It appears the President’s current controversies have as much to do with language as with anything else. His alleged use of a crude profanity to describe some other countries during a meeting about immigration is what sparked the present firestorm. The President says he never used the word in that meeting, but that only he talked “tough.” Claims that he did or did not utter the profanity by others present seem to be divided along party lines, which is another issue entirely.
It is the language he used trying to quell the controversy, however, that deserves closer examination. In one breath, the President says he is not a racist. Perhaps he believes that. But in another breath he tells reporters, “I’m the least racist person you will ever interview.” It is a phrase, “I’m the least racist person,” he has used several times on multiple occasions.
Does not the use of “the least racist person” suggest there is a modicum of racism in there somewhere? If I am the least likely person to speed while driving, that suggests I might speed, but all the other motorists around me will probably put the pedal to the metal before I do. If I am the least likely employee to be late for work, that implies I could be late for work, but not as often as my co-workers.
Certainly, the President didn’t mean to imply that he, indeed, has racist tendencies. But his imprecise language does him in. How much clearer he would have been if he had something along the lines of “I deplore racism,” or “Racism has no place in this White House or in this country.” Being the “least likely” of anything leaves a lot of wiggle room and only provides more fodder for his critics.
In 1985, while covering South Africa and the apartheid battles, I heard Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu say, “We don’t want apartheid liberalized. We want it dismantled. You can’t improve something that is intrinsically evil.” You can’t get much more precise than that. Perhaps the President can take a language lesson from one of his predecessors, Ronald Reagan, who on the same subject said, “America—and that means all of us—opposes apartheid, a malevolent and archaic system totally alien to our ideals.” There is no wiggle room there.
Imprecise language among leaders causes problems, misunderstandings and confusion. You may believe the President is a racist. You may believe he is not. But, his linguistic clumsiness does little to extinguish the firestorm.