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Anatomy of a Slur
By William McGurn
Robert McTeer might be asking himself the same question. The head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Mr. McTeer has been named a possible successor to Alan Greenspan. Which is precisely how he was listed in a recent New York Times article. With this kicker: "Uncomfortable questions" could be provoked by any McTeer nomination, warned the Times. The cause of those "uncomfortable" questions? "Earlier this year," the article reported, Mr. McTeer had "arranged a conference at which a speech by a conservative author was criticized by some Fed officials as offensive to blacks and gays."
Though Bob McTeer may not be a household name, within the highly charged universe of the Federal Reserve he enjoys a reputation as a hard-money, tax-cutting conservative. In Federal Open Market Committee deliberations he's impressed his colleagues, and his recent dissents in favor of greater easing by the Fed appear to have been vindicated by events. Surely if there is a scandal here, it is that an able public servant could be eliminated from consideration for Mr. Greenspan's post solely on the basis of guilt by politically incorrect association.
So what did go down in Dallas? Well, that's the beauty of a smear: strong enough to disqualify a man for public office--but slight enough never to tell you exactly what did or did not happen. For the Times sentence is simply the sound-bite version of earlier newspaper accounts in May in the Texas press, all dealing with a Fed-sponsored speech given by Harry Stein, author of "How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (and Found Inner Peace)."
Here's how it was first reported, in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. After listing a few of Mr. Stein's remarks on issues such as feminism and gay rights ("The drive to question and mock 2,000 millennia of religious teaching, to dismiss it out of hand . . . is tragic"), the Star-Telegram got to the point: Mr. Stein, the paper reported, "described an argument his son had with a teacher about Mark Twain's 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,' and repeated a racial slur that is in the book." That was not all. The paper quoted William Jones, chairman of the Fed's Los Angeles branch and owner of an investment company, as saying during the Q&A session that he was "very personally offended by your jokes about black people and your seemingly rationalizing the use of the word 'n.'"
But a review of the tape of the speech shows two things. First, though Mr. Stein did allude to a progressive childhood in which his allegiance to sports teams was determined by the number of blacks on the roster, the tape shows no jokes at the expense of African-Americans. Nor did he rationalize the use of the n-word.
What he did do was recount an argument his son had had with his high-school teacher about Huckleberry Finn, which the teacher deemed racist and the son argued was antiracist. In the course of rehashing their argument Mr. Stein said, "The teacher said it uses the word 'nigger.' " This was what the Texas papers described as Mr. Stein's having "repeated a racial slur." One wonders if readers might have come away with a different take (and Mr. McTeer spared the insinuations against him) if the news accounts had reported simply that "Mr. Stein quoted his son's white high school teacher as saying 'Huckleberry Finn' was racist because it used the word 'nigger.' "
Asked about the fallout from his comments, Mr. Jones today says he thought it "inappropriate" to have these kind of issues debated at the Fed. He added that he had not spoken to any reporters about either Mr. Stein or Mr. McTeer and said he thought everyone should "move on." But when asked if that isn't the point--that months later Mr. McTeer finds this coming back to bite him--Mr. Jones declined to comment.
Now, it is eminently reasonable to ask whether a Federal Reserve audience is really the venue for a discussion of the social, political and cultural issues that Mr. Stein addresses in his book. That said, there was nothing in Mr. Stein's talk that was inherently uncivil or beyond the pale. Nothing, that is, unless you subscribe to a view that any questioning of certain political orthodoxies automatically renders someone unfit for decent society.
It didn't help that after the speech a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Federal Reserve issued an apology in the name of its president, Robert Parry, saying he too "found the speaker's choice of words to be offensive and inappropriate for a gathering held at a Federal Reserve bank." In so doing Mr. Parry, a rival for the Greenspan slot, not only increased the heat on Mr. McTeer; he lent credence to the intimation that something truly ugly had happened on Mr. McTeer's watch. The irony here is that the controversy illustrates a key theme of Mr. Stein's speech, which was that accusations such as "racism" are too often used to forestall debate. And in the latest issue of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, Mr. Stein makes just that point in his account of what happened in Dallas.
For the record Mr. McTeer declined to discuss the incident. But the harm has been done. As Mr. Stein writes, he's had enough experience to know that once a smear gets out, the facts never really seem to matter--and that the real target was always Bob McTeer.
"Should he ever be nominated for higher office," Mr. Stein writes, "there is now a potentially fatal landmine buried in his record." And to work its damage, it doesn't even need to explode.
Mr. McGurn is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.
©2002 Wall Street Journal
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