Michael Steele was elected as the first African American Chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) in January of 2009, shortly after President Obama became the first African American President of the United States. Many believed that Mr. Steele would be the Republicans’ answers to President Obama. Steele could attack the President without the criticism appearing racially motivated. Mr. Steele also promised that during his reign over the RNC he would make sure the Republican Party reached out to more ethnic minorities across the country.
But what happened under Mr. Steele’s leadership seemed to cause more division that unity.
The RNC lost a chunk of its base to the Tea Party. The Tea Party organizations from around the country ran candidates against not only incumbent Democrats but Republicans as well. The Tea Party members called Republicans out in many races and promised that once they got to Washington they were not only going to hold the President, but Democrats and Republicans, accountable to their vision of how they want the government to work.
Down South, Blacks had a word that described behavior unbecoming of the Black community: coonery. In many conservative circles, Michael Steele’s coonery was blamed for helping topple the RNC.
Nothing prepared Republicans for his antics and out-of-control foolishness. Not only was he an embarrassment to the old school Republicans, but many Black folks did not know what to make of Steele’s constant ignorant outbursts. His love of self-promotion made him a comedy routine regular on The Daily Show: a Muppet-like character was created to depict Steele using his street slang. His made-up homeboy sayings had even people from the streets scratching their heads, wondering what he was talking about.
Nothing from Steele’s background would have predicted how badly he would lead the RNC, or how his antics would be compared to a court jester whom no one took seriously.
Steele was adopted by a Democratic working class family as a baby. He lost his father at an early age but his mother later remarried and had a second child. His half-sister, Monica Turner, later married and divorced boxer Mike Tyson. Steele attended Catholic schools and even studied to become a priest. He graduated from John Hopkins University with a degree in International Studies and later received his law degree from Georgetown University Law School.
Steele was employed as a corporate securities associate at the Washington, D.C. office of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen, & Hamilton. From 1991 to 1997, he specialized in financial investments for Wall Street underwriters, working at Cleary’s Tokyo, Japan office on major product liability litigation and at its London office on corporate matters. He left the law firm and founded the Steele Group, a business and legal consulting firm. He was active in politics throughout his rise in the corporate world.
Mr. Steele severed as Lt. Governor of Maryland and was the first African American to hold that title. He was instrumental in helping establish a Minorities Business Enterprise program, and made education a priority.
Several minority business owners that I know personally from the DC area have credited Steele for helping them establish their businesses. But they quickly point out that they did not recognize the Steele who led the RNC.
Steele, a bright and intelligent person prior to becoming a national political figure, became someone who played up the worst stereotypes of Black in mainstream media. He became a caricature from the hood who put on a suit and a bowtie that made white folks chuckle with glee and Black folks hold their breaths in dismay. Watching him tell his humorless jokes on TV would leave me baffled, but hearing him in person left me wondering why I was even trying to comprehend his logic on the occasions I heard him speak. He truly reminded me of an Amos and Andy routine. He attacked the President as his paycheck required him to do but rarely did any of his attacks stick.
Steele could have used his talents from his previous careers to convert independents who became disillusioned with President Obama and reach the minority communities to show the RNC as an inclusive bunch. But he could not even get ants to an outdoor picnic.
He allowed racial rhetoric to go too far too long. Steele tried to justify statements that he knew were inflammatory nightly on cable news. He only countered the accusations when RNC members started complaining about his lavish spending and questionable nightclub outings, and how he seemed to pocket money from his book tour instead of giving it to the RNC. When he came under scrutiny, he ran to Black radio claiming racism in the RNC. Hmm, how convenient.
Steele had no shame. Folks on coonery circuits usually don’t. Being the head of the RNC, Steele showed us classic coonery at it worst. Right off the bat he tried to bring hip-hop to the RNC in order to reach the youth. (Who says hip-hop anymore?) He publicly feuded with Rush Limbaugh only to backtrack and kiss Rush’s ring. He didn’t know pro-choice did not mean pro-life. Most Catholics know the difference. He swore that white folks were afraid of him. Really? In January 2010, he predicted that the GOP would not win very many seats. He said he wrote that book before he was Chairman of the RNC. He claimed Afghanistan “was a war of Obama’s choosing.” Nope, President Bush took us to war. Twice.
Steele ended his gaffe-filled two-year coonery tour this month with a response to a question at the RNC chair debate. The candidates were asked what was their favorite book. Steele said his favorite book was War and Peace by Tolstoy, and then quoted: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This triggered laughter throughout the hall. Steele had, in fact, quoted A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens.
His last gaffe also gave The Daily Show writers another round of clips to keep their audience howling for another week. Thankfully the tour is over!