Former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele assumed the Republican National Committee’s chair a month ago with great fanfare. The first African American elected to the position, Steele triumphed over a candidate who once belonged to a whites-only country club, and another who had distributed a CD that included the song, “Barack, the Magic Negro.” Days after taking over the party’s moribund infrastructure, Steele promised an “off the hook” PR campaign to apply conservative principles to “urban-suburban hip-hop settings”—offering the GOP a much-needed image makeover for the dawning of the age of Obama.
Hip-hop legend Russell Simmons hailed Steele’s election in an open letter, assuring his friend, “The hip-hop community remains eager to hear the views of national leaders like you…” But Simmons added a warning: “Don’t let those who are angry in your base guide your choices or let the people to the left of President Obama push your buttons.”
Of course, many of those to “the left of President Obama,” including members of “the hip-hop community,” greeted Steele’s election with a collective yawn. Meanwhile, the RNC chairman made little noise at the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference, with one exception that occurred only after he finished addressing a dinner banquet. He turned the mic over to Representative Michele Bachman of Minnesota. “You be da man! You be da man!” Bachmann repeatedly shouted to him. The awkward incident was among the evening’s top stories on cable news shows, while Steele’s jeremiad against Obama’s stimulus package went almost unnoticed.
When Rush Limbaugh basked in the CPAC spotlight for more than an hour and a half on February 28, drawing boisterous, sustained applause from conference attendees with a stemwinding speech reiterating his desire to see Obama “fail,” Steele took action. The following evening, on CNN’s D.L. Hughley show, Steele attempted to reassert control over the party. When Hughley referred to Limbaugh as “the de facto leader of the Republican Party,” Steele shot back, “No, I’m the de facto leader of the Republican Party!” And he mocked Limbaugh as an “entertainer” whose behavior was “incendiary” and “ugly.”
Almost as soon as the broadcast ended, a firestorm of criticism erupted on the right-wing blogosphere. “It’s not easy watching a black guy stumble around in the dark, but really, I’m trying,” wrote Dan Riehl, a marketing manager who hosts the popular conservative blog, RiehlWorldView.com, in posting widely circulated on the right.
While conservative bloggers and radio talkers piled on, Limbaugh lashed out at Steele with a condescending on-air rant, barking at the chairman “to go behind the scenes and start doing the work that you were elected to do.” Finding himself under fire from Rush’s army of self-proclaimed “Dittoheads,” Steele immediately sued for peace. “I went back at that tape and I realized words that I said weren’t what I was thinking,” Steele whimpered. “It was one of those things where I thinking I was saying one thing, and it came out differently. What I was trying to say was a lot of people…want to make Rush the scapegoat, the bogeyman—and he’s not.”
Steele’s apology recalled a similar incident from late January, when Republican Representative Phil Gingrey of Georgia attacked Limbaugh for “throwing bricks” without paying the consequences. As I reported for the Daily Beast, Gingrey invited himself on Limbaugh’s radio show the following day to grovel before the host. “I clearly ended up putting my foot in my mouth on some of those comments,” the penitent congressman said.
But given Limbaugh’s well-documented history of racial controversy, and Steele’s position as the Republican Party’s first African American chairman, his apology is more significant than Gingrey’s. Limbaugh has, for example, mocked Obama as a “Halfrican-American” who should “become white;” he has called for a “posthumous Medal of Honor” for the assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr., James Earl Ray, and told an African American caller, “Take that bone out of your nose and call me back.”
Steele’s “off the hook” PR campaign is now off the rails. Within days, he has gone from being “da man” to just another “Dittohead.”