The rest of America is learning what many Marylanders already know: Michael Steele is a piece of work. That could be a good or bad thing, depending upon where you stand. Democrats love it. Republicans are uneasy, to say the least, and are prepared with a gag order. Republican leaders say Steele should butt out of policy matters; what they're really saying is that he talks too much.
Steele is chairman of the Republican National Committee. Before that he was lieutenant governor of Maryland and a losing candidate for the U.S. Senate. And between assignments, he's left a paper trail or, more accurately, a Google electronic rap sheet, of gaffes, misstatements, insults and downright baffling behavior.
Steele has made history as a black Republican. He was the first black chairman of the Maryland Republican Party and, at the time, the only black GOP state chairman in America; he was the first black person elected to statewide office in Maryland; and he's the first black chairman of the white-bread Republican National Committee. And he might be the first black to lose the job when his contract expires in two years.
Steele's embarrassing public demeanor reached a high point recently when he was summoned to the office of House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) for a private scolding. What piqued Boehner and other Republican Congressional leaders was Steele's declamation of a "senior citizens' health care bill of rights." Steele was told, according to Politico, to stick to fundraising and gubernatorial races and to keep his nose out of policy matters. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn) was more direct. He said that Republican leaders should execute policy and that they intended to keep Steele on a "short leash."
Soon after that encounter, Steele reacted to President Barack Obama's winning of the Nobel Peace Prize with a statement declaring, "how meaningless a once honorable and respected award has become." He followed that with a GOP fund-raising letter over his signature which stated, in part: "The Democrats and their international leftist allies want America made subservient to the agenda of global redistribution and control. And truly patriotic Americans like you and our Republican party are the only thing standing in their way."
Steele was chosen to head the Republican party as a compromise candidate, on the sixth ballot, after openly campaigning for the job while he was head of GOPAC, a fundraising organization that recruits and funds promising Republican candidates. As a contender for the party's top job, he was elected by elimination because he was considered the most moderate of the three finalists.
But within weeks after assuming the party chairmanship, Steele was already in hot water with the party's hierarchs. Politico posted a story saying that "key party leaders are worried that the GOP has made a costly mistake in electing Steele." And within a week of the story, party insiders began to organize a no-confidence vote among national committee members.
At about the same time, Steele really put his foot in the goop by contradicting not only the Republican national platform but, for the most part, party orthodoxy. Steele, a former Roman Catholic seminarian, stated that abortion is "absolutely. . . an individual choice," seditious talk placing him squarely in line with mainstream Democratic thinking. Steele's startling declaration was followed by denunciations and criticism from key organizations that are aligned with the Republican party as well as by party leaders and an assortment of GOP candidates.
But Steele's most humiliating moment must have been when he had to apologize to Rush Limbaugh in a brawl over leadership. Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, described Limbaugh as the head of the Republican party because Limbaugh "called for President Obama to fail." Steele countered that he, rather than Limbaugh, is "the de facto leader of the Republican party. Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh's whole thing is entertainment. Yes, it's incendiary. Yes it is ugly."
The next day, on his radio show, Limbaugh said that Steele is not fit to lead the Republican party. "Why do you claim to lead the Republican party when you seem so obsessed with seeing to it that President Obama succeeds," Limbaugh said. After the show, Steele said: "I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh. I was maybe a little bit inarticulate. There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or leadership. I went back at that tape and I realized words that I said weren't what I was thinking. It was one of those things where I was thinking I was saying one thing, and it came out differently. What I was trying to say was a lot of people want to make Rush the scapegoat, the bogeyman, and he's not."
Steele would have difficulty passing Limbaugh's litmus test for what constitutes a conservative Republican. Steele, by his own words, is "pro-choice" on abortion; he "personally" opposes a federal amendment to ban same-sex marriage; he supports stem cell research; he supports the enforcement of existing gun control laws; and he supports affirmative action. Say what?
Marylanders are used to such dithyrambic dialogue from Steele. Though he sounds glib and articulate, Steele's mouth and his brain often do not engage together. When he was running for the U.S. Senate in Maryland in 2006, Steele said at a luncheon with reporters that being a Republican is like wearing a "scarlet letter;" that the war in Iraq "didn't work;" that the Bush Administration's response to Hurricane Katrina was "a monumental failure of government;" and, finally, among other things, that he didn't want President George W. Bush to campaign for him in Maryland.
Within a day after flapping his lips, Steele was backing away from his statements in the comfort zone of talk radio. Not only did rapmaster Steele characterize President Bush as "my homeboy." But he also welcomed the President to campaign in Maryland. Steele was also quoted in The Washington Post as saying: "I'm not trying to diss the president. I'm not trying to distance myself from the president. I'm trying to show those lines where I have a different perspective and a different point of view. If I'm not free to share that as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, how can people expect me to share that and express that as a United States Senator?"
But apparently the White House had had enough of Steele's jibber-jabber. Steele's loose lips earned him a cold shoulder. His verbal gaffes reached the point where the Republican National Committee chairman at the time, Maryland's Ken Mehlman, refused to return Steele's phone calls. Steele loves to spice his rhetoric with the hip-hop language of inner-city lyrics and the rhythms of the street, as he did with "drill, baby, drill," in his Republican National Convention speech last year. Most recently, though, he headlined his column on the national committee web site, "What Up?" A day later it was revised to the decidedly less street-smart "Change the Game."
Steele once said he would give "some slum love" to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R). And he said in very un-PC patois that he would broaden the Republican party by reaching out even to "one-armed midgets." Steele was also videotaped as saying he would bring "fried chicken and potato salad" to a proposed gathering to attract a "diverse population." And how about this all-time Steele-ism: "When stuff gets in the crapper, you gotta clean it out."
Ada Fisher, a black RNC member, has called upon Steele to resign because he views Steele as a damaging caricature of blacks. "He makes us frankly appear to many blacks as quite foolish," Fisher has said. The always well-attired Steele is more often than not smooth and oleaginous, but, deconstructed, he's really not a very cunning person or that skillful as a political strategist or verbalist. He's a mouth-forward kind of guy who probably wouldn't have survived more than a long weekend in a Medici palace. America's finally catching up with Maryland.
Frank A. DeFilippo has been writing about politics for many years as an award-winning Maryland State House and political reporter, White House correspondent for the Hearst News Service and as a columnist and contributor for several newspapers and magazines as well as a TV and radio commentator. DeFilippo has reported from six national political conventions. He is author of the novel, Hooked.