The Talking Head: Michael Steele
THE TALKING HEAD
MICHAEL STEELE, THE FIRST BLACK CHAIRMAN OF THE REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE, HAS BEEN PILED ON AND PUNCH-LINED BY HIS OWN PARTY. NOW OUT OF POWER, STEELE REVEALS THE BACKSTABBING, THE MONEY GRABS AND RACE TROUBLES AT THE RNC. BUT CAN THE HIP-HOP-LINGO-SPEWING POLITICO FIND HIS WAY BACK IN THE HEEZIE?
MICHAEL STEELE, THE CONTROVERSIAL former head of the Republican National Committee, folds his tall frame into a booth in a Midtown Manhattan hotel restaurant. Before he can complete his thought—one of the many bits of evidence he’ll stack against the Republican establishment he picks the fruit out of his oatmeal and sighs. “I’m sorry,” he says, with a shake of his head. “I don’t know why people put shit in oatmeal.” He fishes out a few more pieces. “I don’t even know what this stuff is. And why is it in my oatmeal? Ugh.”
It’s just after 9 a.m., a few days away from Christmas, and Steele has been up since some ungodly waking hour. He spent the first part of the day on the alarmingly tame set of MSNBC’s Morning Joe—a political gabfest for early risers and cable news junkies. All the pieces of the man were on full display: the pinstripe suit, the broken wreath of hair trimming his crown, the wire-rimmed glasses, the grizzly mustache and the penchant for lacing his talks with hip-hop vernacular.
He sparred with show host Joe Scarborough, commenting on Obama’s growing approval (“The [GOP] never had this guy”), attack ads, and the sorry state of the Republican party (“They are so off message”).
Michael Steele was definitely in the house, or as Barack Obama once famously mocked—using Steele speak—he was “in the heezie.”
Now, the man who carefully plucks raisins out of his oatmeal is building the foundation for a new house of Steele. Since he lost the RNC chairmanship in a bitter runoff in January 2011, he refuses to go quietly into the night. He’s traded his Fox News gig for an MSNBC slot, where he regularly pundits alongside unapologetic “lefties” like Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews. Yet, his new alliance provides a surprisingly favorable platform for his brand of talk. It’s clear that the first Black chairman of the RNC is blazing a new trail, somewhere in Republican exile.
“I wasn’t their cup of tea,” he says of the GOP power players. “I didn’t play ball the way they wanted me to. And going into a presidential election, they certainly didn’t want me to control the money.”
He contends that his attempts to distribute money in a more balanced manner earned him enemies in high places.
“In 2008, [when Mike Duncan was chairman] over $300 million went through that building,” he says. “It went somewhere. Who do you think got that money? A whole host of vendors tied to establishment guys.” Steele describes his tenure at the RNC as a period crowded with conspiracies and concerted efforts to diminish his standing. They ignored his successes, because, as Steele puts it, “It doesn’t fit their narrative.” To be sure, under Steele’s stewardship, Republicans picked up an impressive 63 House seats, including two new Black Tea Party–endorsed congressmen—Tim Scott of South Carolina and Allen West of Florida (both of whom did not credit Steele for contributing to their victories). As a result, the Republicans in Congress pushed the mighty Democratic Majority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, out of her top position.
“He gave us great bandwidth in terms of establishing relationships with nontraditional constituents,” says J.C. Watts, the former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, who has firsthand experience of being a rare Black voice within the party. “But because he was not their guy, it made sense that they would do whatever they had to do to discredit him in order to keep control.”
But Steele’s detractors will—very publicly—point to the $20 million deficit he left behind (which he credits to a loan the committee members took out against his advice). They will talk about an incident concerning a large tab ran up at a strip club (he says was used by a misguided staffer, while he was out of town). They will say he shouldn’t have been writing and promoting a book—Right Now: A 12-Step Program for Defeating the Obama Agenda—while he was in office (a book he claims to have been largely completed before his chairmanship). But mostly, they will go on and on about the gaffes—oh, those delicious Michael Steele-isms that filled cable news segments with built-in punch lines and palpable scorn (much more on this later).
Today, when he speaks on his post-RNC life, he clearly doesn’t plan to let his legacy as a one-term RNC blunderer stand uncontested. He now boldly adds race to the list of strikes against him. “I remember the few times I talked about race as a factor or component of what I was going through as chairman,” he says. “People inside the party got all ner- vous and ‘concerned’ about what that meant. They didn’t want that to come off as being racist.”
By stripping him of his chairmanship, Republicans have unleashed a no-holds-barred Michael Steele, who is just as quick to attack his own party as he is to congratulate Barack Obama for his foreign policy wins. Every opportunity he gets, he makes a big show of his new post-RNC freedom. At one point in the interview, he expresses his jubilation by quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“Free at last, free at last,” he sings the words. “Thank God Almighty, [I’m] free at last.”
