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Today Brings on Two Libs That Let Harry Reid Off the Hook

NBC's Today show, on Monday morning, invited on former Democratic liberal Congressman Harold Ford Jr. and PBS' liberal Washington Week moderator Gwen Ifill to discuss whether Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should step down for his "Negro dialect" comments about Barack Obama and not surprisingly neither guest suggested Reid should go.

MATT LAUER: President Obama and Harry Reid, they spoke on the phone and the President afterward as we just heard in that piece said the book is now closed. But back in 2002 when Trent Lott made his comments the President, then an Illinois state senator, went on a Chicago radio show and he said quote, "The Republican Party itself has to drive out Trent Lott." It's a very different reaction.

GWEN IFILL: Well it's a very different set of statements too. Trent Lott said, if you, you remember, Trent Lott said that this was a question about whether the Dixiecrats should, the country would have been better if the Dixiecrats, in the person of Strom Thurmond, had been president all these years. The Dixiecrats were a segregationist party. He's using his comments to say this is a bad thing, that someone being in charge, who was a segregationist would be a good thing. That is not the import of what Harry Reid was saying, even though he was saying it poorly. He was saying this was a good thing for Barack Obama. So I don't think, I think we're talking apples and oranges here, when we compare those two.

The following is the full interview segment as it was aired on the January 11 Today show:

MATT LAUER: Harold Ford Jr. is an NBC News political analyst and chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council. Gwen Ifill is moderator of Washington Week on PBS and the author of The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama. Good morning to both of you.

HAROLD FORD JR.: Good morning.

GWEN IFILL, PBS: Good morning, Matt.

[On screen headline: "Controversial Remarks, Do Democrats Have A Double Standard On Race?"]

LAUER: I'm gonna ask for the political fallout on this in just a second. But I want to ask you both the same question to start and Harold I'll start with you. I want you to comment on the comment itself, okay? In quotes, "Light-skinned," end quotes. "African-American," quote, "With no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one," end quote. And that was supposed to be Harry Reid's comments about why Barack Obama might be more electable. As an African-American how does the comment make you feel?

FORD: It's an unusual set of comments, but I don't believe in any way that Harry Reid had any animus, racial animus, or for that matter in that comment or even in his record or even going forward. I think there's an important distinction between he and Trent Lott. Trent Lott, there were other episodes, other allegations and even proof of racial comments that he had made before. I think the real test for Harry Reid is national security, jobs and health care.

LAUER: Gwen, is Harold being too kind here? How do you feel about the comment?

IFILL: Well, it raises a great national trip-wire. No matter what we say, it turns out race becomes the thing that can start off all kinds of comments. It's interesting to me that of the two excerpts leaked from this book early, they're both about racial insensitivity, at least they're supposed to be. But think about what Harry Reid said. I don't understand what's demeaning. I talked to any number of black-elected officials over, over the years, reporting on this book. And all of them have been called worse, including Barack Obama. Describing him as "light-skinned," is merely a descriptive and saying he spoke without a Negro dialect unless he wanted one, was something that worked against him when black voters were saying that he wasn't black enough early in the campaign.

LAUER: Well, but wait a second. Gwen is it possible it's not what he said but what he didn't say? Isn't Harry Reid implying that a dark-skinned African-American who speaks in a way that some would consider more stereotypical would not be electable.

IFILL: Well there is actual political science that backs that up. I don't know that Harry Reid has read it and what he said was certainly impolitic at least. But there, there is evidence to support that people, whether it's a matter of voting for a white candidate or voting for a black candidate. If the person is very much different from who they are, or what they perceive the mainstream to be, they're less likely to vote for that person. There's no question that if it had been Al Sharpton with the same background as, as Barack Obama, and he-

LAUER: Right.

IFILL: -was running for President he wouldn't have gotten the same kind of support that Barack Obama got.

LAUER: But Harold there's no major uproar here and there was a huge uproar - and you say you've drawn distinctions between what Harry Reid has said and what Trent Lott said - but no major Democratic politician has come out with any kind of sharp criticism for Harry Reid. Is it simply because, politically, the Democrats need Harry Reid on issues like health care and, and the like?

FORD: No I think it's because he has a record that you can point to. If there were instances in his record that raised concerns, if his voting record raised concerns, if his voting record raised concerns, I think there would be real issues. I take just slight issue, Gwen is my friend, but take slight issue. I do think it was an unusual set of words from, from the leader. But I don't think there was any, any animus there. Most, the most important thing is that President Obama has forgiven him and said, "Let's move on," which that distraction on Senator Reid, for Senator Reid has been removed and frankly for Republicans, who want to make a political issue out of this. It's time to move on.

LAUER: Brings me to my next question Gwen. President Obama and Harry Reid, they spoke on the phone and the President afterward as we just heard in that piece said the book is now closed. But back in 2002 when Trent Lott made his comments the President, then an Illinois state senator, went on a Chicago radio show and he said quote, "The Republican Party itself has to drive out Trent Lott." It's a very different reaction.

IFILL: Well it's a very different set of statements too. Trent Lott said, if you, you remember, Trent Lott said that this was a question about whether the Dixiecrats should, the country would have been better if the Dixiecrats, in the person of Strom Thurmond, had been president all these years. The Dixiecrats were a segregationist party. He's using his comments to say this is a bad thing, that someone being in charge, who was a segregationist would be a good thing. That is not the import of what Harry Reid was saying, even though he was saying it poorly. He was saying this was a good thing for Barack Obama. So I don't think, I think we're talking apples and oranges here, when we compare those two.

LAUER: Okay. Harold I'm not gonna let you go without asking a quick question, and hopefully a quick response. You are considering a primary run against Kirsten Gillibrand for the Senate in, in New York state. And the report this morning is that after years of coming out in favor of civil union, but against same sex marriage, you are now in favor of same sex marriage and some are accusing you of political convenience there. That you're trying to curry favor with liberal Democrats here in the state of New York. What's your comment on that?

FORD: I've been a supporter of civil unions since I was elected to Congress in '96. It's a fiction between the two. And believe me, my support for fairness and equality, long existed before I moved to New York.

LAUER: This isn't a change of stance for you?

FORD: Maybe, maybe in the language, but I'm a believer that benefits should flow to same-sex partners and if indeed the fiction of the language of the title should be changed. Much like Chuck Schumer who changed his mind on it and Bill Clinton, who's evolved. I'm of the opinion now that there is nothing wrong with that.

LAUER: So you're now in favor of same-sex marriage?

FORD: Civil unions and same-sex marriage, yes.

LAUER: Harold Ford Jr. and Gwen Ifill. Both of you, thanks very much.

IFILL: Thanks Matt.

-Geoffrey Dickens is the senior news analyst at the Media Research Center.