RNC's Steele Rebukes CNN’s Blitzer on Race

RNC Chairman Michael Steele shot back at CNN’s Wolf Blitzer after the anchor tried to smear conservatives with racism on Wednesday’s Situation Room. The CNN anchor pointed out a racist sign at a Tea Party, and Steele replied, “Don’t hold up one person as an example of behavior by everyone.” The RNC chairman also rebuked Blitzer after the anchor pointed out the GOP’s dearth of minorities in Congress [audio clips from the segment are available here].

Before he introduced Steele, Blitzer played a clip from former President Jimmy Carter, who attributed “overwhelming portion of the intensely-demonstrated animosity towards President Barack Obama” to racism. He then asked the RNC chairman for his take on the Democrat’s remarks. Steele replied that Carter was “just dead wrong....I am, like a lot of Americans, concerned and disagree with the President’s policies and approaches from the stimulus spending to this health care strategy. Am I a racist because I disagree with that? I don’t think so.”

The CNN anchor followed-up by citing the “small fringe element out there...that does have racist views of the President.” Mr. Steele answered that Carter’s “throwing race out there...diminish[es] real instances of...racism that needs to be addressed.”

Later, after bringing up Maureen Dowd’s “very powerful column” and Representative Henry Johnson’s “pretty powerful statement” against Representative Joe Wilson’s outburst during President Obama’s health care speech to Congress, Blitzer brought up supposed racism at Tea Parties: “You have to admit, if you take a look at some of those rallies, there were some really racist pictures out there...pictures of the President of the United States as an African witch doctor, if you will....There were these kinds of racist images that were projected at some of those rallies.”

Steele criticized the media’s focus on the more extreme sentiments at the rallies:
STEELE: You know- and look, that’s inappropriate and misplaced. That’s what- how that person may have interpreted it, but for every one of those, Wolf, there were 70, 80, 100- 1,000 other signs that weren’t that, and so this is- this is the distinction I think we need to understand. Don’t hold up one person as an example of behavior by everyone, because that’s not what we’re talking about here, and I think we need to be very careful and sensitive. If we want to stay serious about solving some of the issues on race, then we just can’t go around every corner claiming it exists there and it exists there when it doesn’t, and that’s- that’s where I have a real problem with a lot of these folks who are coming out here, trying to play this card from beneath the deck in such a way to stifle debate, to have us focus on something other than the President’s policies. Instead, now we’re having this discussion about race.
The CNN anchor then tried to portray the chairman’s party as not “diverse” enough. Steele granted part of Blitzer’s point, but struck back at the Democrats as well:
Wolf Blitzer, CNN Anchor; & RNC Chairman Michael Steele | NewsBusters.orgBLITZER: You have your hands cut out for you. You’re the chairman of the Republican Party, and you have a largely white party. I want to put a picture up on the screen, Mr. Chairman, of the floor of the joint session of Congress- the Democrats and the Republicans. Now, the Democrats are on the right side and the Republicans are on the left side over there, and if you take a look, the left side is mostly white men. There are no African-American Republicans in the House or in the Senate. You look at the Democratic side. There’s a lot of people of color. There’s African-Americans, Latinos- men and women. What are you going to do to try to diversify the Republican Party?

STEELE: I’ll accept the indictment. I’ll accept it- you know, and I know we’ve got to change, and our party has, for over a generation, employed a strategy that right now we wished many of us wish we never have. We have a strong and- I think- a special relationship with the minority community, especially African-Americans in the country, and part of my responsibility and opportunity is to engage- in a new way- those voters out there on ideas that matter to them- on policies that matter to them, whether we’re talking about health care- we’re taking about employment.

You know, I’m looking at cities around the country where black folk live. Now, you showed me the Congress with all these wonderful black Democrats and white Democrats- but I go to black neighborhoods that are run by those same Democrats, and you tell me where racism really exists. Is it in the words of a congressman who says ‘you lie,’ or is it how we strip education funding through opportunity scholarships, or is it how we cut money for our HBCU [historically black colleges and universities] around the country, or is it the fact that so many African-Americans still live in neighborhoods that are burnt out and run down, and those same Democrats that are in that hall and that are running those cities aren’t investing capital, time, interest in that community- and instead, just giving the typical 40-year lip service out of the Great Society, that- trust us, we’re better, and if you don’t, the Republicans- the Republicans are going to come in a white hood. I’m sick of that.

BLITZER: All right.

STEELE: Right now, let’s talk about how we move people beyond poverty and into opportunity. That’s a debate, and when we get into that one- instead of talking about this stuff- when we get into that one, you’ll start to see some heads turned in this country, and the Republican Party will stand there and have something to say in every community, not just black, white or otherwise.

