Imagine it’s 2007 and a prominent journalist is interviewing then-Sen. Barack Obama. “Senator, people are really interested in you and your identity. I just wanted to ask you as a historical matter, when you filled out your application to Columbia, to Harvard Law School, did you list yourself as an African-American?”
Imagine he pressed further. Do you have a favorite traditional black food? Who’s your favorite African-American performer?
It’s a safe bet that journalist would be lucky to have a job today as a greeter at Wal-Mart.
Mark Halperin isn’t in danger of losing his job, nor should he be, even though he did pretty much question Texas Sen. Ted Cruz that way last week.
The Bloomberg Politics host grilled Cruz about his Cuban bona fides, sounding like a thuggish TSA cop questioning an immigrant’s passport.
The lowlight came when Halperin said, “I want to give you the opportunity to directly welcome your colleague Sen. (Bernie) Sanders to the race, and I’d like you to do it, if you would, en espanol.”
Halperin’s tone-deaf performance has earned a lot of scorn. It’s widely known Cruz isn’t fluent in Spanish (unlike Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush). The Twitter hashtag #HalperinQuestions is brutal. “Sen Cruz, please say Luuuuuuucy!!! for me? We need to be sure.”
“Mr. Kennedy, if you are indeed the first Irish Catholic president, chug this bottle of Jamesons and eat a potato.”
“Governor Martinez, I’m looking for a good taco truck near the Bloomberg office in New York. Where should I go?”
No wonder Halperin apologized Monday.
Though the style of the interview was a disaster, Halperin had a point. Cruz has invoked his Latino heritage for years, and justifiably so. His official bio touts the fact that he was the first Latino solicitor general of Texas and the first Latino clerk for the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Also, Cruz is a critic of affirmative action, so questions about hypocrisy on that issue are legitimate as well. Besides, Cruz is more than smart and nimble enough to handle it. (He accepted Halperin’s apology graciously.)
Still, there are two problems with Halperin’s technique. First, he was palpably and offensively condescending, essentially accusing Cruz of being a fraud. Instead of putting Cruz on the spot, he could have simply asked, “Do you speak Spanish?” Why try to embarrass Cruz, particularly when there’s no reason for him to be embarrassed? (It’s not like we expect, say, Indian-American politicians to speak Hindi.)
The answer to that question raises the second problem: the identity-politics double standard for Republicans. Columnist Ruben Navarrette notes that U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and his brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, aren’t fluent in Spanish either. But, Navarrette writes, “you could bet Halperin would never put those questions to the Castros because, as Democrats, they’re assumed to be closer to the masses than Cruz is.”
The assumption that Democrats are “prolier-than-thou” is only part of the problem. There’s a widespread assumption that racial, ethnic and sexual authenticity is bound up in support for liberal policies.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has one of the most poignant life stories of any African-American in public life, but he’s routinely belittled as a sellout because he’s conservative. Ben Carson, a child of an illiterate single mom in inner-city Detroit who became a world-renowned brain surgeon, has also gotten the “Uncle Tom” treatment.
Feminists love to play this game, treating conservative women as if they aren’t real women. Naomi Wolf sniped that former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote like “a woman without a uterus.” Gloria Steinem called Kirkpatrick a “female impersonator.”
After John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger wrote that Palin’s “greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman.”
Although Halperin’s snideness was gratuitous, I’d still rather live in a world where the media treated all politicians with similar skepticism. Instead, female and minority Democrats are uncritically celebrated, while Republicans are treated like traitors to their race or gender simply because they don’t think the way they’re “supposed” to.
That, not anti-Latino animus, is Halperin’s real bias.
Jonah Goldberg is a columnist for Tribune Media.