By now, it’s hard to imagine anyone who pays even the slightest attention to the news not being aware of the ludicrous and offensive remarks made recently by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
When discussing, at a news conference, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, McConnell said, “If you look at the statistics, African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.”
Huh? African Americans aren’t Americans?
Our social media world today is awash with rash, graceless, instant reactions to even the most innocent slip of the tongue by people in the public eye. We should first think about being more empathetic, more forgiving, more understanding, when such public slip-ups occur.
But not this time.
These remarks seem too revealing, too ominous. It seems like this slip-up was indeed accidental, but accidental only in the sense of speaking what was supposed to remain unspoken.
McConnell is not only an elected legislator, but also the minority leader — and formerly the majority leader — of the U.S. Senate. He wields national power. What he says matters. We should hold such a public figure to a higher standard.
Political and governmental leaders like Sen. McConnell give countless public speeches, countless news media interviews, so we think they should be perfect at it all the time. In fact, no matter how polished a public speaker is, the vast numbers of public statements a politician makes simply increases the odds that there will be an oral faux pas now and then. It’s good if you want to forgive them, appreciate their attempts to correct misstatements and accept their apologies.
But not this time.
The stakes are too high. We live in a time in which efforts to suppress the vote are not only horrendously undemocratic and vicious, but are also appallingly blatant and obvious. We shouldn’t let this “mistake” pass.
To be fair, McConnell did try to correct the record, according to a Jan. 21 nbcnews.com article. NBC and other news outlets reported that McConnell said at a news conference that he has a strong record on civil rights, citing, among other things, attendance at Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. McConnell said the criticism he has received is an “outrageous mischaracterization” of his record. He said that all he did was inadvertently omit the word, “almost.”
Well, where would “almost” be placed in his statement to make it better? The statement again: “If you look at the statistics, African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.” Sorry, senator, “almost” doesn’t fix it.
After the news conference, Sen. McConnell returned to the journalists to fix his fix. He told them, “The omitted word is ‘all,’ not ‘almost,’ sorry.” Better, but after two bombs, this diffusion attempt doesn’t seem all that comforting.
As a public relations professor and practitioner, it’s only fair for me to acknowledge how extremely challenging news conferences are for anyone — it looks easy, but it’s not. News conferences are often chaotic (though they shouldn’t be). The speaker faces a surreal array of cameras, bright lights, tripods, microphones, digital recorders and cell phones. Plus, the most challenging aspect is that journalists ask tough questions, as they should. The speaker almost always craves the news coverage generated by a news conference but also knows that the slightest slip-up can be sent instantly around the globe.
So, I appreciate how awkward and difficult news conferences can be for even well-seasoned politicos. Beyond news conferences, we all should be more graceful and forgiving when any public speaker messes up now and then — teachers, ministers, broadcasters, entertainers, coaches, athletes, business professionals, presidents and even Senate minority leaders.
But not this time.
Ray Begovich is the director of graduate studies in public relations at the University of Indianapolis. Comments are welcome at email@example.com.