Both sets of comments reflect what the two men assume Americans — or some Americans, anyway -- think about race, and both give a window into their respective worldviews. And that's why Reid's remarks, although different from Lott's, still are troubling and problematic.
Lott was pandering to an old segregationist and a bunch of his white supporters when he said "we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years" if everyone else "followed our lead" and voted for Strom Thurmond for president. That's classic Dixiecrat politics --c omments designed to stoke resentment and anger and white superiority. Lott heard that kind of talk a lot growing up in Mississippi, and he slipped right into it at Thurmond's birthday party in 2002.
It was almost like Lott didn't even think about the outrageousness of what he was saying. His remarks reflect a view that he assumed his old white audience was, deep down, a bunch of racists who really believed we would be better off with Strom Thurmond running things all these years.
At first glance, as Democrats have been pounding, Reid's comments seem completely different. He was analyzing Obama's blackness, and he concludes Barack Obama isn't too black to get elected President. He wasn't pandering to whites to make them feel superior or stoke the fires. Reid was merely trying to decide just how racist white people are in modern-day America.
But in his own way, much like Trent Lott did with his audience at Thurmond's birthday party, Harry Reid already had decided that question. He apparently concluded white America would never get behind an African-American with dark skin and a "negro dialect."
Obama, Reid seems to suggest, was the right kind of black guy. It wasn't a whole lot different, if you think about it, what Branch Rickey focused on when he signed Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
While Trent Lott was stoking the old-day segregationists, Harry Reid was practicing modern-day racial politics -- gaming out what he thought white people would and wouldn't accept and what kind of prejudices and stereotypes many of them hold.
Maybe that shouldn't be surprising to hear, since Reid has waded into the minefield of prejudice and stereotyping before. I can't help but think of his outrageous statements about Clarence Thomas back in 2005, when some were urging President Bush to make Thomas the first African American chief justice.
We all know Thomas's compelling life story: growing in the harrowing days of Jim Crow in the segregated South, struggling to break free from poverty and racism, becoming the first black child to integrate all-white schools, graduating with honors from the seminary and Holy Cross before Yale Law School. Thomas succeeded on his unquestioned intellect and his determination and hard work.
Thomas is one of the Court's most original and compelling thinkers, and his opinions are praised by scholars on the Left and the Right as important contributions. You may not agree with a single word Clarence Thomas says, and it may drive you crazy that he took Thurgood Marshall's seat on the Supreme Court, but you can't call him stupid or deny he's an important intellectual force.
Unless you're Harry Reid.
In an interview with the late Tim Russert on NBC's Meet the Press, Reid called Thomas "an embarrassment to the Supreme Court" whose "opinions are poorly written," and said he hadn't "done a good job" as a justice. But Antonin Scalia? Well, Reid said, he's a different story. Scalia, Reid told Tim, "is one smart guy."
Tim gave me permission to use that exchange when I was working for ABC and doing a segment for Nightline on Clarence Thomas and stereotypes, racism and double standards. Reid's comment's fit right in, because the segment was about how some people embrace the false and offensive narrative that Thomas has no intellectual firepower and is just a puppet of the dazzling conservative Scalia.
Here's the entire exchange:
RUSSERT: Let me turn to judicial nominations. Again, Harry Reid on National Public Radio, Nov. 19: "If they" -- the Bush White House -- "for example, gave us Clarence Thomas as chief justice, I personally feel that would be wrong. If they give us Antonin Scalia, that's a little different question. I may not agree with some of his opinions, but I agree with the brilliance of his mind."
RUSSERT: Could you support Antonin Scalia to be chief justice of the Supreme Court?
REID: If he can overcome the ethics problems that have arisen since he was selected as a justice of the Supreme Court. And those ethics problems --you've talked about them; every people talk -- every reporter's talked about them in town -- where he took trips that were probably not in keeping with the code of judicial ethics. So we have to get over this. I cannot dispute the fact, as I have said, that this is one smart guy. And I disagree with many of the results that he arrives at, but his reason for arriving at those results are very hard to dispute. So --
RUSSERT: Why couldn't you accept Clarence Thomas?
REID: I think that he has been an embarrassment to the Supreme Court. I think that his opinions are poorly written. I don't -- I just don't think that he's done a good job as a Supreme Court justice.
That's not Mississippi, or Jim Crow. That's not the Dixiecrats or segregationists. That is race in America, modern-day.
In an interview in 2008, I asked Thomas why people continue to embrace this grossly false storyline -- why they sell him short, understate his intellect -- and why they persistently believe he merely has "followed" Scalia, when in fact there's absolutely no basis for that.
"Give me a break. I mean this is part of the — you know, the black guy is supposed to follow somebody white. We know that," Thomas told me. "Come on, we know the story behind that. I mean there's no need to sort of tip-toe around that … The story line was that, well I couldn't be doing this myself, he must be doing it for me because I'm black. That's obvious. Again, I go back to my point. Who were the real bigots? It's obvious."
But why no uproar, I asked. Why no outcry?
"People feel free to say about me what they think about lots of blacks," Thomas told me. "Because of the heterodox views I've taken, they have license to say it about me with impunity."
Or put another way: In Harry Reid's worldview, Clarence Thomas isn't the "right" kind of black guy.