Sometimes a Snake is Just a Snake

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 1 2013 1:56 PM

Sometimes a Snake is Just a Snake

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Snake! It's a snake!

Photo by MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images

It's Friday, which means there's news of obscure lawmakers bubbling up from the "Oddly Enough" section of news sites to the actual news sections. The result: Rep. Ernest Hewitt, a Connecticut Democrat, is completely getting railroaded. The Day reports that he lost a leadership role (and some money) "after making an inappropriate remark to a teenager testifying during a committee hearing." What was it?

"I am usually a very shy person, and now I am more outgoing," [a 17-year old ambassador for the Connecticut Science Center] told the committee. "I was able to teach those children about certain things like snakes that we have and the turtles that we have...
Near the end of her speech, committee co-chairman state Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, smiled at the girl and made a comment about how the teen was no longer shy.
Hewett, 56, recalled Thursday that he then pushed his microphone button to talk and said, "If you are shy, then I have a live snake under this desk."
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What the—that's not offensive at all! It's a joke gone wrong because ... look, I don't have to explain why it sounds wrong out of context. The Day's audio of the event reveals that the girl spent quite a lot of time talking about snakes. "I never liked snakes, but I ended up loving them!" she says. "Alex and Austin, and little Myles, they're so much fun!" The paper, for some reason, misquotes the resulting quip—it's "if you're bashful, I got a snake sitting underneath my desk here." It's an overreaction to an errant word since a D.C. bureaucrat said "niggardly" and was chased out of his job by people who didn't know the etymology. Hewitt's being pilloried by fellow Democrats who want to make a point about sexual harrassment more generally.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.