The Radio Equalizer: Brian Maloney

01 August 2006

Mitt Romney, Talk Radio, "Tar Baby" Remark


With Latest Campaign Controversy, Some Smell A Rat

If you thought this year's political silly season might not kick off until at least September, you've obviously been away from today's news.

After a political correctness- run- amok flap smacked Republican Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney upside the head Monday, Boston- area talk show hosts and callers were fit to be tied. Many found the controversy to be simply absurd.

At issue: Romney used the phrase "tar baby", which depending on its usage, can apparently have racist overtones.

Though it also received a significant amount of national coverage, including a Drudge Report link, this was a major story in Boston.

From the Boston Herald's Laurel J Sweet:

Prominent black Bay Staters are outraged by Gov. Mitt Romney’s use of the words “tar baby” to describe the Big Dig as he stumped for presidential points in Iowa.

“Tar baby is a totally inappropriate phrase in the 21st century. If Calvin Coolidge didn’t use it, why the hell should Mitt Romney?” railed Larry Jones, a black Republican and civil rights activist.

Tar baby can refer to a sticky mess, but it also has been recognized as an epithet to humiliate black people. President Bush’s spokesman Tony Snow learned that in May when his expression, “I don’t want to hug the tar baby of trying to comment on the program,” raised the hackles of political correctness.

Romney, who made the remark while addressing a couple hundred Republicans at a picnic in Ames, Iowa, on Saturday, offered an apology yesterday through the Herald and his spokesman, Eric Fernstrom.

“The governor was describing a sticky situation,” Fernstrom explained. “He was unaware that some people find the term objectionable and he’s sorry if anyone’s offended.”

When asked about the potential political millstone that is the Big Dig, Romney told Iowans, “The best thing for me to do politically is stay away from the Big Dig - just get as far away from that tar baby as I possibly can.”

David Deyoe, Iowa’s Story County Republican chairman, said he heard some “chuckles” in the audience, but believes Romney “was basically just trying to make it clear to everyone it (the Big Dig) was something he wanted to get away from. Clearly, that’s what he meant.”

Tar Baby was also a character in the Uncle Remus Tales - a doll made of tar that traps Brer Rabbit when he beats it for not speaking to him.

“His reference to Uncle Remus at least shows he’s well-read,” Jones quipped of Romney.

But to some, this was no laughing matter.

“He (Romney) obviously has lived a sheltered life,” said Leonard Alkins, president of the Boston NAACP. “He’s completely disconnected with reality in terms of racial sensitivity. He just does not get it.”

Maurice Lewis, a former Boston television reporter who is black, said of Romney’s choice of words, “I just think it’s reflective of how he sees people who don’t look like him. Words like tar baby and pickaninny are deeply rooted in the segregation of America. They don’t have an ever-changing, ever-expanding meaning.”

Perhaps we do need to be educated on this topic. Could Mr Jones or Mr Lewis please explain why it isn't okay for Tony Snow or Romney to utter this phrase, but a song by Sade called "Tar Baby" is acceptable?

From Sade's "Tar Baby" (Promise / 1986)

Granma came to see

Some- thing she could not believe

How could her girl be

So naive

Tar baby, tar baby told
The secret she conceived

That big old smile of yours
Could turn the wind into a song
How could I have doubted
Honey it's with me you belong

Tar baby, tar baby
I love you so

Like a brand new blade
You cut into my life
Cut through two decades
Like a hot coal on ice

Tar baby, my tar baby
It maybe was meant to be
When I look at you
I can't believe my eyes

So why do some conservative media watchers smell a rat? First, the timing is suspicious, given Romney's recent improved standing at home in Massachusetts. That's a result of his leadership on the Big Dig mess, following a recent tunnel collapse that has shaken public confidence in the nearly $15 billion project.

In addition, it's been clear for some time that the strategy to deflate Mitt's potential presidential campaign is wait for just such a gaffe in order to pounce on the governor.

After all, that's exactly what brought down his father's (George W Romney) aspirations in 1968.

From Wikipedia:

He led the Constitutional Convention that revised Michigan's Constitution from 1961 to 1962 and followed this up with a successful 1962 campaign for Governor of Michigan. Romney was a strong supporter of civil rights and was generally considered a moderate Republican, perhaps a bit to the right of Nelson Rockefeller, but well to the left of Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan.

After toying with the idea of running for President in 1964, Romney decided to run in the 1968 election. However, in September 1967, he committed a gaffe during an interview with Detroit broadcaster Lou Gordon when he stated that he had gotten the "greatest brainwashing" after meeting with generals discussing the Vietnam War in 1965. The comment would severely damage his campaign.

