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The Politics of Personal Destruction, Capitol Hill-Style, Part II

Is it hypocrisy, payback or a simple case of media “gotcha?” It’s probably all three.

But no matter what you call it, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) words as quoted in a new book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin have had the nation’s capital and the national media abuzz since the weekend.

The authors wrote that the Nevada Democrat was “wowed” during the presidential campaign by Barack Obama’s “oratorical gifts” and believed that the country “was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate.” They then quoted Reid as citing Obama’s assets as being a “light-skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

In politics these days, it’s out of fashion to give your opponent the benefit of the doubt. Attack, attack and attack again is the way things are done. If your adversary says something that can be used to brand him or her as a racist — or some other intolerant, discriminating boor — so much the better.

So it isn’t surprising that Republicans and their talk show allies are on the attack, even demanding Reid’s resignation.

As far as I can tell, Reid made two mistakes. First, he used the word “Negro,” which was how African-Americans were described years ago, when both Reid and I were much younger. That word has fallen out of favor and is now regarded by many as a racist term. The Senate Majority Leader should have known that.

And second, Reid offered a perfectly reasonable analysis of part of the reason why Obama was a credible candidate for president.

Of course, it’s a huge mistake these days to tell the truth if you are a politician. Stick to the script of repeating mindless platitudes and talking points. Journalists will complain privately about that approach, but they’ll jump on you the minute you actually say something “off message.”

During the campaign, many of us who regularly talk and write about politics commented about Obama’s appeal, noting that most white Americans, who still constitute about three-quarters of the electorate, felt comfortable with him — with his speaking style, thoughtfulness, apparent coolness under pressure and emphasis on bringing people together.

Obama and Tiger Woods, both of whom have mixed race ancestry, transcended race in the white community, even though the election returns demonstrated that African-Americans viewed the Illinois Senator as a black political figure.

Reid’s reference to “Negro dialect” drew some chuckles on Monday morning’s “Morning Joe,” an MSNBC program that doesn’t exhibit the strong ideological bias that the network’s prime time schedule has.

Host Joe Scarborough seemed to mock Reid when he laughingly asked Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson, an African-American, “What is a Negro dialect?”

“You tell me, brother, I don’t know,” said Dyson, never at a loss for words. “Is it like this ... What’s up, you know what I’m sayin’...”

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