If Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh had just kept their mouths shut, Harry Reid's comments in 2008 might still be scaling this week's meter for eyebrow-raising, racially tinged comments from public figures. But it only took a devastating tragedy of epic proportions for Rush and the Rev. Pat to knock him off.
Who knew that untold thousands of deaths from a massive 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Haiti, a poor country already wracked with misery, would spawn scorn and outlandish claims of God's retribution instead of compassion and concern? But in Limbaugh's and Robertson's worlds that's apparently what it should do.
Robertson's comments were the most blatantly offensive, because they were idiotic and came from a supposed man of God. On his TV show Wednesday, as horrific scenes of crumbled buildings and crumpled bodies were telecast elsewhere, Robertson laid out this incredible story: "Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. [Haitians] were under the heel of the French ... and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French.' True story. And the devil said, 'OK it's a deal.' Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another."
A "true story"? Haitians are in a "pact" with the "devil"? Maybe Robertson considers the pope the devil. Most Haitians — 80 percent — are practicing Roman Catholics.
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Limbaugh got his licks in mostly for the entertainment of his radio followers, it seems. His comments came off mostly like joke punch lines:
"I'm just gonna tell you, if I was named envoy to Haiti, I'd quit government. Envoy to Haiti? You can't even pick up a prostitute down there without genuine fear of AIDS." Haha.
"We've already donated to Haiti. It's called the U.S. income tax." Haha.
"This will play right into Obama's hands. He's humanitarian, compassionate. They'll use this to burnish their, shall we say, 'credibility' with the black community — in the both light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country. It's made-to-order for them. That's why he couldn't wait to get out there, could not wait to get out there." Haha.
That last one was a "haha" dig at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who's been roundly lambasted in Republican circles for comments he made during the 2008 presidential campaign describing Barack Obama as "a light-skinned" African-American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." Those comments appear in a new book, "Game Change," by Time magazine's Mark Halperin and New York magazine's John Heilemann.
Foot-in-mouth disease is common where race is concerned. Reid recognized that in hindsight. He swiftly apologized to Obama and blacks —and anybody else who brought it up. That didn't quell GOP calls for his resignation as Senate leader and accusations of a double standard in liberals' reaction to Reid's comments. When former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond upon his retirement, Democrats were clamoring for his head, they said.
True, but Lott praised Thurmond by saying the country would have been better off if he'd won his 1948 race-baiting campaign for president, a campaign that had a segregation platform. Yearning for the good old days of segregation is a far cry from racial remarks about a "Negro dialect," archaic and offensive as that may be. Besides, among those leading the charge for Lott's resignation were some big-name Republicans, including then-President George W. Bush.
I wrote about Lott's gaffe and didn't call for his resignation. But I did say the fallout should be "a helpful warning about shooting off at the mouth in the future." I said it now was clear what Lott thought, but he didn't have to say it publicly.
Which is true of Limbaugh and Robertson, too.
Their crass, insensitive rejoinders in light of great human tragedy — which includes, I might add, the deaths of many Americans who did mission work in Haiti — is an affront to common decency. Natural disasters can strike anywhere and anyone — and they have.
In Haiti and elsewhere, the victims deserve support, not scorn.