Romney finished with 50 votes on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention (44 of MIchigan's 48 plus 6 of heavily Mormon Utah's 8), finishing fifth behind Richard Nixon of California (692 out of 1,333), Nelson Rockefeller of New York (277), Ronald Reagan of California (182) and James Rhodes of Ohio (55).

Will this controversy succeed in taking down Mitt's political aspirations? Not if a Boston Herald online poll is any indication:

Could Romney's 'tar baby' statement hurt his presidential aspirations?

32% -- Yes, it was a bad mistake
51% -- No, it's been blown out of proportion
17% -- It will be forgotten by the primaries

Welcome National Review Online readers! Thanks to Kathryn Lopez for the link today. Welcome also to Shot In The Dark and Memeorandum fans!

Thanks for your continued and vital Radio Equalizer support, via Amazon orders that begin with clicks here, regardless of what you ultimately order!


  • Sade? WTF? You're certainly pulled that out of nowhere. Were you that desperate for a story?

    By Blogger Mr. Kite, at 01 August, 2006 01:10  

  • first of all, writing a song using 'tar baby' as a metaphor is different than using it during a political speech. second, he didn't have to apologize. he could have just said, ' i didn't realize it was offensive' and leave it at that. if he doesn't have the balls to do that, that's his problem.

    By Blogger tmcd, at 01 August, 2006 07:47  

  • Smell a rat?
    What, are you suggesting that Romney enemies made him say something that is generally understood to have racial overtones? As for the song, who freaking knows? It's over 20 years old and certainly wasn't a huge hit. Moreover, there is a difference between the words of an unelected singer and a presidential aspirant.

    By Blogger Justin, at 01 August, 2006 08:14  

  • unfortunately, i'm going to have to file this one under "Who Cares?" the guy didn't mean it in a derogatory way towards anyone. he was referring to "a sticky mess."

    yeah, if he meant it as a racial slur then the criticism would be well justified. he didn't. move on.

    By Blogger liberal outlaw, at 01 August, 2006 08:30  

  • Uh, Justin, how "generally" is this Tar Baby thing known? Please provide evidence.

    Please also provide ALL the words and phrases that are no longer allowable for "sophisticated" speakers. I sure never want to offend you, or any other person who decides that some word or phrase causes them the most infinitesimal discomfort.

    Which brings me to my point, if I say "Justin is an idiot", I don't mean that you are literally a drooling half-wit. I'm sure you are a quite intelligent chap (or am I?). I just mean that you have said something incredibly stupid.

    By Blogger mockmook, at 01 August, 2006 08:46  

  • MockMook,

    The term generated national press attention just last month after Tony Snow's use of it. The genesis of its racial overtones, however, go back to the 1940's, when Disney released Song of the South (featuring the Tar Baby story), in which blacks not only were portrayed as subservient to whites, but also content with that relationship. It was a major cultural touchstone at the time, reflecting the continued North/South racial divisions in America.

    By Blogger Justin, at 01 August, 2006 09:44  

  • I, for one, see the only rectification of this situation is to complete erase the works and memory of Joel Chandler Harris from history. Burn all of the Uncle Remus Tales and be sure that Brer' Rabbit is never spoken of again.

    Lest someone make a literary allusion......

    By Blogger Techie, at 01 August, 2006 10:04  

  • I gotta say - I absolutely love this stuff. Americans just hated each others guts. I mean, everbody who is not one hats Jews, Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Asians, Irish, Italians, Poles. Anglos, Wasps, Indians (both kinds), Mormons, Mexicans, homosexuals, Arabs, Gringos, liberals, smokers, car salesmen, Columbians, Catholics, lawyers, Ann Coulter, southerners, rappers, the Clintons and so on and so on and so on... And everybody just waits for a gaffe like this to pounce. Hey, that lousy Mormon said "tar baby"!! Get him, get him!!! I'm at the point in my life where I've stopped worrying about it, and have learned to sit back and laugh. Keep it up folks! You're killin' me!

    By Blogger Jim O'Sullivan, at 01 August, 2006 11:02  

  • I was thinking along the lines of JimO, but he presented it much better and more succinctly then I could have.

    If this is big enough to "derail" Romney's shot at POTUS, then his shot wasn't all that good to begin with.

    Next kerfuffle, please....

