I guess if you were to look up the word "naïve" in the dictionary you might see my picture. See I was one of the people who genuinely applauded Michael Steele's ascension to the head of the Republican National Committee. I had the opportunity to interview him for my book Party Crashing, about the evolving politics of African-American voters and found him to be not only gracious but incredibly forthright -- a quality that journalists (shockingly) don't always encounter in those in politics. But what I admired most about Steele was his willingness to be his own person. Whether you agree with him or not, you have to admit that it takes a strong individual to be willing to be in the ultimate minority, among minorities, and that is what someone who is both black and Republican is -- especially when they take decidedly non-conservative positions in support of affirmative action and in opposition to the death penalty. (Steele's independent streak earned him high profile black supporters, including mogul Russell Simmons and nearly 30% African-American support during his Senate run). During our conversation Steele even joked about the times when his own mother expressed loving consternation at his chosen political path. But something that she and others could be proud of was the fact that he was his own man.
At least that's what I thought until yesterday.
I cheered Steele on when he forcefully reclaimed the reins of the party he was elected to lead by proclaiming that he -- not Limbaugh -- was the Republican Party's rightful leader. On Sunday I expressed a similar sentiment on CNN's Reliable Sources, noting that there are plenty of Republicans who do not think that the Rush Limbaughs and Ann Coulters of the world speak for them. Limbaugh and Coulter may hog the limelight (and yes I cringe at the thought that I am giving them even more right now), and they may still sell books and line up some listeners, but they no longer command the cultural army they once did in their glory days of the Republican Revolution. (If they did then a black guy whose middle name is Hussein would not be going by the salutation "Mr. President" right now). That's the only reason they are so desperate to command even more attention, and ultimately why they are overcompensating by being even louder, more outlandish and in Rush's case larger than life -- literally -- than ever before. So I was incredibly disappointed to read that Steele had called Limbaugh to apologize, for simply telling the truth.
Speaking as an Independent, but more importantly as someone who truly believes that it is in the interests of all voters, of all ages and colors, to have viable political options from a diverse array of qualified candidates from different parties each election cycle, I was hopeful that in Steele we had found someone who could help advance this cause.
Clearly I was wrong.
What's particularly disturbing about this story is that just weeks after Steele spoke about his party's efforts to reach out to minority voters, he became an unfortunate symbol of one of the party's most troubling historic images; the idea of a strong, black man being forced to go hat in hand to a white man, for no other reason than to keep a job that is rightfully his.
Let me be clear. The purpose of this piece is not to kick Michael Steele when he is down. After all, any person who inspires David Duke to near suicidal apoplexy will hold a measure of begrudging respect in my book. I get that Steele finds himself between a rock and a hard place, but it is a rock/hard place of his choosing. He chose to take on the task of leading his party. Now it's time for him to act like the "Man of Steel" he has proclaimed to be, and stand up to Rush Limbaugh and any other voice from the right, that stands in the way of the G.O.P. becoming a party that truly represents America.