Colorado Congressman Doug Lamborn may want to break out a thesaurus and find an alternate expression for a dilemma to get out of the controversy he’s stirred up recently.
Last week, NPR was the first to report that while on the Caplis and Silver radio show, the Republican lawmaker was asked about the debt ceiling talks, and he responded by saying “Now I don’t even want to have to be associated with [Obama], it’s like touching a tar baby and you’re stuck, you’re part of the problem now. You can’t get away.”
While Lamborn’s comments could be seen as a less-than-ideal metaphor, they also contain a derogatory term that has been historically regarded as a slur against African-Americans. And given that he used it to refer to Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, it may further complicate the GOP’s relationship with the African-American community.
Did Lamborn simply make a bad decision by choosing a poor choice of words or should he be held responsible? Is using this term wrong because of its racist undertones or is this just a case of society being overly politically correct?
LISTEN TO AUDIO OF LAMBORN’S REMARKS HERE:
When asked for a response, his office issued the following comments to theGrio.com:
“Congressman Lamborn regrets any misunderstanding,” said Catherine Mortensen, the congressman’s director of communication. “He simply meant to refer to a sticky situation.”
Just this morning, Lamborn went a step further and sent President Obama a personal letter apologizing for “using a term some find insensitive.”
According to the public statement, “Lamborn was attempting to tell a radio audience last week that the President’s policies have created an economic quagmire for the nation and are responsible for the dismal economic conditions our country faces. He regrets that he chose the phrase ‘tar baby,’ rather than the word ‘quagmire.’ The Congressman is confident that the President will accept his heartfelt apology.”
The congressman isn’t the only Republican to have used the term tar baby to refer to a difficult situation. In 2006, Mitt Romney had to apologize for using the words when likening Boston’s Big Dig highway project to a “tar baby” while addressing a group of Iowa Republicans. And Sen. John McCain was quoted as saying that he didn’t want to interfere with the rights of divorced fathers in courts because it would mean “getting into a tar baby of enormous proportions.”
The Oxford dictionary has updated their definition of the term by indicating that it means “a difficult problem which is only aggravated by attempts to solve it and an allusion to the doll smeared with tar as a trap for Brer Rabbit, in J. C. Harris’s Uncle Remus.” And Words@Random from Random House states that “the tar baby is a form of a character widespread in African folklore. In various folktales, gum, wax or other sticky material is used to trap a person.”
“All words have life cycles,” Erin McKean, editor-in-chief of the Oxford American Dictionary told Time Magazine in 2006. “What’s really important is not etymologically what it means, but the effect it has.”
Perhaps the reaction to Lamborn’s comments could make other politicians think twice before they spew out words that have the potential to cause harm.