The Democratic hopeful slammed Ann Coulter's use of an 'ignorant epithet' but pleaded ignorance for saying the same word himself in Spanish.
Language can be a tricky business. Just ask Bill Richardson.
A few months ago, he took the stage at the Human Rights Campaign's black-tie dinner in Los Angeles and condemned conservative pundit Ann Coulter for calling John Edwards, his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, a 'faggot.'
'We are fed up' in this country with 'Ann Coulter's ignorant epithets,' he said then, to rousing applause.
What probably only Richardson, of all the people, presented that night knew at the time was that almost exactly one year earlier, he had pleaded 'ignorance' of his own after using the same 'epithet' on-air in a nationwide radio-television simulcast, albeit in Spanish.
News broke this week of Richardson's 'maricón' moment from a March 29, 2006, appearance on, of all places, the Imus in the Morning show. Don Imus had joked with Richardson that Bernard, one of the shock jock's staffers, didn't believe Richardson is really Latino.
'You can just answer this yes or no and this will answer that question. Would you agree that Bernard is a maricón?'
Without missing a beat, Richardson replied, 'Yo creo que Bernardo, sí — es un maricón si él piensa que yo no soy hispano. [ General laughter ] Was that good enough or what? [ General laughter ] '
'That's good enough for me,' Imus laughed in response.
'Maricón' means 'faggot' in Spanish. So, translated into English, Richardson had replied, 'I believe that Bernard, yes—he's a faggot if he thinks that I am not Hispanic.'
The March 2006 appearance is resurfacing now because of the persistence of one gay man who heard Richardson on the Imus show that morning. Christopher Hubble, a Denver, Colo.-based book publisher and blogger, e-mailed me about the Imus incident after I had written approvingly of Bill Richardson's gay rights record when he announced for president earlier this year.
The Imus appearance raises legitimate questions about Richardson's judgment, but his response raises even more. He was clearly baited by Imus, but no doubt Richardson would not have taken the bait if the slur had been racial. Instead, he seemed so anxious to join in using the slur he even talked over the host.
Even more telling is Richardson's handling of the issue since. He is said to have apologized privately soon after the broadcast to a leading gay activist in his home state, as if that could serve as proxy for apologizing to Hubble and all the other gay people who heard the broadcast.
Richardson told the activist that in the Spanish he grew up speaking, 'maricón' only meant 'effeminate.' That means to Richardson, he and Imus were calling the staffer a 'sissy' rather than a 'fag,' for doubting Richardson's ethnicity. Does that feel much better?
A year later, now a candidate for nationwide office, Richardson's statement this week is even more of a non-apology apology. Now he is claiming 'maricón' means 'simply 'gay,' not positive or negative.'
'It has been brought to my attention that the word also has a hurtful or derogatory connotation, which was never my intent,' he added. 'If I offended anybody, I'm sorry.'
Now we've all known since childhood that 'I'm sorry you're upset' isn't a real apology, taking true responsibility. For six years we've lived with a president who never admits he's wrong; the bar should be higher for candidates willing to say when they've messed up — not simply recognizing when they've upset you.
At a more fundamental level, Richardson's wavering explanations about 'maricón' strain credulity. If 'maricón' means 'simply gay, not positive or negative,' then why in the world would Don Imus suggest his staffer was 'simply gay, not positive or negative' for thinking Richardson isn't truly Latino? Why would Richardson agree?
It's also hard to believe Richardson has 'since learned' that 'maricón' is offensive. Spanish-language dictionaries are clear it is a derogatory epithet. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has for years taken Spanish-language media to task for using 'maricón.' In a typical press release, GLAAD identified 'maricón' as a 'derogatory slur' that is 'vulgar, defamatory and unacceptable.'
Most disappointing for me personally was Richardson's effort to change the subject, suggesting that news of the year-old Imus appearance is surfacing now through some effort by rivals to quash his 'momentum.'
In fact, no one associated with the story has been anything but helpful to Richardson's gay outreach. The only dirty politics I can see is the effort by the Richardson camp to smear his rivals for being behind a story they had nothing to do with.
News of Richardson's 'maricón' moment — while nothing so awful as George Allen's 'macaco' moment in the 2006 campaign — should depress gay voters. Richardson is right when he says his record on gay rights is better than any other serious candidate, mostly because he can point to actual accomplishments rather than simply rhetoric.
But a candidate seeking our support and our votes owes us more than his half-apologies and wavering explanations, much less his unfounded, Rove-like efforts to shoot the messenger.
Chris Crain is former editor of the Washington Blade, Southern Voice, and gay publications in three other cities. He can be reached via his blog at www.citizencrain.com .