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Public Figure Utters Politically Incorrect Phrase Public Figure Utters Politically Incorrect Phrase … Maybe.

It happens every now and then to our public officials – they say something they weren't supposed to. Recently, President Bush was caught off guard (and on a microphone) sharing some ostensibly private thoughts on the Middle East conflict with Prime Minister Tony Blair using less-than-diplomatic terms. And quite a bit of ink was dispensed over that gaffe. Of course, Bush didn't know anyone was listening to that conversation – there are always those other public flubs in which the speaker doesn't realize until later that they'll be issuing a correction.

During his first televised press briefing back in May, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow got a bit of flack for uttering a phrase that some perceived as racist. When asked to comment on the NSA domestic surveillance story, Snow replied that he didn't want "to hug the tar baby of trying to comment on the program." It became some of the more notable news from his inaugural appearance. The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley led off her review of the event with the "minor snag":

"The tar-covered doll that Br'er Fox used to ensnare Br'er Rabbit in an 1881 Uncle Remus story is used as a metaphor for a sticky situation, but for some it also carries vague racist connotations -- it has been used as a derogatory term for a black. In a society where a District of Columbia councilman can be accused of racism simply by using the word 'niggardly,' most politicians and TV commentators prefer to avoid tar baby references. When a reporter playfully asked him to explain the term, Mr. Snow mumbled that it could be traced to 'American lore.'"
Some bloggers were less charitable in their assessments, but Joe Gandelman was glad to see a press secretary who "comes across as a flesh-and-blood human being" instead of the traditional "robot-like human tape recorder." He noted, of course, the ultimate dilemma of Snow's casual style: "He's going to have to learn to choose his words quite carefully, because they are pitfalls and he seemingly stepped in one (in a tar pit, that is.)"

Well, someone else has stepped in it this weekend: Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Regarding one of Boston's more, um, sticky, political issues, Romney told an audience at a political event: "The best thing for me to do politically is stay away from the Big Dig -- just get as far away from that tar baby as I possibly can." By now, damage control is in full swing, and Romney has apologized for using the term. His spokesperson told the Boston Globe the governor "was unaware that some people find the term objectionable, and he's sorry if anyone was offended." And among the Boston newspapers, it seems the jury's still out on whether he should be lambasted over it. Media critic Dan Kennedy, who's inclined to give Romney the benefit of the doubt, compares some of Beantown's coverage:

The Globe plays down the reaction to Romney's remarks, relegating it to the lower-right-hand corner of the City & Region front. The Herald goes nuts, blowing out page one with a huge headline that reads, "THAT'S OFFENSIVE."
Boston saw another similar debacle some months ago, when Justice Antonin Scalia was photographed making what the Boston Herald interpreted – and reported – as an obscene gesture to a group of reporters. It made enough news that Scalia responded to the Boston Herald's article with a letter to the editor that explained his use of the gesture, which he argued, was not obscene:
How could your reporter leap to the conclusion (contrary to my explanation) that the gesture was obscene? Alas, the explanation is evident in the following line from her article: "'That's Sicilian,' the Italian jurist said, interpreting for the 'Sopranos' challenged." From watching too many episodes of the Sopranos, your staff seems to have acquired the belief that any Sicilian gesture is obscene - especially when made by an "Italian jurist." (I am, by the way, an American jurist.)
(The Herald responded by gathering string from various stars of "The Sopranos" on their interpretations of the gesture.)

It's certainly not a great idea for public figures to run around spewing racist slurs, obscenities or expletives. But it doesn't seem that any one of these individuals was intending to be racist or obscene. Indeed, making racist or obscene remarks publicly doesn't exactly jibe with success as a White House press secretary, a governor or a Supreme Court justice – in other words, it's not really in their best interest. Of course, when those transgressions occur, they should be reported. The audience can make its own determinations about what's appropriate. But what happens when words are dissected too closely for political correctness? In an environment of already tight control over what the public hears from its politicians is there such a thing as too much diplomacy?