For the second time in a week, Veterans Affairs Secretary Edward J. Derwinski has found himself apologizing for some of his remarks.
Last week it was for the nicknames he uses for women on his personal staff. Yesterday it was for describing illegal Hispanic aliens as "wetbacks."
"It was one of those bursts of rhetoric that has a major stumble in the middle of it," said Derwinski, a former member of Congress from Chicago and senior State Department official.
The secretary said his use of the word "wetback" was "a stupid mistake" he made "unknowingly" as he attempted to answer a question about the Bush administration's war on drugs during an appearance Friday for a Republican congressional candidate in Omaha.
As he was explaining the difficulty of slowing the flow of illegal drugs into the United States, Derwinski said he told a breakfast audience of military retirees: "These drug lords even use wetbacks to carry drugs across the border."
Derwinski, whose use of pet names such as "Little Miss Muffet" and "Zsa Zsa" brought him criticism from women's groups last week, said he was unaware he had used the word "wetback" until someone approached after the event concluded. "I apologized literally on the spot," he said. "I didn't know I used the word."
Hispanic spokesmen criticized Derwinski's remarks. "I don't think the gentlemen is a racist. I think he just made an unfortunate remark," said Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, an umbrella group of 125 Hispanic organizations.
"But I think the fact that a high-ranking official, a member of the Cabinet, made that remark is indicative of the kind of insensitivity that is all too prevalent among decision makers in the country toward Americans of Hispanic dissent."
Ally Milder, the GOP candidate for whom Derwinski was appearing, denounced the remark, which came during a fund-raising breakfast at the Omaha home of Richardo Correa, a Hispanic businessman.
"There is no place in government for people who have attitudes like this," Milder told the Omaha World-Herald. The newspaper said she stopped short of calling for Derwinski's resignation.
His remark led to picketing of Milder during a Hispanic parade Saturday and an attack by her opponent, Rep. Peter Hoagland (D-Neb.). He said that Derwinski's comments were "derogatory" and had no place in "a diverse, heterogeneous democracy."
Derwinski said he was on a four-day campaign swing at the time and made five appearances for Milder, whom he had never met. Asked about her comments, he replied: "I obviously can't be pleased with that" and attributed them to "candidate-itis."
"She's nervous . . . she's got an uphill fight," said Derwinski, who represented a south Chicago district for 24 years. "She's entitled to make a mountain out of molehill."
Derwinski said that Milder did not appear troubled by the remark, which he said occurred Friday during a day of "low-key campaigning" that appeared to go well.
Derwinski yesterday attended a Capitol Hill kickoff for National Hispanic Month hosted by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Washington Council of Hispanic Employment Program Managers. He was greeted warmly by the group and his comments in Nebraska were not mentioned. "Frankly, I don't think they were aware of it," Derwinski said.