Well before Steele became a punching bag or punch line for either political parties, politics was a quiet calling working beneath his consciousness. He was raised by his adoptive parents in Northwest Washington, D.C., and had a divine plan for himself. By the time he reached 21, he was on the path to priesthood, studying at the Augustinian Friars Seminary at Villanova University. But before he donned the cloth, greater powers intervened.
“God called me to this,” he says. “That’s part of my personal journey. A monastery being a place where I had to reflect on my shortcomings, on my humanity.”
He soon filed into the local political scene, looking for his voice. He found himself surrounded by major political figures such as infamous D.C. mayor Marion Barry, who was later busted for smoking crack while in office. “Learning grassroots politics from a street activist like Marion Barry, how valuable is that.” A wide smile parts his face, as if he was that kid again. “It’s awesome.”
But he found his footing when he connected with Republican Art Fletcher, the former football player who shaped the nation’s affirmative action programs as adviser to President Nixon and chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in the ’90s. Steele embraced Fletcher’s message of economic empow- erment and equal opportunity at a time when Republicans were moving in the opposite direction.
“It kills me when Republicans run away from affirmative action,” he says. “We created it. It was our idea. You know what the first affirmative action program was?” He pauses for effect. “Forty Acres and a Mule. That was a Republican idea.”
He ran for Senate in 2006 with some support from a few unlikely voices in the Black community—Russell Simmons and Mike Tyson (who married Steele’s sister Dr. Monica Turner in 1997).
“Mike and Russell both took a lot of flack for supporting me,” Steele says. “In fact, Russell did not want to meet with me at first because he thought I was the typical Republican. He told my staff [he’s] available for 30 minutes. We were in this restaurant for two hours. He realized we had a lot more in com- mon when it came to Black people.”
The two eventually produced a hip-hop summit for entrepreneurs in Maryland, but Simmons insists it was Steele’s devotion to underserved communities that attracted him to his campaign.
“Some people thought I had a personal interest, but I never ever voted or supported anyone for my own personal interests,” says Simmons. “Michael Steele is a force from within the Republican party that would probably help compromise on ideas or promote ideas that might otherwise not make it to the party.”
Steele’s relationship with hip-hop moguls like Simmons proved that he is willing to seek out some common ground with Blacks from the other side of the political divide. When Barack Obama came to D.C. as a senator, Steele reached out, looking to make a connection with the new blood in town.
“I’ve had an interesting non-relationship with Barack Obama,” Steele says. “Going back to when he first came to the Senate and I was lieutenant governor of Maryland. I extended a hand to meet with him to get to know him and to welcome him to my hometown. He refused.”
Steele was hoping that his win as chairman might bring them together. “[Some mutual friends] were trying to get the two of us on the phone for him to give congratulatory remarks,” he says. “Never happened. I don’t know what any of that means.”
While Steele has never met with the president, the potential connection with Obama is a running theme of his, and it plays out in his head like a sort of modern-day Martin-Malcolm alliance. In his mind, he and Obama are flip sides of the same coin.
“I guess what I would say to the president if he and I were in a room alone is, ‘You and I are a lot alike,’” he says. “’You and I have been put into various positions that have allowed us to be advocates on behalf of an agenda that I think is largely been given second-class treatment. That’s important. I can do it from the Republican side of the table, you can do it from the Democratic side.’”
IN MANY WAYS, Steele stands in the long, cold shadow cast by President Obama. Like the president, he has contributed generously to the big book of “First Blacks.” In 2000, he became the first Black chairman of the Maryland (or any other state’s) Republican party. Two years later, he was elected as the first African-American lieutenant governor of Maryland, beating back decades of Democratic rule. But when he became RNC chairman just 10 days after the nation witnessed the swearing in of its first Black president, many saw Steele’s win as a “First Blacks” competition the Republicans had long lost.
“The Republicans electing him chairman showed their thinking Barack Obama [was] Superman. So what they needed to do was to get Kryptonite,” Melissa Harris Perry explained on The Rachel Maddow Show. “Kryptonite comes from Superman’s own planet, so they went to planet Black Guy.”
While he was snubbed by his brother from planet Black Guy, Steele was well aware of the role race played in his election.
“I’m sure there are some who thought I would be a good counterbalance to Barack Obama,” Steele says. “But I told people before I started running, ‘If that is your thinking, you will be sorely disabused of that notion.'"
Unlike Obama, who had his base high off hope for years into his term, Steele faced an onslaught of criticism from within before the ink could dry on his business cards. His colorful statements were mocked by the media and pounced on by rivals in his own party. There was outrage when, less than a month into his term, he curiously told The Washington Times, he was going to apply the GOP principles to the "urban-suburban hip-hop settings."
"Oh my God, you would have thought that I had just damned people to wearing bling and their pants cut around their behinds," he says. "I wasn't saying that Republicans had to take on a hip-hop culture. Republicans had to understand the culture we are in. You've got to make it relevant for folks."
