The first African American chairman of the Republican National Committee was a disastrous experiment before it even began. And it was a harbinger of things to come for the next two scandal-filled years.
Michael Steele was selected to make history as the first black to lead the RNC, just two weeks after Barack Obama was inaugurated as the first African American president in U.S. history. Everyone believed this was simply a Republican ploy to try to blunt the accrued momentum of Obama and the Democratic Party.
But Steele was subjected to relentless derision for his lack of leadership skills, reckless spending and propensity for public gaffes from the very beginning, and it never let up. I’m surprised the side of his head hasn’t caved in by now.
He was also excoriated by conservative lions Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck for trying to “hip-hoppify” the Republican Party by openly trying to recruit more young African Americans into the GOP. I remember the storm Steele created when he attended Tavis Smiley’s now-defunct “State of the Black Union” in Los Angeles in early 2009 in an effort at unity and to make the GOP more digestible to African Americans. Steele may still be wet from the spittle that came out of Limbaugh’s mouth about that move.
Steele was mercilessly mauled within his own party after he dared to criticize Limbaugh for his “incendiary” and “ugly” language in critiquing Steele’s methods for social inclusion within the GOP. Limbaugh went out of his way to tell the country that Steele was not the leader of the Republican Party, effectively smacking Steele on the back of his head and telling him to get back in his place. The tactic worked as Steele backpedaled from his criticisms of Limbaugh in a way that would have made Michael Jackson jealous. He would never stand up to Limbaugh again.
As much as he was lampooned by his own party, Steele garnered no respect from the black electorate either. Longtime Washington, D.C., political observer Ray Joseph noted bitterly that no one should have been surprised at how Steele‘s RNC chairmanship would turn out, given Steele’s slapstick-like tenure as lieutenant governor of Maryland. And indeed, The Baltimore Sun praised Steele’s opponent during the campaign for his experience and expertise, stating that: “state GOP chairman Michael S. Steele, brings little to the team but the color of his skin.”
The inference is clear: Steele optioned off his ethnicity to attain Republican prominence. Moreover, in addition to being seen as a “handkerchief head,” Joseph mentioned that Steele lacked a backbone. When Steele’s running mate and eventual governor, Robert Ehrlich, reinstuted the death penalty despite racial inequities, Steele, who earlier opposed the death penalty, said nothing.
As RNC chair, Steele provided many satirical opportunities for a bevy of television comedians because of his penchant for tripping over his own tongue. When the media got wind that RNC people under Steele’s watch wound up at a strip club in Los Angeles, that constituted the proverbial last straw.
Now, after Steele’s resignation in the face of inevitable defeat to repeat as RNC chairman, the Republican experiment is mercifully over. –terry shropshire