April 17, 2007

He Likes Bagels, Too

Former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson discovered the perils of paying compliments to ethnic groups in a speech yesterday in Washington, DC. He told an audience at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism that he admired Jews for their ability to make money:

Former Wisconsin governor and Republican presidential hopeful Tommy Thompson told Jewish activists Monday that making money is "part of the Jewish tradition," and something that he applauded.

Speaking to an audience at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington D.C., Thompson said that, "I'm in the private sector and for the first time in my life I'm earning money. You know that's sort of part of the Jewish tradition and I do not find anything wrong with that."

Thompson later apologized for the comments that had caused a stir in the audience, saying that he had meant it as a compliment, and had only wanted to highlight the "accomplishments" of the Jewish religion.

"I just want to clarify something because I didn't [by] any means want to infer or imply anything about Jews and finances and things," he said.

"What I was referring to, ladies and gentlemen, is the accomplishments of the Jewish religion. You've been outstanding business people and I compliment you for that."

Thompson made two specific mistakes in his "compliment". First, mercantilism has nothing to do with the Jewish religion, and second, just about every culture on Earth understands and excels in some form of mercantilism. Whether the stereotype highlights the Jewish banker, the Yankee trader, the Arab at the bazaar, the Native American barter, they all show that people have little difficulty in pigeonholing groups for unfair trading practices.

I don't think Thompson meant any harm by his statement, but it does perhaps reflect a lack of engagement and insight into the group he met yesterday. His clumsy and mildly offensive statement shows that he should spend more time with Jewish groups, learning their history and their culture, and seeing their place in America as unexceptional in the sense that they came here and succeeded, like so many other peoples. They worked hard to overcome those stereotypes to become part of the American fabric -- as much a part as the Irish, Italians, Poles, and all the other immigrants.

How will this affect his run for the Presidency? It won't help. Perhaps he can make amends through more speeches with Jewish groups, but this is the kind of sound bite that tends to live forever. It's not the worst thing in the world to congratulate people for their success, but it will prove a low-level embarrassment for a while.


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Comments (4)

Posted by patrick neid [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 17, 2007 7:30 AM

"How will this affect his run for the Presidency?"

it won't effect it at all. he had a zero chance before and he has a zero chance now. no effect!

Posted by Mr. Michael [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 17, 2007 8:01 AM

Detachment? Man, this kind of dull stupidity is just amazing. I expect it from the Pointy-Haired Boss on Dilbert, but not in the real world!

Thompson has some good points, but this kind of absolute tone-deafness shows that some folks should excell behind the lines, and not be encouraged to attempt to lead. I don't care if you are Jewish or not, you can look at this incident and see plainly that Thompson is just not executive material on the big stage...

Posted by rbj [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 17, 2007 8:23 AM

Hasn't Thompson learned from the "macaca" incident? I agree he had no chance beforehand.

Funny thing is, my sister's Jewish mother-in-law, a deep blue Democrat from NYC, basically has said the same thing about the Lebanese, in the context of putting down most Arabs -- the Lebanese are o.k. because they're merchants. Seems like this thinking is all over the place.

Posted by LeaningRt [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 17, 2007 9:34 AM

I'm of the Jewish faith and don't find his comments in the least bit offensive. But a slip up like this is a sign of a light weight politician. It would be like talking to a group of African Americans and make a comment on how good they are at sports.....or numbers with Asians. It may sound like a compliment and be meant in the best possible spirit, but he who speaks these words is not meant to have a microphone in front of his lips.

If he moves forward with this campaign, we're likely to see many more of these rookie mistakes from an experienced politician.