Steve Scalise's mess

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U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise. - CREATIVE COMMONS/DEREK BRIDGES
  • CREATIVE COMMONS/DEREK BRIDGES
  • U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise.



Congressman Steve Scalise says his decision to speak at a gathering of David Duke’s Euro-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO) in 2002 was “a mistake I regret.” Like many others, I take Scalise at his word — but I’m disappointed he didn’t have more to say. Specifically, he should have offered a more sincere, heartfelt apology.

Saying you regret something is not the same as saying, “I’m deeply sorry, and I humbly apologize.” I admit I’m parsing words here, but Scalise leaves me no choice.

What is it about politicians — Democrat and Republican alike — that renders them so incapable of admitting their mistakes and apologizing for them? I think it’s narcissism and insecurity, traits that politicians possess in abundance. Too often, they strain credulity in their efforts to avoid taking responsibility for their screw-ups, both because of their egos and out of fear of arming their foes. No wonder voters grow more cynical by the day.

The irony is that voters recognize that we are all imperfect creatures often in need of forgiveness. For that reason, most voters are perfectly willing — eager, even — to forgive wayward politicians and move on, especially when the pols admit their mistakes and sincerely apologize.

Scalise did admit making a mistake — but a terse statement of “regret” issued by a flak is not exactly the kind of contrite, personal apology that this blunder requires.

I’ve known Scalise his entire public career. He and I don’t often agree on public policy, but I’ve never known him to be a racist or a hater. I knew him to be brash, ambitious, even ham fisted when he was in the Louisiana Legislature and during his earliest days in Congress. Since then, he has matured a lot as a human being and as a politician. I admire him for that.

That’s why I’m less concerned about where Scalise’s head was back in 2002 than I am about where his mind is now. Sure, he showed bad judgment as a 36-year-old legislator, but what concerns me now is the fact that he’s behaving too much like the rest of the Beltway crowd, treating this controversy as a problem to be managed instead of a wrong that he needs to right. In the process, he’s missing an opportunity to grow as a man and as a politician.

As for the controversy itself, there’s no evidence that Scalise said anything in 2002 to promote the EURO agenda or that he agrees with it now. Twelve years ago, he was building his cred as an anti-tax, anti-waste crusader. He tended to show more drive than discretion. When news broke of his speech, he immediately denounced EURO and all like-minded groups.

Scalise’s views undoubtedly are no less conservative today than they were 12 years ago, but today he is more measured in his pronouncements. He picks his battles and tries to maintain the kind of dialogue that is essential to governance. That may be the main reason why Speaker John Boehner has stood by him. The speaker knows that Scalise is more reasonable than most of the tea party crowd in the House. Keeping him as whip also shores up Boehner’s right flank.

Equally important for Scalise, since he arrived in Congress he has applied the most important lesson he learned in the Louisiana House: successful governance requires building bridges, not blowing them up. It’s about relationships, not rhetoric. One of his closest friends in Congress is black Democrat and fellow Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, who immediately rose to Scalise’s defense when the scandal broke.

“I don’t think Steve Scalise has a racist bone in his body,” Richmond said, adding, “Steve and I have worked on issues that benefit poor people, black people, white people, Jewish people. I know his character.”

Richmond’s words say as much about his own character as Scalise’s. He showed real courage in defending his errant colleague, particularly when Democrats were rushing to pile on. That’s the kind of example Scalise should emulate if he wants to put this mess behind him — and prove that he has what it takes to lead.


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