The Republican Party chairman on Sunday accused Democrats of a double standard by accepting Sen. Harry Reid's apology for racial remarks about Barack Obama instead of demanding Reid's ouster as majority leader.
In a private conversation reported in a new book, Reid described Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign as a "light-skinned" African-American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."
Reid, D-Nev., apologized to Obama on Saturday, and the president issued a statement accepting the apology and saying the matter was closed.
GOP Chairman Michael Steele, in appearances on two Sunday news programs, compared Reid's predicament with the circumstances that led Senate Republican leader Trent Lott to step down from that post in 2002. Lott had spoken favorably of the 1948 segregationist presidential campaign of Strom Thurmond, and in spite of apologies for those remarks at Thurmond's 100th birthday, Lott was forced out as leader.
"There is this standard where the Democrats feel that they can say these things and they can apologize when it comes from the mouths of their own. But if it comes from anyone else, it's racism," said Steele, who is black. "It's either racist or it's not. And it's inappropriate, absolutely."
Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Jack Reed of Rhode Island joined other Democrats in saying Reid's apology and Obama's statement were enough. They also rejected comparisons to the Lott episode.
"I think that's a totally different context. Harry Reid made a misstatement," Reed said. "He owned up to it. He apologized. I think he is mortified by the statement he's made. And I don't think he should step down."
Steele said Reid's remarks reflect an "attitude" by the Nevada senator, and Steele cited the lawmaker's comment last month about those who would want to go more slowly on overhauling health care: "You think you've heard these same excuses before? You're right. In this country there were those who dug in their heels and said, 'Slow down, it's too early. Let's wait. Things aren't bad enough.' — about slavery."
To Steele, "Clearly, he is out of touch not only with where America and his district are but where — how African-Americans generally feel about these issues."
Reid, whose tenure as majority leader has drawn criticism from liberals and conservatives, faces a difficult reelection bid this fall.
Asked to respond to Steele's remarks about Reid, the senator's spokesman Jim Manley said: "Sen. Reid is absolutely running for reelection. Nevadans are facing challenging times and they need the majority leader fighting for them to create jobs and get the economy back on track."
In their book "Game Change," Time Magazine's Mark Halperin and New York magazine's John Heilemann report that Reid "was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama — a 'light-skinned' African American 'with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,' as he later put it privately."
The behind-the-scenes look at the 2008 campaign that elevated Obama to the White House is based on the writers' interviews with more than 200 sources. Most of them were granted anonymity and thus much of the material could not be immediately corroborated.
Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine said the remarks were inappropriate, but also contended that they came in the context of saying "positive things about his candidacy and why his candidacy would be strong."
Steele responded: "All I know is that if (Senate Republican leader) Mitch McConnell had said those very words, that this chairman and this president would be calling for his head, and they would be labeling every Republican in the country as a racist for saying exactly what this chairman has just said."
On Saturday, after his remarks appeared on the Web site of The Atlantic, Reid issued a statement apologizing for "using such a poor choice of words." He added, "I sincerely apologize for offending any and all Americans, especially African-Americans for my improper comments."
Obama quickly followed with a statement calling the remarks "unfortunate" and accepting the apology. "As far as I am concerned," the president said, "the book is closed."
Lott apologized for "a poor choice of words" four days after speaking at a birthday celebration for then-Sen. Thurmond, R-S.C. The Mississippi Republican had said the nation would have been better off if Thurmond had won the presidency in 1948. Thurmond was an ardent segregationist and the Democratic governor of South Carolina when he mounted his third-party campaign.
Calls for Lott to step down as Republican leader intensified, and he resigned as Senate leader about a week later. Lott resigned from the Senate in 2007.
Steele and Kaine spoke on "Fox News Sunday" and NBC's "Meet the Press." Reed spoke on the Fox program, and Feinstein appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation."
© Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.