The "hip-hop Republican" response set the tone for how Republicans would deal with their chairman's flubs. Soon after, he called the Afghanistan war one "of Obama's choosing," though it was George W. Bush who launched the offensive. Influential conservative columnist Bill Kristol and former RNC chief of staff Tom Cole immediately called on Steele to resign.
However, his biggest quibble was with radio host Rush Limbaugh, when he suggested that Limbaugh was simply an entertainer who sometimes says incendiary things. He was later forced to release a statement to smooth things over. By then, he was getting the message: His party was just not that into him.
“That was a good example of what was to come,” Steele says. “If any other person would have said that, you would have seen the party rally around him and protect him. And give him cushion and help explain it and give him context. I had none of that.”
Frustrated with the lack of support, Steele confronted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, demanding to know why Republicans kept throwing him under the bus.
“It was more or less a rhetorical question, ‘Why can’t I as national chairman get the support of my party instead of being attacked at every turn?’” says Steele. “I know I said some things that kinda set people off their rockers, but it wasn’t so bad that it required people to call for my resignation in return. Realize that 30 days into the job was the first call for me to be fired. How in the hell does that happen? I still hadn’t even organized the building yet.”
During this low period, Steele found support in an old friend who understood how to bounce back from a tragedy.
“I called him up after the debacle when the RNC was trying to get him to step down as chair,” Mayor Barry said via phone. As a result of a sting operation in 1990, Barry was caught on video smoking crack with a prostitute, but now serves as councilman in D.C. However bad Michael Steele felt about his career, if Barry could survive his shameful ordeal, there was hope for Steele’s reputation. “I told him that you can’t give up and you got to stay the course beat and battered, but you cannot let those forces against you succeed. You have to exhibit strength.
Don’t let the enemies and adversaries see you down. If you have to put a happy face on, you got to do it. That’s what I’ve done in my career to overcome the adversaries. And I also told him when you’re in a ditch, the first thing to do is stop digging.”
In light of the 2010 Republican Midterm election successes, Steele decided to run for a second term. To his surprise, the man who deposed him was his right-hand guy, RNC general counsel Reince Priebus. Of all the people who have come out against him, Priebus has secured several slots at the top of Steele’s shit list. When asked if he feels betrayed by his former friend, Steele sits up in his seat, his face drops and words rush out of his mouth. “Absolutely. Without a doubt or hesitation,” he says. “He set this thing up for a whole seven, eight months. He was in meetings with me and then would go and probably have meetings with others telling them what my strategy was, and they would counterstrategize. He was part of my inner circle, and I guess they saw him as the weakest link in the circle. And not once during that time did you say, ‘You know what chairman, I don’t think you should spend money over here,’ or ‘I don’t think you should spend time in this state,’ or ‘We shouldn’t give resources over here.’”
When Priebus was elected, he promised an RNC with “less drama,” and made a point to say he wouldn’t be on TV too much, a brash dig at his predecessor.
“He’s on TV all the time, and he’s not saying anything,” Steele says. “What’s the message of the party right now? It’s a talking point that nobody believes. How else do you explain the loss of momentum from 2010 till now? My God, we’re on the defensive on taxes? What are you kidding me? I may have been on the defensive on them attacking me because I said X or I said Y, but we were not on the defensive about what we believe.”
Several weeks after Steele talked to VIBE for this story, Priebus made his first major gaffe as RNC chairman, comparing President Obama to the disgraced Italian captain of the sunken cruise ship who ran his ship onto rocks and escaped to safety while his passengers struggled for their lives. His remarks caused a stir inside Washington, but there were no calls for his resignation. The Republican party mostly remained quiet. But one GOP voice didn’t let it pass. On MSNBC Steele called the analogy “unfortunate.” “I mean, people died in that situation,” Steele said. “[It was] too cute by none.”
IT’S NOT YET noon, and Steel has several more TV appearances lined up before he’ll catch a train back to Maryland. His new position as straight talking pundit has opened him up to another audience and new possibilities for reinvention. Before he leaves the restaurant, he offers some insight into his future.
“What is consistent between the Fox News audience and the MSNBC audience is people tell me the same thing,” he says. “[They say, ‘I appreciate the fact that you’re honest. You’re looking at the warts and the good stuff objectively.’ And that’s what I’ve always done. It’s not what people want in an RNC chairman, but that’s what I thought I needed to bring to the job in order to get around some corners we needed to get around.”
When asked if he had plans to run for office again, he rubs a hand over his smooth head. “I am not sure. Look, there’s a governor’s race in 2014, and I’ll take a look at that,” he says, before citing his previous support there. “I look at it and go, ‘There’s a pathway, but you’ve got to be brave enough, bold enough, and yeah crazy enough to do it.”