The full transcript of Blitzer’s interview of Michael Steele, which began 11 minutes into the 5 pm Eastern hour of Wednesday’s Situation Room:

WOLF BLITZER: Let’s get back to another major story we’re following. Former President Jimmy Carter says he’s very disturbed by the tone of some of the most heated criticism aimed at President Obama. He says much of it is born in what he calls ‘racism.’ Listen to what he told anchor Brian Williams on the NBC Nightly News.

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: An overwhelming portion of the intensely-demonstrated animosity towards President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man- that he’s African-American. I live in the South, and I’ve seen the South come a long way, and I’ve seen the rest of the country that shared the South’s attitude towards minority groups at that time, particularly African-Americans. That racism [unintelligible] still exists, and I think it’s bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people- not just in the South, but around the country- that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country.

BLITZER: Very strong words from former President Jimmy Carter- let’s get some reaction from the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, [who] is joining us now. Mr. Chairman, thanks for coming in.

RNC CHAIRMAN MICHAEL STEELE: Hey, Wolf, good to be with you, buddy.

BLITZER: What do you want to say to the former president?

STEELE: Well, make it short and sweet and simple as possible- you’re just dead wrong. I think the President’s interpretation of what racism is not a reflection of what this is about, and the reality of it is this is about policy, differences in how we approach solving some of these issues that we’re confronting on health care and the economy, and the fact that there are citizens around the country- I don’t care what color they are- that are outraged or confused or concerned or whatever- however they come to this debate- you know, that has nothing to do with the color of the President’s skin. I am, like a lot of Americans, concerned and disagree with the President’s policies and approaches from the stimulus spending to this health care strategy. Am I a racist because I disagree with that? I don’t think so.

BLITZER: But- but there is an element- a tiny element, I should say- small fringe element out there, and you’re sensitive to this, I think- that does have racist views of the President.

STEELE: Well, look, hey, they have the racist views about me. I mean, they’re racist if that’s the case, but that has not been the nature of this policy debate, and that’s where I have the problem with the President’s [Carter’s] comments because he’s elevated it to the point that it is now- you know, a reaction to everything- everybody who has this negative approach or view on this subject is a racist, and that’s not where we are. That’s not where the country is, and I just thought that the President was out of line, and I think that he takes this to a point and to a level that is not reflective of what’s been transpiring in this debate.

My second concern, Wolf, is that when you go down that road, when you just look behind every corner and see race and racism- and that’s not to say it doesn't exist; Lord knows it still does, and I’ve had a problem with this post-racial attitude that some in the Obama campaign, now in the administration, have tried to hoist out there- but when you go down this road and you start just willy-nilly- as I believe President Carter has- throwing race out there, you diminish real instances of race- of racism that needs to be addressed.

BLITZER: Let me point out what Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist- she wrote a very powerful column last Sunday. She had another one out today, and today she suggests that- she has an interview with James Clyburn, the congressman from South Carolina, the highest ranking African-American in the U.S. Congress- Democrat. He’s the Whip. She writes this: ‘Over the years, Clyburn tried to look past things that bothered him’ -referring to Joe Wilson, the congressman who screamed ‘you lie’ to the President- ‘Wilson’s membership in some groups that call into question his feelings about his whole notion of white supremacy and his defense of the Confederate flag flying above the Columbia, South Carolina Statehouse.’ So it’s not just Jimmy Carter. It’s Maureen Dowd and others who are suggesting this racial overtone that is out there.

STEELE: Yeah, it is- it is- oh yeah, it is this wonderful ivory tower liberal elite who think they know racism better than I do, who think they understand what it’s like better than I do- they know better than I see it. The reality of it is-

BLITZER: But- but James Clyburn understands what racism- James Clyburn understands racism, right?

STEELE: Well- but James Clyburn- James Clyburn’s experience is different from mine. I don’t hear someone call an individual a liar and immediately jump to racism. And so that’s the problem. This generation of Americans don’t do that. Dr. King laid a foundation that we have progressed from, where we are better at distinguishing vestiges of racism that exist in this country, and so when you step back and you try to wrap around the way Clyburn, Carter and Maureen are trying to do, I think it is disingenuous and it takes real effective approaches to solving racism where it is.

BLITZER: This was a statement that Congress- Democratic Congressman Henry Johnson of South Carolina [sic- Johnson is from Georgia] made, and it’s causing a lot of consternation out there as well. Listen to this.

GEORGIA REPRESENTATIVE HENRY JOHNSON: It instigated more racist sentiment, feeling that it’s okay, you don’t have to- you don’t have to bury it now. You can bring it out and talk about it fully, and so I guess we’ll probably have folks putting on white hoods and white uniforms again and riding through the countryside intimidating people.

