Tuesday night at Howard University, RNC chair Michael Steele did an impression of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz: he was absolutely heartless. Not everyday do we see the head of a major political party insult a 23 year old whose mother just died of cancer.
But first let's set the scene:
Steele spoke at Howard in front of roughly 150 students as part of his outreach program to Historically Black Colleges and Universities. His effort to connect with young black students got off to a rather cringe-worthy start when right before the billed "student dialogue" two dozen white members of area young Republican groups arrived to sit in the reserved first two rows of the packed room. One wondered, as students grumbled, if Steele hired John Ashcroft to be his event manager.
But the discomfort turned to boredom as Steele's "dialogue" turned quickly into a monologue. The RNC chair went on a long rambling speech about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, while the texting audience strained to stay awake. There was no impassioned argument or defense of the Republican Party and any questions in the "dialogue" had to be submitted in writing while Steele spoke. The only thing that caused even a raised eyebrow was Steele's occasional effort at slang. When a student told Steele she was going into business law he said, "Business law! Mo money!"
But when challenged, Steele exposed himself, and it was awful to see the Tin Man's tin ear. When the RNC chair took a written question on health care, he blasted the public option, saying that "every time the government gets involved in something it doesn't work."
Then came Amanda Duzak, and Steele's evening just got a whole lot worse.
Duzak, a 23 year old Towson University grad, stood up, against the rules and out of turn.
"My mother died of cancer 6 months ago because she could only afford three of her six prescription chemotherapy medications," she projected. "There are 50 million people in this country who could end up like my mom, suffering or dying because they do not have adequate health care. Everyone in this room and everyone in this country should have access to good health care."
The room woke up and other than those glaring from the front, the applause was wall to wall. But it's Steele's response that makes this moment both newsworthy and a terrible comment on his character. After saying that he believed in a mature, honest discussion and not in shouting, Steele said, "People are coming to these town meetings and they're like [he then shakes]." He then looked and gestured right at Ms. Duzak and said, "It makes for great TV. You'll probably make it tonight, enjoy it." He then turned his back to her, as the crowd clapped.
Think about what Steele did. He didn't only turn his back and rudely dismiss a young woman whose mother just died of cancer. He used the shameful recent behavior of the right wing town hall screamers -- his own party's base -- to try and turn the crowd against Ms. Duzak.
Damian Smith, a after school counselor and Prince George's County resident, also weighed in about how his aunt is losing her home because of her medical bills. Other people started to shout out as well.
But Steele was worse than non-responsive. He was dismissive and profoundly disrespectful. As Smith said to me afterward, "I couldn't believe he acted that way toward her... toward all of us. He was just mean."
The roots of Steele's unconscionable behavior lie in his own political bankruptcy. The nation faces a health care crisis and has no answer other than telling students, "Everyone in the country needs health care." Lately he has been running commercials telling seniors, "No cuts for Medicare," just two short years after running for senator of Maryland saying that "everything has to be on the table" - including Medicare cuts. As Ron Brownstein wrote in National Journal on Friday, "Steele's pledge this week to 'protect Medicare' might have been more convincing had it not come five months after nearly four-fifths of House Republicans voted to literally end the program as we know it for all Americans younger than 55."
It's one thing to be a fraud. That's politics as usual. But to turn your back on a young person whose mother just died of cancer is more than politics as usual. It's shocking. As Ms. Duzak said to me after the event, very upset, "I wasn't trying to shout or be rude. I just wanted an answer. I thought we were all owed that." We certainly are. But if nothing else, Michael Steele owes Amanda Duzak a sincere apology.
Dave Zirin is the author of "A People's History of Sports in the United States" (The New Press) Receive his column every week by emailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.