Political Animal


December 16, 2011 9:30 AM Playing telephone with a controversial quote

By Steve Benen

On Monday, we talked about an odd line that has worked its way into Mitt Romney’s stump speech: he wants to “keep America American.” I argued that the line is kind of creepy, and Steve M. noted that the same three-word phrase was used in the 1920s by the KKK. A day later, John Aravosis tied the threads together in a piece that generated a fair amount of attention.

As campaign stories go, this was largely a blip on the radar, but the history of “keep America American” was noticed by a few major outlets — the Washington Post noted that the phrase was also used by the nativist Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s — and MSNBC briefly mentioned this briefly on Wednesday morning.

And that apparently proved problematic.

The MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews, who was not involved with the original report, read an apology to the Romney campaign during his 5 p.m. program, “Hardball.”

The network, Mr. Matthews said, “reported on a blog item that compared a phrase used by the Romney campaign to one used by the K.K.K. way back in the 1920s. It was irresponsible and incendiary of us to do this, and it showed an appalling lack of judgment. We apologize, we really do, to the Romney campaign.”

The odd part of this is that no one, including Matthews, said what was wrong with the original report. Romney was quoted using a line with a troubled past, and some media outlets — the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and MSNBC — made note of this. No one called Romney a Klansman, which clearly would have been ridiculous. This was more a story about a presidential candidate using a phrase with a scandalous past.

Shouldn’t on-air apologies offer some kind of explanation as to why the original reporting was mistaken?

As it turns out, as of late yesterday, two days after the apology, the Romney campaign produced a video showing Romney had said “keep America America,” rather than “keep America American.” What we’re left with, then, is a sort of political game of “telephone” — the L.A. Times ran a quote; I highlighted the quote; Steve M. added historical context to the quote; Aravosis elevated the historical context; and some major outlets mentioned this briefly to the public.

I guess the blame goes to the L.A. Times on Monday for missing the letter “n”?

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


Post a comment
  • Hedda Peraz on December 16, 2011 9:34 AM:

    Trust this liberal site to bring up the letter "n".. .

  • sick-n-effn-tired. on December 16, 2011 9:37 AM:


    (people with to much time on their hands)

  • Al on December 16, 2011 9:39 AM:

    Naturally liberals want to focus on trivia like this rather than substantive policy issues.

  • Ron Byers on December 16, 2011 9:41 AM:

    This is what happens when reporters don't check and recheck their stories. There is nothing wrong with "Keep America America." That quote can be viewed positively by people of all political stripes. "Keep America American" on the other hand is extremely politically suspect, Chris Matthews' slimy and unnecessary apology not withstanding.

  • Perspecitucs on December 16, 2011 9:44 AM:

    "I guess the blame goes to the L.A. Times on Monday for missing the letter 'n'?"

    Yes. As a bonus, Romney crack team of obfuscationists can now prepare and endless parade of press releases crowing that the candidate has never uttered the "n-word."

  • chi res on December 16, 2011 9:44 AM:

    Speaking of substance,

    What the hell is "Keep America America" supposed to mean, anyway?!?

  • c u n d gulag on December 16, 2011 9:49 AM:

    And here I thought "...missing the letter n..." was dog-whistle for keeping the "n's" in their place - not seen and not heard!

  • Texas Aggie on December 16, 2011 9:50 AM:

    Regardless of the missing "n", the two phrases demonstrate the same attitude toward "the other" and anyone who doesn't fit the particular model that Romney or the Klan or the Know Nothings were holding up as being the only "true" American model. Shades of Palin. That is the real problem with the phrase, not the little nitpicking that the right wing is trying to do to obfuscate the dog whistle that Romney was blowing.

  • John in TX on December 16, 2011 9:52 AM:

    Chris Matthews' slimy and unnecessary apology not withstanding.
    Ron Byers on December 16, 2011 9:41 AM

    That was just disgusting. Funny how Matthews and the rest of the Village media hacks never felt the need to apologize to, say, Al Gore for endlessly misquoting him.

  • SYSPROG on December 16, 2011 9:57 AM:

    Alrighty folks. 'Keep America AMERICA' or 'n' doesn't MATTER. It's a dog whistle towards 'the other'. This BS with making journalist bow down and apologize is just a power play to take away the 'controversy'. And evidently it works. There are the 'trolls' that immediately say 'this shows liberal BIAS'...honest to GOD. The problem is dividing the COUNTRY. The problem is the language of the campaigns and the CONGRESS. The GOP comes out and whines 'Obama PROMISED to bring us together' then they pull this crap and think you're to stupid to notice. They scored THIS time by denigrating bloggers AND media. Jerks.

  • square1 on December 16, 2011 10:12 AM:

    There is NO QUESTiON that the phrase carries with it a whiff of xenophobia. And I absolutely think that it is fair to use the KKK phrase as a jumping off point to ask whether the Romney campaign is wooing the racist/anti-Latino vote.

    That being said, it is a fine line between this phrase and genuinely benign, arguably patriotic phrases used by pretty much every other politician.

    For example, in '06, Kerry's slogan was "Let America be America again", borrowed from poet Langston Hughes. I think it is fair to say that neither Kerry nor Hughes was promoting xenophobia.

  • June on December 16, 2011 10:32 AM:

    Romney has already shown himself to be a serial liar with no moral compass -- now we're supposed to give him the benefit of the doubt?

    How Republican of him to sidle up to just this side of accountability so as to have deniability (co-opting a phrase, but changing it just enough to be able to claim "I don't think that phrase means what you think it means."

    Non-stop nonsense from the GOP - I'm completely sick and tired of it.

  • biggerbox on December 16, 2011 10:41 AM:

    Has anyone verified the video? Just last week, the Romney campaign was happy to justify lying in ads. It's not like they don't know their way around an editing deck.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on December 16, 2011 12:22 PM:

    And it's not "irresponsible and incendiary" and showing of "an appalling lack of judgement" for the yahoo circus over at Fox News et al to doubt President Obama's citizenship with not much of an iota of proof showing otherwise??? Just how, exactly, does Mittens get a free pass AND a gracious apology when he's called out for using a phrase with historically ambiguous origins, while no Fox Newser or Republican has ever had to apologize for essentially slandering the President???

    Besides, why the hell would MSNBC even deign to entertain the idea that anything they report could damage the Mitt Romney campaign? Last we heard the only person hurting Mitt Romney's campaign is MITT ROMNEY.

  • TCinLA on December 16, 2011 1:26 PM:

    News flash: Chris Matthews is a worthless asshole and a drooling moron. In other news, sun continues to rise in the east.

  • ManOutOfTime on December 16, 2011 1:28 PM:

    I guess what Romney should have said was America uber alles. See, it's not the same as the infamous original ... it says "America."

  • chi res on December 16, 2011 1:36 PM:

    This just in: Experts have reviewed the tape again, and what Romney REALLY said was, "Keep the White House White".

  • Steve M. on December 16, 2011 4:55 PM:

    Thank you for this. As the guy who started all this, I've been feeling as if the MSM thinks bringing this was an immoral, indecent act that's just what you'd expect of (ick!) bloggers, but, as you say, it was the damn L.A. Times that got the quote wrong.

  • daniel rotter on December 16, 2011 9:16 PM:

    I'm with chi res (well, his first comment, anyway, not his race-baiting second one): "Keep America America" is nonsensical.