BLITZER: Wow. That’s- that’s a pretty powerful statement he’s making.

STEELE: I think it’s an ignorant statement. I think it’s an ignorant statement- I’m sorry. That is just so- so beyond my comprehension that you jump from a member of Congress who blurted out in an emotional response to something the President said, to- all of a sudden, people are going to be running through the neighborhoods wearing white sheets and hoods. I’m sorry, it just to me is beyond anyone’s comprehension that you can make that leap- but that, again, makes my point. And so- you know, I’m where the President [Obama] is on this. Now the President of the United States said- on many occasions- that matters of race- whether we are having a discussion or we’re trying to solve a problem- is a teachable moment. I think that teachable moment- that classroom right now should have Carter and Clyburn and others in it so they understand what the President and I understand- and that is there’s a very fine distinction between what we heard in that hall last week and what we’re hearing right now, and this to me is the problem.

BLITZER: Congressman- Congressman Johnson- I should correct- is from Georgia- not from South Carolina. But you have to admit, if you take a look at some of those rallies, there were some really racist pictures out there. We’ll put a few of them up there on the screen, videos showing- or pictures of the President of the United States as an African witch doctor, if you will. There it is right there. There were- there were these kinds of racist images that were projected at some of those rallies.

STEELE: You know- and look, that’s inappropriate and misplaced. That’s what- how that person may have interpreted it, but for every one of those, Wolf, there were 70, 80, 100- 1,000 other signs that weren’t that, and so this is- this is the distinction I think we need to understand. Don’t hold up one person as an example of behavior by everyone, because that’s not what we’re talking about here, and I think we need to be very careful and sensitive.

If we want to stay serious about solving some of the issues on race, then we just can’t go around every corner claiming it exists there and it exists there when it doesn’t, and that’s- that’s where I have a real problem with a lot of these folks who are coming out here now, trying to play this card from beneath the deck in such a way to stifle debate, to have us focus on something other than the President’s policies. Instead, now we’re having this discussion about race- and finally on this point, I’d like to have the President give his own view on this. Does he believe in what Clyburn and Maureen Dowd have said?

BLITZER: Well, the White House- the White House- the White House press secretary today, Robert Gibbs, agreed with you- he doesn’t believe that racism is part of this angry debate that is out there. So he seems, at least on this narrow point, to agree with Michael Steele.

You have your hands cut out for you. You’re the chairman of the Republican Party, and you have a largely white party. I want to put a picture up on the screen, Mr. Chairman, of the floor of the joint session of Congress- the Democrats and the Republicans. Now, the Democrats are on the right side and the Republicans are on the left side over there, and if you take a look, the left side is mostly white men. There are no African-American Republicans in the House or in the Senate. You look at the Democratic side. There’s a lot of people of color. There’s African-Americans, Latinos- men and women. What are you going to do to try to diversify the Republican Party?

STEELE: I’ll accept the indictment. I’ll accept it- you know, and I know we’ve got to change, and our party has, for over a generation, employed a strategy that right now we wished many of us wish we never have. We have a strong and- I think- a special relationship with the minority community, especially African-Americans in the country, and part of my responsibility and opportunity is to engage- in a new way- those voters out there on ideas that matter to them- on policies that matter to them, whether we’re talking about health care- we’re taking about employment.

You know, I’m looking at cities around the country where black folk live. Now, you showed me the Congress with all these wonderful black Democrats and white Democrats- but I go to black neighborhoods that are run by those same Democrats, and you tell me where racism really exists. Is it in the words of a congressman who says ‘you lie,’ or is it how we strip education funding through opportunity scholarships, or is it how we cut money for our HBCU [historically black colleges and universities] around the country, or is it the fact that so many African-Americans still live in neighborhoods that are burnt out and run down, and those same Democrats that are in that hall and that are running those cities aren’t investing capital, time, interest in that community- and instead, just giving the typical 40-year lip service out of the Great Society, that- trust us, we’re better, and if you don’t, the Republicans- the Republicans are going to come in a white hood. I’m sick of that.

BLITZER: All right.

STEELE: Right now, let’s talk about how we move people beyond poverty and into opportunity. That’s a debate, and when we get into that one- instead of talking about this stuff- when we get into that one, you’ll start to see some heads turned in this country, and the Republican Party will stand there and have something to say in every community, not just black, white or otherwise.

BLITZER: Good- good luck, Mr. Chairman. You’ve got your hands full out there.

STEELE: It’s worth it. I’ve got to do it, man.

BLITZER: All right, we’ll talk- we’ll continue this conversation. Michael Steele is the chairman of the Republican National Committee.

STEELE: All right. Take care.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan is a news analyst at Media Research Center