By Paul Farhi
Friday, January 15, 2010; C01
Well, that didn't take long.
The catastrophic earthquake in Haiti has already elicited a number of controversial statements from some of America's best-known talking heads. Rush Limbaugh, the Rev. Pat Robertson and Keith Olbermann generated outrage, from the left and the right, for comments that variously tied the massive tragedy to President Obama, the Devil and the need for health-care reform, respectively.
Mere hours after the island nation was devastated by the quake, Robertson suggested on his "700 Club" program Wednesday night that the disaster was payback for a "pact with the Devil" that Haitian slaves made to gain their independence from France more than 200 years ago:
"Something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it," the televangelist said. "And they got together and swore a pact to the Devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French.' True story. And so the Devil said, 'Okay, it's a deal.' . . . But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another."
The comments -- reminiscent of Robertson's statements blaming gays and secular liberals for Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- brought widespread condemnation from other commentators on TV and online.
Fox News anchor Shepard Smith played a clip of Robertson's comments and offered this take: "The people of Haiti have been used and abused by their governments over the years. They have dealt with unthinkable tragedy, day in and day out. And we're in the middle of a crisis that the Western Hemisphere has not seen in my lifetime. And 700 miles east of Miami, hundreds of thousands of desperate human beings need our help, our support, our money and our love. And they don't need that."
Limbaugh generated criticism during his Wednesday afternoon radio broadcast by saying Obama would seek to score political points with African Americans by getting out in front of the relief effort.
"This will play right into Obama's hands -- humanitarian, compassionate," Limbaugh said. "They'll use this to burnish their, shall we say, credibility with the black community, in both the light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country. It's made to order for him."
The "light-skinned" and "dark-skinned" remarks were apparently alluding to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) reference before the 2008 campaign that Obama's light skin would make him palatable to more voters.
Limbaugh was equally suspicious and cynical about Obama's call for donations. When a caller to his program noted that Obama had directed people to the White House's Web site (http://Whitehouse.gov), Limbaugh replied, "Would you trust that the money is going to go Haiti? But would you trust that your name's gonna end up on a mailing list for the Obama people to start asking you for campaign donations for him and other causes?"
He added, "Besides, we've already donated to Haiti. It's called the U.S. income tax."
On Thursday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs responded to Limbaugh's comments, saying, "In times of great crisis, there are always people that say really stupid things. I don't know how anybody could sit where he does, having enjoyed the success that he has, and not feel some measure of sorrow for what has happened in Haiti."
Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the conservative Media Research Center in Alexandria, noted the speed with which political rhetoric has colored the unfolding humanitarian disaster. "Every public event becomes a political event, it seems," he said in an interview. "There's a political calculation to everything. The timing on [these remarks] is certainly raw." Widespread political criticism of President George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Graham said, "didn't really kick in until four to five days" after the storm.
While he called Robertson's comments "wacky" and "pseudo history," Graham gave a pass to Limbaugh. "It reminds me of what [Limbaugh] said about Ted Kennedy's death: 'Watch [Democrats] use his death to push health-care reform.' They literally did what Rush Limbaugh predicted. You can say that what he said about Kennedy was impolite, but it ended up being correct. I think Obama will use this to shore up his base." He dismissed the "light-skinned" comment as "just cheesy humor."
Graham instead criticized MSNBC host Olbermann for comments on his Wednesday night program that tied the situation in Haiti to the effort to reform health care in the United States. During an interview with Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) on the program, Olbermann said, "I don't want to turn this into something about domestic politics, but I think it's a good frame of reference in terms of the health-care issue that we always talk about. We could easily have a natural disaster, if not quite on this scale, at least in the same broad ballpark. . . . I was thinking about this -- and maybe it's inappropriate, and tell me if I'm inappropriate in asking it -- but how would survivors of something like this here fare in terms of getting on their own feet economically afterwards, with the health-care system we have in place right now?"
Olbermann also offered this about Limbaugh and Robertson on his program: "And I would wish you to hell. But knowing how empty your souls must be for you to be able to say such things in a time of such pain, I suspect the vacant, purposeless lives you both live now are hell enough already."
Said Graham, "I would argue that Limbaugh is cynical but Olbermann has more rage."