Mr. Steele on His 'Homeboy'

Friday, July 28, 2006

WASHINGTON'S version of a gaffe, columnist Michael Kinsley famously said, is when a politician tells the truth in public. By that apt definition, Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele committed a double-Kinsley with a twist: He told the truth but he didn't actually mean to -- at least not with his name attached. Quoted by Post columnist Dana Milbank following a news luncheon only as a Republican Senate candidate -- beyond what the ground rules provided -- the French-cuffed Mr. Steele cuffed around the president and his party. Asked whether he'd want President Bush to campaign for him, Mr. Steele allowed, "to be honest with you, probably not." As to his party affiliation, "It's a hurdle I have to overcome. I've got an 'R' here, a scarlet letter."

The ensuing kerfuffle -- it didn't take long before Mr. Steele had to come forward and own up -- may, the Kinsley rule notwithstanding, say more about Mr. Steele and his readiness for the limelight of an intense Senate campaign than it does about Washington. In an interview with WBAL, a conservative talk radio station in Baltimore, Mr. Steele engaged in the usual messenger-blaming, asserting that the luncheon with reporters "was an off-the-record conversation, as I understood it to be," saying he was "making a joke" about that scarlet-letter thing and complaining that Mr. Milbank disregarded his praise for the president while trying to "stick his finger in my eye and in the eye of the president."

Except that the ground rules were not only clear, but Mr. Milbank also went out of his way to protect Mr. Steele from himself. The agreement was that Mr. Steele could be identified as a "Republican Senate candidate from Maryland" -- that would sure keep folks guessing -- and the story omitted not only the state but telling details such as Mr. Steele's discussion of a Chesapeake Bay cleanup, Mr. Bush's speech to the NAACP and Mr. Steele's childhood "on the streets of D.C."

Mr. Steele on Monday, over hanger steak, medium, in the back room of Charlie Palmer, was busy distancing himself from the president; Mr. Steele on WBAL on Wednesday was eagerly embracing him. "I've been quoted as calling the president my homeboy, and that's how I feel," he said. No word on what Mr. Bush is calling the lieutenant governor these days.

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