Words have replaced sex as the cause of the classic Washington scandal.

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Jan. 11 2010 5:02 PM

Watch What They Say, Not Who They Do

Words have replaced sex as the cause of the classic Washington scandal.

Harry Reid. Click image to expand.
Harry Reid

Sex has long reigned supreme in the pantheon of Washington political scandals. But these days, the "word scandal" is giving it a run for its money. From the evidence of the last few days, the conclusion is nearly inescapable: Washington now finds words more interesting than sex.

The current focus is the frenzy and titillation over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's comment about President Obama's use (or lack thereof) of a "Negro dialect," which appears in a new book about the 2008 campaign. The frenzy itself isn't surprising: A single word was enough to tip the scales against Virginia Sen. George Allen in his 2006 defeat. Vice President Joe Biden will probably never outlive calling Obama "clean" and "nice-looking"—a quote I maintain was missing a crucial comma—while Obama himself spent days apologizing for his observation that bitter Pennsylvanians "cling to guns or religion."

What's surprising is that this detail has received far more attention than all the other juicy scooplets in the book—particularly the ones about sex. The authors say Clinton campaign had a special war room just to handle Bill's infidelities and detail how blatant John Edwards was about his own affair during the campaign.

There isn't room for a complete taxonomy of political gaffes. But let's distinguish fodder for word scandals from more pedestrian gaffes—mispronounced words, calling people by the wrong name (the kind that Slate dined out on for eight years of the Bush presidency). A word scandal essentially meets Michael Kinsley's definition of a political gaffe: When a politician tells the truth. The Wilson corollary is when a politician says what he really thinks.

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The reason these little flubs are so fascinating—or at least newsworthy—is that they are seen as a window into the politician's "true" thoughts or personality, the one aides and friends are familiar with but rarely talk about.  As anyone who works on Capitol Hill can attest, most politicians are at least as crude and vulgar as the rest of us and, many cases, considerably more so. The immediate impulse with a word scandal is to extrapolate from that little glimpse a complete persona, and it's rarely a flattering one. It was easy, for those so inclined, to imagine that Obama always privately spoke of the disaffected working class with the same condescension. When Trent Lott bemoaned the failure of Strom Thurmond's 1948 president bid, on a pro-segregation ticket, it wasn't difficult to imagine that he said much worse things in privacy among the like-minded.

Jumping to conclusions like this is unfair, of course. But with so little information available about what a politician is really like, what else are we supposed to do? In the Reid word scandal, a vast Democratic machinery has more or less quelled any impression that the majority leader frequently refers to blacks as Negros or harbors any latent racist feelings. But others have not been so lucky. Lott had to resign as the Senate Majority leader, for example, and resigned altogether five years later. Meanwhile, senators who admit to extramarital affairs or dalliances with prostitutes are commonplace—and both of those guys are still around. American politics has reached the point where it's easier to survive a sex scandal than a word scandal.

Demanding that the talkers be punished, as RNC Chairman Michael Steele did this weekend, only encourages politicians to say less and return fewer calls. At this rate, the best insights into a politician's mind will come from the likes of Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., who has a habit of forgetting that his microphone is on. (It has happened at least twice. Once he called protestors at a hearing "assholes"; another time he told Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., to "stick it up his ass.")

Rather than have a feeding frenzy every time a politician slips up and says something interesting, we ought to applaud their honesty. So what if Trent Lott wishes Strom Thurmond had become president? If voters find a politician's opinions distasteful, there is a mechanism for them to voice their irritation. It's called an election.

AP Video: Harry Reid apologizes

Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.

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