by CHARLES M. BLOW
The saying goes: A man is known by the company he keeps.
If that is true, what does the company Mitt Romney keeps say about him?
[Last week] Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama again, as he did in 2008. That apparently set John Sununu, a co-chairman of the Romney campaign, on edge. Powell’s endorsement couldn’t possibly be the product of purposeful deliberation over the candidates’ policies. In Sununu’s world of racial reductionism, Powell’s endorsement had a more base explanation: it was a black thing.
On Thursday, Sununu said on CNN:“When you take a look at Colin Powell, you have to wonder whether that’s an endorsement based on issues or whether he’s got a slightly different reason for preferring President Obama.” He continued: “I think when you have somebody of your own race that you’re proud of being president of the United States, I applaud Colin for standing with him.”
Talk about damning with faint praise. In other words, Sununu was basically saying that he was applauding Powell’s inability to see past the color of his own eyelids.
Sununu is the same man who said that the president performed poorly in the first debate because “he’s lazy and disengaged.” He is also the same man who said of the president in July, “I wish this president would learn how to be an American.”
Could Sununu be unaware that many would register such comments as coded racism? Or was that the intent?
To understand Sununu, it is important to understand his political history.
For starters, he is no stranger to racism controversies. When George H.W. Bush selected him as chief of staff in 1988, The New York Times reported:
“Mr. Sununu’s selection was shadowed by concern among some key Jewish leaders. The 49-year-old New Hampshire Governor, whose father is Lebanese and who takes pride in his Arab ancestry, was the only governor to refuse to sign a June 1987 statement denouncing a 1975 United Nations resolution that equated Zionism with racism.”
But that wasn’t his undoing. It was his actions. In 1991, Sununu became enmeshed in a scandal over using government planes for personal trips.
After the embarrassment of the incident, Bush ordered Sununu to clear all future flights in advance. What happened later you must read for yourself, and it is best stated by Time Magazine in a July 1, 1991, article:
“If Sununu hadn’t exactly been grounded, he had certainly been sent to his room. But Bush underestimated the depth of Sununu’s ethical obtuseness and his zeal at finding a way around the rules. Like a rebellious adolescent, Sununu sneaked down the stairs, grabbed the car keys and slipped out of the White House. After all, the old man had only said, ‘Don’t take the plane.’ He didn’t say anything about the car.”
The piece continued:
“Overcome by a sudden urge two weeks ago to buy rare stamps, Sununu ordered the driver of his government-paid limousine to drive him 225 miles to New York City. He spent the day — and nearly $5,000 — at an auction room at Christie’s. Then he dismissed the driver, who motored back to Washington with no passengers. Sununu returned on a private jet owned by Beneficial Corp.”
By the end of 1991, amid sagging poll numbers, Bush began to see Sununu as a drag and unceremoniously relieved him of his post. As The Times reported then, Sununu was made to plead for his job before he was pushed out anyway:
“Mr. Sununu and the White House portrayed the departure as voluntary. But it followed meetings in which Mr. Bush listened to Mr. Sununu’s arguments that he should stay on and then decided to follow the advice of top-level Republicans who urged the removal of his chief of staff.”
R. W. Apple Jr. wrote in The Times after the move that Bush’s “indirectly soliciting and then promptly accepting” Sununu’s resignation had made it abundantly clear what actually happened.
Sununu has apologized, somewhat, for his racial attack on Powell’s motives. But what should we make of all this?
We have a very racially divided electorate. As The Washington Post reported Thursday, “Obama has a deficit of 23 percentage points, trailing Republican Mitt Romney 60 percent to 37 percent among whites, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News national tracking poll.”
The report pointed out that nearly 80 percent of nonwhites support Obama, while 91 percent of Romney’s supporters are white.
I worry that Sununu’s statements intentionally go beyond recognizing racial disparities and seek to exploit them.
What does that say about Romney, and what does it say about his campaign’s tactics?
Remember: A man is known by the company he keeps.
(This column appeared in the October 27, 2012, New York Times under the headline: The Company Romney Keeps.)
Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at [email protected]”