Todd Akin's Place In History

When something like the Todd Akin "legitimate rape" controversy comes up, it can be hard to look at the case objectively and determine if the crime is worthy of the consequences. As a liberal, I found Akin to be a pretty awful character even before yesterday. And his comments were, by any standard you can come up, both spectacularly stupid and morally vile. This kind of thing is where misogyny and anti-intellectualism converge, though my favorite part of his comment is that he began it by saying, "From what I understand from doctors..." as though he came to this conclusion only after consulting with a number of physicians on the question of the ladypart lasers that are presumably activated to zap unwanted sperm when it arrives in those legitimate rape cases. It's the same thing that you hear from Republicans who say, "My reading of the science is that global warming is a giant hoax," as though they've actually been perusing climate journals. Akin later clarified his doctor consulations in an interview with Sean Hannity, saying, "Well, my only point in that was I had heard from medical reports that rape is such a traumatic type of thing that, um, that it, uh, that there is a reaction." He did admit that "that's wrong," but he didn't say if the problem was that he misread the "medical reports," or if the "medical reports" were themselves erroneous, or if maybe the "medical reports" are figments of his imagination.

In any case, as someone who has written a lot about how stupid "gaffe" coverage usually is and how ridiculous it is when partisans say, "Ignore everything else our opponent ever said—this comment is the one that reveals his twisted soul!", I suppose I should try to give Akin the benefit of the doubt. But it's pretty hard. After all, this wasn't just an awkwardly phrased sentence that could be subject to multiple readings after being taken out of context. There's no ambiguity about what he meant. And Akin is someone who has compiled an impressive record of opposition to women's rights, so it isn't like this was particularly out of character. Furthermore, the crazy belief he expressed is actually quite common in pro-life circles (Amanda explains). And finally, even Republicans, from Karl Rove to Mitt Romney to the chair of the RNC to multiple GOP members of the body Akin is trying to join, were so horrified (politically at least) that they quickly abandoned Akin. So it isn't as if anybody out there, with the exception of a few anti-abortion extremists, actually thinks there's a case to be made that he's being undeservedly hounded from the race by the liberal media.

And so Akin may join a very select group of political figures who have lost a race or lost their job because of a single remark. In most every case, the damage came because the remark seemed to be an extreme version of something people already knew or suspected about the person. There was George Allen, who had a history of affection for the Confederacy, calling an Indian-American kid from Virginia "macaca" (which we learned is a racist epithet for black people used by some Europeans; Allen's mother is French) and saying "Welcome to America." There was Trent Lott, who said of Strom Thurmond's 1948 run for president on a segregationist platform, "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years," then stepped down as Senate Minority Leader. Lott had a long history of cozying up to white supremacists. You could put failed Senate candidate Martha Coakley in this category, though she really had two big gaffes, both Red Sox-related (calling former Sox pitcher Curt Schilling a "Yankee fan," and scoffing at the notion of "standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?"), and though she may have lacked the common touch, it isn't like that's a sin in and of itself. Reaching farther back, there was James Watt, Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, who was known as a religious nut; when he was asked in a congressional hearing about stewardship of the land for future generations, he said, "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns," and later said, "My responsibility is to follow the Scriptures which call upon us to occupy the land until Jesus returns." But Watt lost his job when he bragged about the diversity of a panel his department had organized, saying, "I have a black, a woman, two Jews, and a cripple." Reaching even farther back, we get Earl Butz, Gerald Ford's Secretary of Agriculture, who when asked whether the Republican party had anything to offer black voters, said, "I'll tell you what coloreds want. It's three things: first, a tight pussy; second, loose shoes; and third, a warm place to shit. That's all!" Which might make Akin's comment not seem so bad.

On second thought, no—Akin's comment is still really, really bad.

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