Newt Gingrich often falls back on an old favorite during debates: blame the media and moderators for his woes or alleged political miscommunications. He accused MSNBC’s Chuck Todd last September of trying to get the candidates to fight one another, which is actually kind of the point of debates, and blasted Fox News’ Chris Wallace for playing “Mickey Mouse games” for asking about his then-crumbling campaign. Well, Gingrich got another plum opportunity to do the same at last night’s Fox News-sponsored Republican debate in South Carolina.
Juan Williams, the former NPR journalist who became a conservative all-star after NPR fired him for anti-Muslim comments, dared ask the former House Speaker about some of his recent off-color comments about race, like consistently describing President Obama as a “food stamp” president, claiming people of color lack a work ethic and suggesting that poor children should labor as janitors to make some extra pocket change. To most, including Williams, these remarks glistened and gleamed with racist subtext.
“You recently said that black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps. You also said that poor kids lack a strong work ethic and proposed having them work as janitors in their schools,” said Williams. “Can’t you see that this is viewed, at a minimum, insulting to all Americans and particularly black Americans?
Gingrich, seeing an easy target, put on his “I’m gonna git u sucka” face and fired back, “No, I don’t see that.” The crowd went wild with approval, because they too hate the media, among other things.
The candidate then pointed out that his daughter’s first job, at the age of 13, was doing janitorial work at their local church — and she liked it! — leading into his final point on the matter. “New York City pays their janitors an absurd amount of money because of the union. You could take on a janitor and hire 37 kids to work in the school for the price of one janitor and those 30 kids would be less likely to drop out, they would actually have money in their pocket, they’d learn to show up for work…”
“They would be getting money, which is a good thing if you’re poor. Only the elites despise earning money.” Boo-yah! Gingrich not only talked down to Juan and rationalized away his own racism, he managed to drag unions and the elite into his mix. The crowd was in heaven.
Talking over the roar, Williams went on to wonder, “The suggestion you made was about a lack of work ethic…People of all races [are] asking if your comments are not intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities…” It’s here that the congregation let out a vociferous wave of boos louder and more aggressive than those lobbed even at a gay soldier. Williams powered on. “We saw some of this during your visit to a black church in South Carolina, where a woman asked you why you refer to President Obama as the ‘food stamp president.’ “It sounds as if you are seeking to belittle people.” More boos.
Gingrich didn’t miss a beat, offering a patronizing ad hominem: “First of all, Juan,” he emphasized, “the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. I know among the politically correct you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.”
He went on to suggest he was right about lazy poor people by citing an area populated by lower income black people that he thinks should be turned into a highway, because they don’t care about their neighborhood anyway. “The area that ought to be I-73 was called by Barack Obama a ‘corridor of shame’ because of unemployment,” he said. “Has it improved in three years? No — they haven’t built the road, they haven’t helped the people, they haven’t done anything. I’m going to continue to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job, and someday learn how to own the job.”
One — and Juan — could have anticipated such an attack from Gingrich. As mentioned, he hates the media, and there was no way he would let a journalist try to, no matter how correctly, paint him as a racist. He has to overlook ongoing discrimination and glaring economic and education inequality so that he can obscure the truth: his and his peers’ policies cater to the rich, a group comprised mostly of white people.
What is upsetting — though, again, not surprising — is that unabashed venom with which the audience greeted Williams’ reasonable questions. South Carolina’s not the most progressive, racially inclusive state in the union, but to see people so raucously celebrate barely veiled discrimination still turns the stomach. What we saw last night, people, was more than just a politician attacking the media to win points and it was more than even a debate about race. Last night’s display was an example of herd mentality, pure and simple, and one that we’ll most likely see again as the 2012 election runs its course.