Not a disgrace, just stupid

Let's suppose all of this had happened 18 years ago when a young Democratic governor of Arkansas named Bill Clinton was running for president.

Let's say Harry Reid of Nevada, then a senator merely on a leadership track, had said, in what he stupidly thought was private chit-chat with a couple of reporters working on a campaign book, something akin to this: "Clinton stands a better chance of getting elected president than your usual Southern politician because he doesn't look like the typical Bubba and doesn't sound like one -- unless he needs to."

Offensive? Yeah, in the way all human stereotypes and insults offend.

Ill-advised? Yeah, in that Reid should have been savvy enough to know that there's no such thing as off-the-record and that there's nothing to be gained by calling attention to regional divides that might work to the detriment of your party's presidential campaign calculus.

True, though? And widely thought and privately discussed among political watchers?

Sure. Clinton was Southern with a tweed jacket. He was Zell Miller with better looks, an Ivy League education, more urbanity and an appeal that -- solely on account of his style and manner and appearance -- could apply more universally than would be the case with a Southern politician whose style and manner and appearance fit more comfortably into restrictive regional labeling.

It's kind of like what I got quoted as saying in the summer of 1992 in a Time magazine cover profile of Clinton: It was that Clinton was more Georgetown and Yale than Arkansas.

Never mind that I was wrong. Clinton is pretty much a genuine synthesis of all that, not one more than the other. But I'd certainly engaged in some fairly rigid geographic and cultural stereotyping, hadn't I?

I'm sorry. No one's perfect. And Harry Reid certainly isn't.

But let's be candid: It's safer, eminently more dismissable, to stereotype ball-capped Southern guys labeled Bubbas than to stereotype African-Americans.

Reid should never have let his hair down that way in the company of reporters. He should never have said "Negro," an antiquated term that can offend.

And he should have steered clear of any political truth and otherwise legitimate observation if the utterance of that truth and observation caused him to venture into the political minefield of stereotypes based on degree of blackness and speaking styles based on the culture of race.

But, seriously, what Reid actually said in essence was that Barack Obama could be elected while heroic John Lewis of Georgia probably couldn't, and that the difference was the way Obama looked and spoke.

Just as Clinton could get elected while, oh, let's not say Zell Miller this time, but Louisiana's John Breaux, couldn't. Or let's say Richard Shelby, who, at the time, was a drawling Democratic senator from Alabama, not yet converted to the greater electoral convenience of Republicanism.

Conversely, John Kerry couldn't get elected president because he couldn't fashion a look and style and manner transcending, well ... may I safely say Eastern elitism?

So now Republicans are saying Reid has offended black people. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Not being black, I can't say.

But what he did not do was reveal any desire to keep black people down in America.

It was nonsense for Republicans to attempt to establish any symmetry between Reid's inartful goofiness and former Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott's outrageous transgression a few years ago.

What Lott did was get up at a public banquet and say the country would have been better off if, in 1948, we'd elected Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond president.

That was an endorsement of racial segregation and Jim Crow laws and poll taxes. It was a longing for a time without a civil rights law and before a voting rights act.

Reid was plenty stupid. Lott was utterly disgraceful. Big difference.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@