Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What’s the difference between Herman Cain and the late Earl Butz?

Short answer: Cain’s comments — or attempts at humor (if you believe his explanation) with regard to a border fence and electrocuting immigrants — were worse than Butz’s joke.

Butz’s infamous 1976 racist joke was far less troubling than Cain’s frightening and repeated comments about immigration policy made most recently in Tennessee last weekend and used in other forums in some form by the Republican presidential candidate now surging in GOP preference polls three months before the Iowa caucuses.

“When I’m in charge of the fence, we going to have a fence. It’s going to be 20 feet high. It’s going to have barbed wire on the top. It’s going to be electrocuted, electrified,” Cain said. “And there’s going to be a sign on the other side that says it will kill you.”

On Sunday, David Gregory of NBC’s “Meet the Press” asked Cain to account for the remark.

“That’s not a serious plan, that’s a joke,” Cain said. “I’ve also said America needs to get a sense of humor. That was a joke, OK?”

I appreciate Cain’s disdain for the political correctness that so often shackles American public discourse, waters it down, dismisses provocative rhetoric and allows far too many interest groups to hide behind the safety of trumped-up outrage over perceived grievance rather than account for themselves.

But Cain is asking for preposterous latitude here. He wants us to accept that it’s inbounds to joke about killing immigrants, all of whom happen to be Latino — if you accept that he’s, well, you know, just kidding folks. Cain seemed awfully serious — in a way that belies the notion of a straight-man, lead-in tactic for a comedy turn — as he rolled out the “proposal” for a Mexican-border fence with zap-dead features.

Some words, like fired bullets or clenched fists that have found their targets, can’t be taken back, with the hurt explained away.

Cain’s is one of those quotes that even some Clintonian presidential sentence parsing couldn’t repair.

All of that considered, he still has standing as a Republican contender for the White House.

He’s got his job.

Which is more than Earl Butz could say back in 1976.

That year, Butz, the colorful agriculture secretary was forced to resign after delivering the following joke: “I’ll tell you what the coloreds want. It’s three things. First, a tight (obscenity about a female sexual organ); second, loose shoes; and third a warm place to (vulgarity about using the restroom).”

Butz’s clearly indefensible joke about African Americans is the careless stuff of backrooms and barrooms. He said it on a campaign airplane in the company of fellow high-profile Republican travelers he thought he could trust. One has to wonder: if Cain, who is African American, had been on the plane would he have laughed at the joke, stood behind Butz when the episode was leaked and told America to just “take a joke.”

After all, it’s not like Butz was joking about lynching blacks, which to be fair, would be spot-on analogous to Cain suggesting we electrocute Hispanics. That fence of his isn’t planned for the Canadian border after all.

For his part, Butz paid a high price for that stupid 1976 joke.

It turned him into a laughingstock, and became the only moment out of a long public career with which he is still widely associated. Butz died in 2008 at the age of 98.

In 1990, Butz spoke in Carroll at an agricultural gathering. I covered the event and, with the brashness of the 20-year-old I was then, asked him about the joke and what it was like to be remembered almost exclusively for it.

“It was in the heat of a campaign,” Butz, 80 years old at the time, told me that windy June day in Carroll. “The media will do anything to find a kink in the armor.”

Once it was revealed that “kink” cost Butz his job as the top man at the ag department and any claim to respectability in respectable circles.

More than 35 years later, Herman Cain appears to have weathered what Butz could not — and then some.

I guess Cain can call that progress.