, Santorum and others, the debate would still be raging.


(The Peter Principles is a regular column on politics, culture and the media by Peter Roff, UPI political analyst and 20-year veteran of the Washington scene.)

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