Last week, ex-Congressman and former presidential candidate Tom Tancredo, delivering the keynote address at the First National Tea Party Convention, drew accusations of racism when he suggested that President Barack Obama was elected partly because "we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote... People who could not even spell the word 'vote' or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House."
Tancredo scoffs at the notion that these remarks were racially motivated. As evidence, he reveals that the person who helped spur the idea of a civics literacy test for voting was what he describes as "a black guy" driving a limo in Detroit who happened to be studying for his citizenship test.
The incident took place in July 2007 during Tancredo's presidential run, when he became the sole Republican candidate to accept an invitation to speak before the NAACP convention. "I always joke about the fact that this debate was the only one I won, because I was the only one who showed up," he allows. "They had nine podiums and I went out and stood by the one with my name on it, and took all their questions."
When he flew to Detroit prior to the event, he did so solo. "I didn't travel with an entourage. It was just me when I got off the plane, and I had on jeans and a sweat shirt and a baseball hat. And the people who were putting on the debate sent a limo to pick me up.
"The driver was a black guy, and we started making conversation. He said in very precise English, 'What are you doing here?'" Tancredo goes on, effecting an Indian accent when speaking for the driver. "I said, 'Because they asked me.' He said, 'Why?' I said, 'Because I'm running for president. He said, 'Naaaah.'"
After a laugh, Tancredo continues the tale.
"I said, 'Honestly, I am running for president. I know it doesn't look like it, but I'm really running. And I'm a congressman.' And he said, 'Ah, congress,' and he picks up this sheaf of papers on the front seat and starts giving all these facts: 'There are 535 members of congress, with one-hundred in the Senate and 435 in the House. And the United States flag has thirteen stripes, standing for the original thirteen colonies...'
"I said, 'You're going to take your citizenship test?' And he said, 'Yes.' And I said, 'I'll bet we could ask any of the people out there to come over and try to answer questions about what you just said, and I'll bet you wouldn't get ten out of a hundred who would know any of this stuff.' And when I told people this story when I came home, I talked about how immigrants have to know more than people born here have to know, and isn't that ironic, to say the least."
Such subjects had been on Tancredo's mind thanks to Howard Stern and Jay Leno, who put together comedy bits in which they asked seemingly typical people basic questions, and often received moronic answers in response.
"I know I talked about this stuff at least twice on KOA," a Denver radio station where he has served as both guest and fill-in host. "We ran these things and talked about civics literacy and how bad it is. You'd see all these polls taken on college campuses, where students couldn't name the first three presidents and things like that."
In an attempt to combat this problem, Tancredo discussed possible legislation for a civics-literacy test with his chief of staff, Mac Zimmerman, who currently works for state senator Josh Penry.
"We pursued it quite far," he recalls, only to discover that "there were all kinds of problems" with a proposal of this sort. "The responsibility for developing voting requirements is at the state level, but the federal government will tell you, and has told you, what you can and can't do, and who you can't keep from voting -- although there's nothing that says who you may allow to vote.
"So we pursued it as far as we could, but it didn't look like there was anything we could get through. Well, we knew we couldn't get anything through, but I thought it would be good to at least raise the issue -- and we wouldn't have had the ability to even have a hearing about it. There would have been a lot of opposition, to be sure, so it seemed fruitless."
Nonetheless, the notion retains an appeal for Tancredo, which is why he mentioned it at the Tea Party Convention, to which he traveled at his own expense. According to him, the people he met there didn't seem anything like the loonbag stereotypes portrayed by liberals.
"They were really just regular folks who've gotten together for sort of a unique purpose -- to express a concern about the country they love," he says. "And it was fun because there was this big hotel, with lots of people going around -- the same kind of thing you see at any other political event. But no one was there to stump for anybody, or to get you to vote for anybody, or to put forth a specific agenda."
During Tancredo's speech, the reaction was enthusiastic: "There were at least three standing ovations and a bunch of interruptions, so I've got to assume my message was well-received."
Nonetheless, he was startled about the portion of his comments that got the most play.
"The only thing that was discouraging to me was I was really hoping to have a lot more attention drawn to my remarks about John McCain, who I dislike intensely and hoped wouldn't win," he says. "That was three-quarters of the speech, but the Wall Street Journal was the only one to write about that part of it. The rest took a different focus in order to embarrass, I think, the Tea Party, and to make it appear as though, well, 'We know these folks are a bunch of redneck-hillbilly racists, and Tancredo is a perfect example of that.'"
Still, Tancredo has no problem defending the concept of a civics-literacy test, which he thinks could be based on the type of citizenship test his driver in Detroit was asked to take. Indeed, he recently sent a note to Terrance Carroll, speaker of the Colorado House, challenging him to find anything racially questionable in these questions.
At the same time, Tancredo admits to some self-interest in the passage of such a measure.
"It's my belief that if you had a really well-grounded understanding of the free market and the Republic, you would more likely than not vote Republican, or at least conservative," he maintains.
That said, he concedes there may well have been as many Caucasian John McCain voters as non-native-born Obama supporters who would have failed a civics literacy test.
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"Civics literacy isn't a fact of race," he emphasizes. "It's not a racial trait or characteristic, although the people who attack me all the time must consider it that."
According to Tancredo, he meets a lot of people he'd consider ignorant from a civics-literacy standpoint, "and when I look at them, they're not black, and they're not brown -- they're just stupid. This is the honest to God truth, but when I've talked about this, and when I see things on the news, I'm not picturing in my mind black people saying these things, or brown people. I'm picturing those people on Howard Stern and Jay Leno. And to the best of my recollection, I think most of them were white."
Not that such arguments are likely to convince critics that his heart is in the right place.
"I haven't had so much nasty mail since I said something about bombing Mecca," he notes. "At first, I wondered why they were so damned defensive -- but it's probably because they voted for Obama and thought I was calling them stupid. And maybe they are stupid from my perspective -- but that doesn't mean they're necessarily stupid people."