Memo to Newt Gingrich: Robert De Niro Is No Rush Limbaugh

De Niro's comment was inappropriate and not all that funny, but it's not racist.

By + More

It's either wildly hypocritical or just amusing that in the midst of perhaps the nastiest presidential campaign in modern history, a candidate is asking another candidate to apologize for a pretty tame joke. It's even more remarkable when you consider the request is being made of a candidate who didn't even make the joke himself.

At issue is a remark made at a fund-raiser for President Obama—one at which first lady Michelle Obama was present—by actor Robert De Niro. De Niro, introducing the first lady (and implicitly slamming the wives of the GOP contenders for president), said, "Do you really think our country is ready for a white first lady? Too soon, right?"

The White House called the joke "inappropriate," which it was. Struggling GOP candidate Newt Gingrich, however, called it "inexcusable" and racially-loaded, and said the president should apologize on behalf of the actor.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Newt Gingrich.]

Former House Speaker Gingrich added:

If people on the left want to talk about radio talk show hosts, then everybody in the country ought to hold the president accountable when somebody at his event says something as utterly, totally unacceptable as Robert De Niro said last night.

Gingrich's effort to equate De Niro's bad joke with the deeply personal and insulting remarks Rush Limbaugh made on his radio show about a Georgetown University law student who believes contraceptives should be covered under health insurance is an absurd stretch. Suggesting that a woman put sex videos of herself on the Internet as payment for being able to choose the size and timing of her family is reprehensible—and not because he called her mean words and needs protection from those who have rallied behind her, while patronizingly referring to the 30-year-old adult as a "young lady" or "young woman." It's because Limbaugh was suggesting that women's professional and personal futures should be hostage to their anatomy, and that they should be punished and shamed for having sex. This, from someone found with Viagra in his luggage (with the prescription under another man's name).

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

De Niro's comment was inappropriate and not all that funny, but it's not racist. It was a poor effort to ridicule the inherent racism in the musings during the 2008 campaign about whether the country was "ready" for a black or mixed-race president. Such a comment—the sort made frequently on TV news shows—suggests that racial bias is somehow a function of childlike innocence, that it's not that some people think they shouldn't be outranked by someone with darker skin, only that they aren't "ready" for it.

And why is Obama expected to be accountable for the comments of every one of his supporters? Should Gingrich or any other candidate apologize for the nasty and racially-tinged comments made by people who support them? Obama has been slammed by GOP contenders for apologizing to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the accidental burning of Korans at Bagram Air Base. But Gingrich thinks Obama should say he's sorry for a bad effort at a joke made by an actor?

The real agenda here may be to thwart the fallout from the firestorm Limbaugh started—and which GOP candidates have failed to stop. They've failed to stop it because none (except Rep. Ron Paul) has categorically denounced Limbaugh for calling a private citizen a "slut"' and a "prostitute" on national radio. No one's asked any of the GOP candidates to apologize on Limbaugh's behalf, although Limbaugh is certainly more influential in GOP politics than De Niro is among Democratic voters and officials. None, then, has any business asking Obama to apologize for De Niro.

  • Read the U.S. News debate: Will the Culture Wars Benefit the GOP in the 2012 Election?
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insiders guide to politics and policy.
  • Follow the Thomas Jefferson Street blog on Twitter at @TJSBlog.