On Nov. 2, Cindy Hyde-Smith said something dumb.
Praising a cattle rancher and thanking him for his support, the Mississippi Republican senator said this: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
Four days later, Hyde-Smith took 41.4% of the vote to 40.4% against former Democratic Rep. Mike Espy, who is black. (Under Mississippi law, the two will compete in a Nov. 27 runoff.) Five days after the vote, the video emerged of Hyde-Smith’s “joke” – and a national controversy quickly ensued.
Trying to stop the bleeding, Hyde-Smith released a statement on Sunday, saying: “In a comment on Nov. 2, I referred to accepting an invitation to a speaking engagement. In referencing the one who invited me, I used an exaggerated expression of regard, and any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous.”
Which brings us to Monday in Mississippi. And specifically, a news conference with Hyde-Smith and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who appointed her in March to fill the seat of Thad Cochran, who resigned due to health issues.
Let me just say this as plainly as possible: This news conference could not have gone worse for Cindy Hyde-Smith. Like, it’s simply not possible. You need to watch the whole video – it’s only 140 seconds long – but just in case you don’t, here’s everything Hyde-Smith said when being asked a variety of questions about her “public hanging” comment. (These are in the order she said them.)
1. “I put out a statement yesterday and we stand by that statement.”
2. “We put out the statement yesterday and it’s available and we stand by that statement.”
3. “I put out a statement yesterday and that’s all I am going to say about it.”
4. “I put out a statement and we stand by the statement and that’s all I’m going to say about it.”
5. “We put out a statement yesterday and I stand by the statement.”
It’s impossibly awkward. Like, me in high school awkward. Hell, it might even qualify as me in junior high school awkward.
And all of that comes before Bryant, who up to this point has been a bystander in this political disaster, is asked how Hyde-Smith referring to her past statement makes him feel.
“She’s certainly addressing the fact that she put out a statement,” he says in what has to be a first-ballot entrant into the saying-something-while-saying-nothing Hall of Fame. What Bryant is essentially saying is this: Look, I don’t want ANY part of this. But I can attest to the fact that Hyde-Smith did say some words. Confirmed.
Here’s what’s remarkable about the whole thing: Hyde-Smith, a sitting Republican senator who had jokingly referred to a public hanging just days before the election, somehow made things even worse for herself in this news conference.
And what amazes me most is that it didn’t have to be this way.
Hyde-Smith should know FAR better than to refer in a joking manner to public hangings in a state that, according to the NAACP, conducted the most lynchings (561) from 1882 to 1968. (Many people have suggested that the comment was made even worse by the fact that Hyde-Smith’s main opponent in her re-election race is black. I think the comment is about as tone deaf and bad as it can possibly get no matter who Hyde-Smith is running against.)
But given that she made the comment, what she should have immediately done is simply apologize for her choice of words. Something like: “I got caught up in a moment of frivolity and made a deeply unfortunate word choice. I understand how deeply lynchings scarred the state of Mississippi and I am recommitting myself to fighting for the rights of every Mississippian when I go back to the Senate next year.”
She didn’t do that. Instead, she initially tried to suggest that people were twisting her words in search of a “negative connotation.” What, exactly, is the positive connotation of the words “public hanging”? And the quote above from Hyde-Smith on Nov. 2 is entirely unedited. So how could she possibly have been misunderstood?
Then, on Monday, someone gave Hyde-Smith bad advice – along the lines of “Stick to your initial statement. Don’t give the fire any oxygen.” Which, broadly speaking, makes sense when dealing with political problems. It does not make sense when the statement to which Hyde-Smith keeps referring is a bad one (as I noted above) and expresses no real apology for her comment. What you take from that 140 seconds of awkwardness is that Hyde-Smith’s final word on her “joke” about a public hanging is that people are reading too much into it.
You can’t get it more wrong than that.
Here’s the thing: Hyde-Smith is still a heavy favorite to win a full six-year-term in two weeks’ time. Mississippi is a decidedly conservative state and Republican candidates combined for more than 55% of the vote in the Senate race last Tuesday.
But what she’s done over the past 48 hours – and especially her news conference Monday – amounts to a series of bad, bad, bad political blunders. And when a politician makes a mistake this grievous, sometimes the normal rules of political gravity don’t hold.