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"He' a bro with no ho," said Mark Kirk during a Senate committee meeting, oblivious to his open mike. He was making a reference to Senator Lindsey Graham, who wants to be president and isn't married. "That's what we'd say on the south side."
As commentators by the boxcar load would immediately be pointing out, Kirk hails from Chicago's North Shore, not its south side, so what the hell is that we about? Well, of course the North Shore is where Kirk hails from, and that's the basis of the joke, such as the joke is. It's why Kirk thought he was being amusing. And the thing to understand is that by the lax standards of male banter, Kirk was. Banter is what people of all creeds and classes engage in when they think they're not being miked, and about the only way to eradicate it is to burn out the fen it breeds in—privacy.
I once had a cup of coffee with an opinion maker on the editorial page of a powerful local newspaper. Mark Kirk was running for the Senate for the first time, and because he was running for a seat currently held by Roland Burris he seemed to have a pretty good chance of getting it. My coffee mate had recently met him.
What do you think of Kirk? I asked.
"He's a dick," I was informed.
As it was what I wanted to hear, I treasured the assessment. And my first reaction to what John Kass called Ho-Gate was schadenfreude. At last true colors had been revealed and now an indignant electorate . . . So forth and so on. It required a second reaction to consider that these true colors are worn, in one shade or another, by just about everyone in our sorry human race, and a dumb frat-house joke isn't much to get excited about.
But journalism is a slave to indignation. Kirk's remark required an editorial response.
"He sure offended a lot of people," said the Sun-Times editorial.
"Our advice to Sen. Kirk: Find a microphone. Make sure it's on. Apologize. Repeat," said the Tribune editorial.
Kass said Kirk should do his party a favor and drop off next year's ticket instead of running for reelection. Mary Schmich wrote a jaunty verse far longer than this excerpt:
Yes, nothing is worse
Than a pol talkin' hip
It's sadder, dear bro,
Than a sail with no ship.
Mary Mitchell accused Kirk of pretension. "You can't just proclaim yourself a South Sider," she explained. "You've got to pay your dues by riding those overcrowded buses and trains, living in food deserts, traveling impossible distances to shop and navigating dangerous neighborhoods. Kirk is from Highland Park—the land of plenty."
Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post accused Kirk of far worse—malign dabbling. "Kirk was talking about the South Side of Chicago," he raged. "That land of shattered lives and shredded English that has become synonymous with urban decay. That wasteland where hope and opportunity are strangers to its beleaguered residents. And the daily barrage of bullets killing said residents doesn't help dispel the living-hell image. At least, that's the stereotype. And to believe it, to even dabble in it, is to deny the existence of real people who defy it."
Mitchell again: "Sen. Mark Kirk, 55, is a good example of why it never pays to try to keep up with the younger generation."
But Kirk wasn't trying to keep up. He was trying to amuse some unidentified colleague as culturally marginal as himself—that clammy recognition of cultural cluelessness being the basis of much of the rich humor among older gentlemen that younger folk find so lame and tasteless.
But lame and tasteless as was Kirk's aside to whomever, you don't have to be a dick to talk that way and think you're being funny. If you want to know who I'm really disappointed in, it's the Democrats who want his Senate seat.
Andrea Zopp told Mitchell, "He may think it's 'just a joke among the boys,' but Mark Kirk's remark about Lindsey Graham having 'no ho' is just one more reason why Illinois needs new leadership in the U.S. Senate. No woman, let alone a woman like me, an African-American and mother of two daughters, who has prosecuted rapists and wife abusers and who has spent much of her career overcoming sexist and racist stereotypes would think his remark either appropriate or funny. Clueless or reckless? Either way it's time for a change—which is why I'm running to replace him."
And a spokesman for Tammy Duckworth said, "Illinois women already know Mark Kirk isn't on their side by his votes against equal pay and affordable child care for working families. Now we also know he's humor-challenged. Senator Kirk's 'joke' is as offensive as it is unfunny, and he should apologize, personally and immediately."
Please. The right way to put the humor-challenged in their place is to be funny. "I didn't realize the south side of Highland Park is so ghetto" would have been response enough. Next year, when these people are actually running against each other, no one's going to remember who said what during Ho-Gate, but wit cuts a lasting impression. Did I say next year? Two days were enough for the scandal to go flat as a pancake. For a story with even less substance it's necessary to turn to our glimpse of LeBron James's junk on national television. "LeBron James showed his privates and Twitter reacted" made an interesting headline in the Sun-Times. But what's the second-day angle?