Roy Blunt: No monkey business

The Republican says his joke about monkeys wasn't aimed at President Obama, and he's shocked anyone thinks it was

Published September 21, 2009 4:52PM (EDT)

Rep. Roy Blunt just doesn't see why anyone would think he could possibly have been referring to President Obama when he told a story about monkeys Friday at a conservative summit.

The Missouri Republican, who's running for Senate next year, used a parable about monkeys interfering with a golf course built by British soldiers in India as a metaphor for how conservatives should deal with life in the Obama era. "You have to play the ball where the monkey throws it," Blunt said. "And that is the rule in Washington all the time."

Strangely enough, quite a few people wondered why he chose that particular analogy. A Missouri politics blog linked to Salon's coverage of it; other liberal blogs wrote it up, as well.

But in a statement released Monday, Blunt says he's shocked -- shocked! -- that anyone is reading any racial subtext into a metaphor about monkeys. "It is disgusting that the Democrats are using race-baiting to try and inflame racial feeling for partisan political gain," he says. "The American people are tired of being called racist when they disagree with something in Washington."

And with that, Blunt effectively deployed what you might call the "race card card" -- a move that's become quite popular among conservatives lately. As soon as Democrats or the media object to anything that could be read as offensive, Republicans accuse them of "playing the race card," shifting the focus from whatever they said in the first place to the response to it. No one, obviously, is calling "the American people" racist because of Blunt's comments Friday. And you might argue, with some justification, that the person race-baiting is the guy who told the monkey joke, not the people who wondered why he told it. But as far as Blunt is concerned, that makes you the one with the problem.

The problem is, even if you give Blunt the benefit of the doubt, it doesn't help excuse his story that much. Blunt says he's told the joke before, including during the Bush administration, and that he first heard it from a Presbyterian minister. Fine. But it still takes a complete lack of sensitivity to use the line as a metaphor for life in Washington under the country's first black president. You don't have to have paid a whole lot of attention to the tortured history of race relations in America to realize monkey has been used as a slur in the past. (Not just the distant past, either; only a few months ago, after all, a South Carolina Republican apologized -- grudgingly -- for saying a gorilla that had escaped from a zoo was probably an ancestor of Michelle Obama's.) Blunt may not have meant the line to be racist. But he certainly didn't seem to have spent much time worrying about whether it would come across that way.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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