Firmly in the "what was he thinking?’’ column is the recent boneheaded action by a candidate for Republican National Committee chairman. Chip Saltsman of Tennessee is rightly under fire in cyberspace and on talk shows for mailing fellow party members a CD for Christmas with a song titled, "Barack the Magic Negro.’’


Set to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon,’’ the song questions President-elect Obama’s "authenticity’’ as an African-American in an exaggerated black accent. Written by conservative satirist Paul Shanklin, the song is part of a 40-track, liberal-needling CD called "We Hate the USA,’’ and includes the titles "John Edwards Poverty Tour" and "The Star-Spanglish Banner.’’

The "magic negro’’ song was first played publicly in 2007 on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. Its title was taken from a Los Angeles Times column that argued whites could support Obama to assuage guilt for the historical mistreatment of blacks. At that time, the song generated a minor stir.

This time it got much more attention because of the way it was used. A former Tennessee GOP chairman and manager of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign, Saltsman is running to head the national RNC. He sent the CD to more than 160 committee members who will elect a new chair in January.

Fortunately, the current RNC chairman Robert (Mike) Duncan distanced himself and his party from the incident. "The 2008 election was a wake-up call for Republicans to reach out and bring more people into our party,’’ he said. "I am shocked and appalled that anyone would think this is appropriate." Many other Republicans, including Newt Gingrich, admonished Saltsman for sending the CD.

Yet instead of apologizing, Saltsman stood by his action. He said the tunes should be easily recognized as political satire, and called the "negro’’ song a light-hearted jibe directed at the Los Angeles Times.

As a free speech advocate, I defend the rights of Saltsman, Shanklin, Limbaugh and anyone else to express themselves through jokes, language or concepts with which I don’t agree. From magazines to cable TV to comedy clubs there is no shortage of crude, tasteless, racially insensitive, poorly done humor in this country.

But context matters. What can be done in one venue (even if offensive) can be unacceptable in another. This episode of pitiful parody deserves denouncing because it was sent to party leaders as a gift — and as part of a bid to lead one of America’s major political parties.

Still, maybe Saltsman did his fellow RNC members a favor. Now they know for sure whom not to vote for.

Denise Johnson is a Star Tribune editorial writer.