The Talking Head: Michael Steele

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“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.”