    By Blogger JD, at 01 August, 2006 11:14  

  • So anyone younger than 60 something would never have heard of the supposedly offensive Disney tale? Is that leak. And the fact that the Uncle Remus tale is out there and was never considered to be a racist tale, is to be totally forgotten. Have we ( no you ) lost your minds?

    By Blogger Seriouslyunserious, at 01 August, 2006 11:51  

  • Could we get a ruling and a link on the suggestion that Song of the South was anything but a well-loved movie (at least at the time)?

    In fact, if you go watch it now you'll be fairly well entertained.

    By Blogger Badda-Blogger, at 01 August, 2006 13:01  

  • PLEASE tell me that some of you aren't trying to claim you don't know that "tar baby" is an offensive term. Are you kidding me?

    By Blogger Robert Spuhler, at 01 August, 2006 16:16  

  • Well, Romney's got powerful supporters who are trying to publicly answer the "Mormon question>" on his behalf. Maybe they'll help him out with this, too, although I think the tar baby comment is being used by the media to smear the guy. It's a non-issue.

    By Blogger Terrence, at 01 August, 2006 16:20  

  • as someone who lived in the most redneck, backwoods, racist areas of alabama for 5 years, i can honestly say that i have never heard ANYONE use the term "tar baby", and i've heard slurs that you couldn't even imagine.

    By Blogger hardcore conservative genious, at 01 August, 2006 16:30  

  • You know I never heard the term mentioned as a slur. I could rattle off about 20 slurs that I have heard used about black people, for example "jigaboo". Never ever heard "tar baby" even once to my honest recall. Seems like a tempest in a teapot to me.

    By Blogger Seriouslyunserious, at 01 August, 2006 17:51  

  • NONE of you have ever watched the greatest SNL skit of all time?

    (Note: NSFW)

    By Blogger Robert Spuhler, at 01 August, 2006 18:13  

  • Robert

    Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor? I did not look at your link ( since it was not hot linked ) but I saw it Live. The very first time. You are way too young to have seen it live so lose the lecture.

    By Blogger Seriouslyunserious, at 01 August, 2006 18:38  

  • SeriouslyUnserious:

    So, to clarify, you saw it live, but claim you've NEVER (your word) heard "tar baby" used as a slur.

    I think the entire thing's a bit overblown, myself, but let's not pretend we don't know the negative connotations of the phrase...

    (And yes - too young by about three years, I think...)

    By Blogger Robert Spuhler, at 01 August, 2006 18:44  

  • Robert

    To clarify did you see the clip yourself or did you just cut and paste. Watch Richard Pryor as he asks Chevy to repeat the phrase. So why was a repetition necessary? No other word needs clarification. I wonder why? And what is Pryor response ( its prety garbled, is it a slur back. Not to my ears.

    But lets step back and use some common sense. Was the Governor of Massachusetts in referring to a tunnel which has had problem after problem, cost over run after cost overrun and just had some one killed in the tunnel trying to convey that the tunnel was a black person, or was he saying it was a problem that sticks to you regardless of what you try.

    Liberals can be so obtuse when it suits them.

    By Blogger Seriouslyunserious, at 01 August, 2006 18:54  

  • Justin said: "The term generated national press attention just last month after Tony Snow's use of it. The genesis of its racial overtones, however, go back to the 1940's, when Disney released Song of the South (featuring the Tar Baby story)..."

    I didn't even remember the Tony Snow thing until I read this thread. Why? Because it was such a non-story.

    Again I ask, what proof/data do you have that it is generally accepted that "Tar Baby" is a racist term.

    But accepting your premise, one must conclude that Romney watched the Snow kerfuffle and thought, "Hey, I think I will use that racist phrase. Man, that will really solidify votes from my whitey brothers. The publicity will be SWEET!!!"

    Sure, that's it.

    Justin, I not to subtly insulted you in my previous comment. You shrugged it off and responded with grace and dignity. Why don't you give other people enough credit to believe that they can shrug off something so inoffensive as "Tar Baby" (especially when it is so obvious there was no malicious intent in its use by Romney).

    By Blogger mockmook, at 01 August, 2006 19:35  

  • SuS:

    You have got to be pulling my leg, right?

    The repetition is necessary because it's the second of a series of racial slurs. He brushes off the first, then is surprised when another is used. That repetition sets the audience up for what it's about to see - it's important for Pryor to show that he is not expecting such a slur, otherwise the joke is dead (hint: the words are offensive, the intention is funny).

    The reply, which to me is not muffled at all, is "ofay." Go educate yourself: Wikipedia entry for ofay.

