Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford has stirred controversy with his recent tweeted remark that when it comes it to bigots, "I'd rather people show their real colors than hide."
Some critics seemed to think Mr. Rutherford was expressing tolerance for bigotry. That interpretation hardly seems plausible, considering that the lieutenant governor is himself African-American and has personally experienced racial discrimination.
Mr. Rutherford's spokeswoman later elaborated on his statement, saying the lieutenant governor "believes all Marylanders and Americans benefit when these issues can be discussed frankly in the public arena."
That's a valid point, although a distinction needs to be made between the bigotry of a private citizen and that of a public figure.
When you board a Metro train or bus on any given day, undoubtedly there will be other passengers who privately harbor some kind of racial, religious or ethnic prejudices. Nobody will benefit from hearing them articulate their bigotry. Let them keep their demons to themselves.
When somebody runs for public office, however, it matters a great deal if that person is privately racist. Voters have a right to know exactly whom they are electing. Knowing a candidate's true feelings enables voters to make an educated choice.
A bigot who successfully hides his bigotry could become dangerously powerful without anyone realizing he harbors reprehensible sentiments that might influence his policy decisions. The public would benefit from having the opportunity to make a genuinely informed decision as to whether it wants such a person in high office. Likewise, presidents benefit from knowing the full range of a potential nominee's private views before naming that person to a senior position.
President Gerald Ford's agriculture secretary, Earl Butz, and Ronald Reagan's interior secretary, James Watt, were forced to resign after they told racist jokes. Their "humor" was ugly, but aren't we glad that it became known? It was only the glare of publicity that led to their ouster from public office.
Pat Buchanan, who served as White House communications director from 1985 to 1987, harbored a private animus toward Jews that may have played a role in his advice to President Reagan to visit a German cemetery where SS veterans were buried. In 1990, Mr. Buchanan became more open about his feelings, writing articles denying important aspects of the Holocaust and accusing Jews of trying to drag America into war against Iraq.
As a result, William F. Buckley Jr. publicly branded Mr. Buchanan an anti-Semite, effectively pushing him out of the conservative movement. Nevertheless, Mr. Buchanan in 1996 won the Republican primary in New Hampshire and several other primaries, and for a time was a serious contender for the GOP presidential nomination. Imagine how much better he might have fared had he not been ostracized by the Buckley wing of the party.
A more recent example to consider, at the other end of the political spectrum, is the current debate concerning U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat and candidate for chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee.
In the 1990s, Mr. Ellison was an activist with the Nation of Islam, which is headed by the unabashedly anti-Semitic Rev. Louis Farrakhan. In 1995, Mr. Ellison helped organize a rally featuring the equally anti-Semitic Farrakhan adviser Khalid Abdul Muhammad. Also that year, Mr. Ellison wrote that Mr. Farrakhan "is not an anti-Semite." Later, when Mr. Ellison ran for Congress, he disavowed his previous association with Mr. Farrakhan.
But just last week, an audio recording surfaced of Mr. Ellison — in 2010, as a U.S. congressman — privately asserting that America's Middle East policy is secretly "governed" by Israel and its American Jewish supporters. On the tape, Mr. Ellison's voice drips with ridicule as he claims that American Jews "beat back" President George H.W. Bush in 1991 and told the president, "We want our money and we want it now."
The Anti-Defamation League called Mr. Ellison's remarks "deeply disturbing and disqualifying" because they "raise the specter of age-old stereotypes about Jewish control of our government." Democratic Party leaders will have to decide whether they agree with the ADL's assessment. But the most important thing is that they have all the facts at their disposal.
Lieutenant Governor Rutherford may not have had Keith Ellison in mind when he said last week that there are benefits from having unpleasant private sentiments aired publicly. But there is no doubt that knowing what Mr. Ellison has said in private about Jews and Israel will help the Democrats make a fully informed decision about who should chair their party.
Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington D.C.; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.