One of those attending this year's Lincoln Day Dinner, held by the Shelby County Republican Party at the University of Memphis-area-Holiday Inn on Central Avenue, was Chip Saltsman, who not too long ago was the campaign manager for Mike Huckabee's upstart presidential campaign and not too long before that was chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party and not long before that was a student here at Christian Brothers University. At age 40, Saltsman still looks more like a young guy coming up than the veteran pol he is - a fact which, under the circumstances, is a good thing.
Most recently, of course, Saltsman was one of the contenders to become chairman of the National Republican Committee, and last December , in furtherance of that aim, dispatched - as he had every year at Christmas-time - copies of his long-time Memphis bud Paul Shanklin's latest parody CD excoriating various Democratic icons. The latest version was entitled "We Hate the U.S.A.," and that might have been a tip-off to the more than usually toxic nature of the album, but Saltsman didn't pay much attention to its contents.
"I just packaged 'em up and sent 'em on the way I always have. I didn't really even listen to the songs," he confessed Saturday night, during the pre-dinner reception. What happened after that was virtually a textbook definition of the term "rude surprise." One of the album's cuts in particular, "Barack the Magic Negro" was too complicated -- or too disingenuous -- for its own good. Or, as it turned out, for Saltsman's.
The song's takeoff point was an L.A. Times column written by a multi-racial author concerning the effect that a certain African-American politician was having - circa 2007, when the song was cut - on a guilty white intelligentsia. Then presidential candidate Obama was imagined by the columnist as the latest emergence of the "magical Negro" archetype - as a rescuer and deus ex machina.
Employing the Peter, Paul, and Mary tune "Puff the Magic Dragon," the song then takes the form of an Al Sharpton complaint against Obama as an interloper, stealing the thunder from from front-line political vets like Sharpton himself. And, of course, underlying it all is the unremitting hostility of Shanklin - and his patron Rush Limbaugh, whose radio show avidly broadcast the number -- toward liberal Democrats.
Whew. Talk about layers. Go from there to the
bottom-line fact of Shanklin's minstrel-show voice doing blackface on the
opening line (the only line most people heard) "Barack the Magic
Negro...." Which either obscures the point or is the point, depending on
how much slack you're prepared to give the effort.
Very little slack was given Saltsman, who, as he granted when the controversy first hit, and granted again Saturday night, shoulda known better. Standing in another conversation group a few feet away at the pre-dinner reception was Memphian John Ryder, one of Tennessee's three RNC members, all of whom quickly disavowed the incendiary lyric when its presence in Saltsman's Christmas package got known and a controversy flared up with all the heat and intensity of a public cross-burning.
"We had no choice," Ryder would say, when asked. "I like
Chip, but it's hard to imagine anything more wrong in its effect, more wrong for
the party than that song. It was incredibly dumb to send it out." He and
Tennessee's other RNC members distanced themselves from native-son Saltsman and
made a point of professing neutrality in the chairmanship race.
Predictably, almost all of Saltsman's rivals for the chairmanship denounced "Barack the Magic Negro" and joined in the general chorus of media damnation. One of Saltsman's few defenders, ironically enough, was Ken Blackwell of Ohio, one of the two black candidates for the RNC chatrmanship.
'Going in, I had a good chance to win'
In the end, another African-American candidate, Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and a relative moderate (one, in fact, who would make a tentative swipe at Limbaugh this past week before beating a retreat via an abject apology) , would win the chairmanship, and Chip Saltsman conceded Saturday night, in the wannest of bittersweet smiles, that he and the controversy his Christmas package generated may have helped force his outreach-needy party into such a result. (It is surely no accident that Colin Richmond, an African-American and a rising star in the local party, was at the Lincoln Day dais Saturday night and played a major role in the event.)
"Going in, I had a good chance to win," Saltsman recalled Saturday night about the RNC chairmanship race, adding ruefully. "But after a while I knew it was all over with." He shrugged when asked how long he thought he would have to bear the onus of "Barack the Magic Negro." In essence, the erstwhile political comer is having to start all over. In the meantime, he has business interests, and he's keeping his hand in. As witness his attendance Saturday night.
"I'll be all right," he said. And Saltsman, a talented operative and likeable presence, probably will be.