His sincerity aside, Steele needs to choose sides

July 27, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

I know great rhetoric when I hear it, and this is an American beauty: "In 2001, we were attacked and the president is on the ground, on a mound with his arm around the fireman, symbol of America. In Katrina, the president is at 30,000 feet in an airplane looking down at people dying, living on a bridge. And that disconnect, I think, sums up, for me at least, the frustration that Americans feel."

Great stuff. Strong, vivid symbolism, and a populist sentiment - like something out of Michael Moore.

Or off the lips of some Hollywood liberal.

Or maybe Jesse Jackson.

Or Kweisi Mfume.

But, of course, it's none of the above.

That's a Michael Steele quote. That's a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, as reported by a Washington Post columnist, as confirmed by other news organizations and, eventually, Michael Steele's own campaign.

Before I go on, let's dispense with the whole anonymous-quoting issue, which is a red herring.

I don't think reporters and editors should agree to off-the-record conversations with political candidates.

If they do, however, the rules need to be made clear to everyone involved. According to Dana Milbank, the Post columnist who reported Steele's quotes, the candidate attended a luncheon with journalists at a steakhouse in Washington "under the condition that he be identified only as a GOP Senate candidate."

And that's what Milbank did. He did not identify Steele by name in his Washington Sketch column and published the Steele quotes - most of them in some way critical of the Bush administration's handling of Iraq and Katrina - under the agreed-upon conditions.

Before you could say, "Michael Steele is two-faced," various online news organizations were trying to identify the candidate.

They eventually outed Steele.

It wasn't that hard to do.

Yesterday, on WBAL Radio, Steele protested Milbank's use of the quotes and said he understood the lunch conversation to be "on background and off the record." He also said he was quoted out of context, which is what they all say.

As far as I can see, Milbank did nothing wrong in using the quotes. Other organizations fingered Steele as the speaker, and who would whine about that other than Steele, his ardent supporters and apologists?

Steele also said that he was "amused" by suggestions that, despite his protests, he actually wanted his candid comments on the news wires this week, in an effort to separate himself from the GOP.

Steele must think we're all potato heads.

He's running for office. He'll be out of a job if he doesn't win in November. He's a longtime Republican. President Bush's ratings are poor, and about seven out of 10 Americans in public opinion polls think the country is on the wrong track. Distancing himself from Bush - as he did by going to Nevada during the president's recent visit to Maryland - is not an unwise thing for Steele to do in a blue state.

So, politically, there's probably more calculation to this steakhouse chat than Steele wants to acknowledge.

We're not potato heads, and neither is he.

But here's what occurred to me as I read and reread the Steele comments:

He sounded like he was venting some sincere feelings. Maybe he's not just stealing lines from the Democratic playbook (if there is such a thing) to signal that he's a moderate Republican Marylanders would like in the U.S. Senate. Maybe the frustration with his party is real.

Maybe he's finding that being Republican is an ill-fitting suit.

Maybe Michael Steele thinks the Iraq invasion "didn't work" and that we "didn't prepare for the peace." Those comments might not have been taken out of context at all; they could reflect what Michael Steele really believes.

It could be that Steele was genuinely struck by the contrast in Bush's reaction to the 9/11 attacks and the Katrina disaster. He would not have been the only American to consider that contrast and notice a class/race dynamic in it.

Maybe he's distressed at the do-nothingness of the Republican-led Congress, and maybe, as an African-American, he is troubled by the fact that, out of the 521 senators and representatives who voted on extending the Voting Rights Act another 25 years, there were only 33 nay votes, all of them cast by members of his party (including Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland's 6th District).

It could be that, as a devout Catholic who spent three years in a monastery, Steele struggles with the widening gap between rich and poor, and the unhealthy influence of big business and big money in government. "We became so powerful in our ivory towers, in our gated communities," Steele was quoted as saying. "We forgot that there are poor people." Alas, maybe he's just confused.

He opposes abortion and the death penalty, but he's done nothing to stop either while in office as Maryland's lieutenant governor. He broke with his church to support slot machines at race tracks. He had to apologize for linking stem cell research to Nazi experimentation, and it took him a while to say he supported Bush's veto of expanded funding for research.

Earlier this month, Steele uttered more great rhetoric. He told a conference of Catholic families in Baltimore: "You have to choose, ladies and gentlemen. You have to make the choice, one or the other, to be relevant or be a sign of contradiction."

So choose already!

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Hear Dan Rodricks every Tuesday and Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on WBAL Radio (1090 AM) and read his blog at baltimoresun.com/rodricks.

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