Foot in mouth problem strikes another politician

DAN RODRICKS

March 06, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

"Oh, no, not another one!" my pal, Joey Amalfitano, moaned when he read about Roscoe Bartlett's moment as a yahoo.

In case you missed the story, I'll summarize it:

The other day at a public meeting, Roscoe, freshman congressman from Maryland's 6th District, looked over a list of scholarship recipients in Westinghouse's annual math and science program and wondered why so many of the young winners had Asian and Middle Eastern surnames and not "normal names."

Heads turned. Eyes rolled. Knees jerked. By Thursday, Asian-American organizations were demanding an apology from Roscoe. Why?

Because his rambling statements ridiculed names that are not, like Roscoe's, Anglo-Saxon in origin, and the minority populations behind those names. By uttering this little caveman grunt, Maryland's newest congressman betrayed an insensitivity to the multi-racial, multi-ethnic nature of American society.

Even so, one of Roscoe's aides said no apology would be made, and that the congressman's remark had been "misinterpreted."

"Oh, no," Joey Amalfitano added. "Another politician who needs an interpreter!"

Roscoe, Roscoe, Roscoe.

Here's a nice enough fella, a little on the eccentric side, who got elected to Congress on the pledge that he'd go down to Washington, save the taxpayers some money and apply the savings to deficit reduction. In particular, he wanted to cut the size of congressional staffs.

But, in Washington less than two months, Roscoe has already stuck his foot in his mouth. And it looks like we're going to have to hire an interpreter for him.

In one sense, it might be worth the price.

I know the nation is facing economic disaster and deficit doomsday. All the more reason for entertainers in politics. Helen Bentley smashed Japanese TV sets, enlisted Big John Studd to campaign for her and allegedly -- it was never proven -- choked a process server. Gov. William Donald Schaefer used to dress up in silly suits and goofy hats; he endorsed George Bush. That's all the stuff of entertainment. Government should be serious business, but a little wackiness is good, as long as the yahoos -- or those prone to outbursts of yahooness -- don't outnumber your basic Ben Cardin types.

So now we come to Roscoe Bartlett, Yahoo of the Week.

Back in the fall, when he was waging an uphill battle for the Byron Family Seat, Roscoe charmed voters with his down-home folksiness, his feistiness and his Perot-like, common-sensical campaign pitch. He even fired his .22 during a Frederick campaign stop sponsored by Gun Owners for Bartlett, or GOB.

When word of this traveled back from the hinterland, connoisseurs of silliness in public life were more than amused. We were encouraged. Here was a new chance at having another gadfly, another "newsmaker" in the Maryland Congressional delegation.

But Roscoe's first big splash left him all wet, didn't it?

He said something not only stupid but offensive, and I prefer my yahoos to restrict themselves to stupidity.

Yet, offensive as Roscoe's remark about "normal" people might have been, we have to go easy on him. I'll tell you why:

1. His statement was probably more dull-headed than mean-spirited.

2. Roscoe is a rookie congressman, not used to having his words scrutinized. If he makes a habit of sticking his foot in his mouth, voters of the 6th District will be able to decide in 1994 if they'd rather have a brighter light representing them.

3. He has a right to express himself, even if he doesn't know how.

But, at the same time, Roscoe Bartlett should apologize. Here's why:

1. His statement was not "misinterpreted." We got it. He said something a lot of people, not just Asian-Americans, understood and found hurtful.

2. His statement is a revelation. It hints at the attitudes of the private Roscoe, now the public Roscoe. An apology would be a way of saying, "Hey, I'm not as bad as you think."

Why all the fuss about Roscoe's remark? Why did it make news?

Because public officials, whether liberal, conservative or something in between, are being held to an evolving, and hopefully higher, standard of behavior and expression. What Roscoe said wasn't politically incorrect, it was clumsy and offensive, and it's good that people tell him so. Maybe he'll learn something.

Maybe he'll learn that he cannot say in public the ignorant or insensitive things he might say in private. He shouldn't be able to get away with it in either case. Nor should the rest of us.

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