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Affair of Reid’s gaffe provides much to laugh about

You decide which is more absurd:

• The idea that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, after all these years, is suddenly a racist.

• The daffy notion the Republican Party has found an issue that might drive Reid into retirement.

• Or the thought civil rights advocate Al Sharpton, who talks about race for a living, is defending an aging white guy who still uses the word "Negro" in a private conversation.

Make that a formerly private conversation.

Already sporting the kind of poll numbers that frightened Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut into closing his campaign office, Reid finds himself in the news breach once more after a conversation about the politics of the skin color of then-Sen. Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.

The conversation was reported in "Game Change," a new book on the campaign by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.

The veteran reporters write, "(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 said privately."

Reid’s statement has already elicited an apology from the senator, who said his comments were "improper," and perhaps hoped the political tempest would remain in the teapot.

Republican Party bosses, led by GOP Chairman Michael Steele, smelled what they thought was fresh blood. (Reid bleeds so often in the press these days it’s hard to tell what’s fresh and what isn’t.)

Steele pounced on the issue, raised the question of media hypocrisy and called for Reid to relinquish his majority leader position, preferably for a job as a swabbie on a ship not allowed to tie up in any port anywhere in the world.

Meanwhile, Sharpton and other men of the Democratic political cloth rushed to Reid’s defense. I’m sure the embattled senator appreciated the help.

But I’m guessing he was even more grateful for the hand he received on a Sunday television talk show from conservative columnist and commentator George Will. He said, "I don’t think there’s a scintilla of racism in what Harry Reid said. At long last, Harry Reid has said something that no one can disagree with, and he gets in trouble for it."

You can almost hear Steele, Rush Limbaugh and a certain Reid-ridiculing newspaper publisher I know mutter, "Curses, foiled again. We’ll get you next time, Dingy Harry."

While we’re on the subject of what’s unintentionally funny about Reid’s latest outbreak of foot-in-mouth disease — this guy must gargle with tough actin’ Tinactin — I find especially humorous the attempt to compare the Nevada senator’s remark to the verbal support then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott gave in 2002 to the segregationist political agenda of Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential campaign. Lott apologized for his "poor choice of words."

One man raises the issue of race in America’s political maturation process. The other endorses a racist political worldview at an old segregationist’s 100th birthday party.

It’s not the same, but Reid’s detractors know few folks pay close attention to details. Every political wound, self-inflicted and otherwise, makes Reid more vulnerable in November.

The bad news for Reid’s increasingly stressed support structure in the Silver State is that the senator simply can’t self-edit his comments. He has the right to remain silent, as the comedians say, but not the ability.

Despite his awful poll numbers and rhetorical gaffes, Reid wouldn’t dream of quitting. His political legacy is at stake, and he’s the fiercest political fighter in Nevada history.

The November election is still more than nine months away. As bad as he looks right now, there’s still plenty of time for him to make himself look worse.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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