    And who is the liberal that you are lecturing? I'm just calling you (and others here, for the record) on this one-uppmanship garbage. "I don't think it's racist!" "Oh yeah? Well...I didn't even KNOW it was racist! See! I'm more conservative than you!"

    Like I said earlier (and you left out, much to your convenience), this is all silly. Romney is clearly not racist. And I'm not just saying that because he'll likely be my pick for president in '08.

    But there was no point to using a term there that, for anyone who knows much of anything about American history and the history of racial relations in this country, is loaded like "tar baby." It's not racist. It's not offensive. It's just unnecessary.

    (And with that, I'm done with the SNL talk. I'm sure BM isn't here to "equalize" a decades-old and 10-years-dead-but-not-buried television show.)

    By Blogger Robert Spuhler, at 01 August, 2006 19:57  

  • But there was no point to using a term there that, for anyone who knows much of anything about American history and the history of racial relations in this country, is loaded like "tar baby." It's not racist. It's not offensive. It's just unnecessary.

    Bullshit. Tar baby is a perfectly acceptable term. And if Ofay is what he said, great. It would not insult me cuz I never ever heard it used before. And frankly my momma taught me early that names can never hurt you.

    Get over yourself. You were -3 the last time tar baby was used in a racial context.

    And it might say a lot about you that you think a skit of two calls calling each other racial slurs is the funniest skit ever. Just sayin'

    By Blogger Seriouslyunserious, at 01 August, 2006 20:50  

  • Is it just me, or does this discussion seriously suck?

    By Blogger JD, at 01 August, 2006 21:46  

  • Professor Volokh opines and this should be the last word on the subject ( it will be for me ):

    "Tar baby" is one of many words that has a standard and common meaning that is not pejorative, and that isn't even derived from a pejorative concept or strengthened by its association with a pejorative concept, but at the same time has a completely different meaning than is derogatory. Using it in a context where there's no reason to think the speaker is saying something pejorative (such as this context) is no more offensive than saying "a chink in his armor," "spic and span," or "nip it in the bud" where there's no reason to think the speaker is trying to insult the Chinese, Hispanics, or the Japanese.

    Conversely, it seems to me that if you complain about Romney's use of "tar baby," you must equally condemn someone who innocently says "nip it in the bud." Both "tar baby" and "nip" can be and have been used as pejoratives; "nip" is, I suspect, even more broadly known as a pejorative than "tar baby" (Romney said he was unaware of the pejorative meaning, which seems to me plausible). Both are being used without any such intention. Someone who is actually trying to figure out what the speaker means would clearly and quickly grasp that the speaker is using the term with the innocent meaning. It seems to me that either you must condemn both (and the other examples) as "totally inappropriate," or, in my view the better position, avoid taking offense where none was intended

    By Blogger Seriouslyunserious, at 02 August, 2006 09:42  

  • I am a 26 year old male (for all of you bad at math that means I was born in 1980), and even I know that tar baby is derrogatory... who the hell says "tar baby" anyway? There are plenty of other phrases to describe a "sticky situation"... such as, "sticky situation". I have lived from coast to coast, including Boston, and I have never heard or used the phrase "tar baby", but I still know that it is offensive. Romney is just an idiot.

    By Blogger bellamyd, at 03 August, 2006 23:09  

  • It's sad and pathetic that as a culture, we let the most neurotically hypersensitive people determine what language is and is not acceptable.

    I'm gonna go watch South Park for a while.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 04 August, 2006 09:21  

  • Blown way out of proportion!!! I’m LDS and live just outside of Chicago. I feel like it is very important to respect other people’s differences and their heritages. My mother organizes a yearly cultural heritage party at out church building and invites all her friends to share their backgrounds and it’s a popular and fun event. Despite trying to be educated about racial slurs I’ve hardly ever heard the term “tar baby” (maybe a few times in my life) and I’ve never heard it outside of the Chicagoland area. I’m sure that those who are more familiar with the derogatory term would think Mitt meant something racial but I would be surprised if he, or his wife, or his kids have ever heard this awful slang term. Now there are those of you who think he should be more sensitive to what other people take as derogatory, but how many of you use the word “Mormon” to refer to Latter-day Saints. Did you know that the term “Mormon” was first used in modern times as a derogatory term? I for one don’t like being called a “Mormon”; I don’t belong to the “Mormon” church I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I also don’t criticize my friends who use the term “Mormon”; I just correct them and move on. Mitt has been corrected and he’s apologized.

    By Blogger bjalder26, at 15 September, 2006 18:02  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Page Rank Checker

Powered by Blogger