Michael Steele is crossing the Midway Plaisance, a mile-long green swath that cuts through Chicago’s Hyde Park and was once used for the world’s first Ferris wheel, hoochie-coochie dancing and the other earthly delights of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.
Today it is a verdant ribbon, wider than two football fields, that lies at the foot of the University of Chicago’s grand Gothic spires and is used for ice skating, soccer and whatever else one does on a verdant ribbon.
Steele, who is a resident fellow at the university’s Institute of Politics, manages to traverse the entire width of the Midway before the inevitable happens: A passing car comes to a halt, and the driver lowers her passenger window and hails Steele as an old friend, even though they have never met.
Though Steele was once the (first black) lieutenant governor of Maryland and the (first black) chairman of the Republican National Committee, today he is far better known than he was then. This is largely because of the airtime he gets as an MSNBC analyst and during his appearances on “Real Time with Bill Maher” and “The Colbert Report.”
He is outgoing, bright, magnetic, recognized on streets and in airports, and the one thing he was not while he ran the Republican Party: popular.
“I am the most misunderstood man in politics,” Steele tells me.
Steele was elected to a two-year term as the RNC’s chairman Jan. 30, 2009. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Barack Obama had moved into the White House, and a lot of people were talking about a “post-racial” America. Nancy Pelosi was running the House; Harry Reid was running the Senate; and it didn’t seem as if the Republican message was selling all that well.
So maybe it was time for a change.
Except Steele’s election took six ballots, and though Steele had conservative Republican credentials, the reaction of some of the party kingpins ranged from displeasure to dismay. And then there was the race thing. Maybe the country was not so post-racial after all.
“After I was elected chairman, there were some people who refused to shake my hand,” Steele says of some Republican bigwigs.
He was a different kind of chairman. He got involved in controversies that earned him the wrath of John McCain (not that hard a thing to do, actually) and made a series of statements that some found baffling.
He said that the war in Afghanistan was a war “of Obama’s choosing” and that he was going to tell local Republican chairmen: “Don’t think this is a country club atmosphere where we sit around drinking wine and eating cheese and talking amongst ourselves. If you don’t want to drill down and build coalitions to minority communities, then you have to give that seat to someone who does.”
Some of his ideas were actually pretty good. He said he wanted an “off the hook” public relations offensive to reach out to “the young, Hispanic, black, a cross section” and apply party principles “to urban-suburban hip-hop settings.”
That earned him the wrath of Rush Limbaugh, which could be considered a badge of honor, but Steele was the chairman of the Republican Party, a party that didn’t really think of itself as being that “off the hook.”
Steele ran for re-election as party chairman in 2011 but withdrew after four rounds of voting, knowing he was not going to make it.
“With all of the noise about my party chairmanship, we put the party on the right course,” he says now. “I called it ‘turning the elephant.’”
He says that party leaders “scoffed” at his “off the hook” remark but that Republicans “were a party stuck in the past” and the party base was “demoralized.”
“I knew there were people I would piss off,” he says. “There were a lot of people making big bucks from their contracts with the RNC, and I wanted to spend that money in the 50 states instead.”
Steele is pro-life, but when he sat down for a long and fascinating interview with GQ magazine, he was asked whether “women have the right to choose abortion.”
“Yeah,” Steele said. “I mean, again, I think that’s an individual choice.” He also said that pro-choice people “absolutely” have a place in the Republican Party.
Though he is personally against gay marriage, he thinks each state should be able to decide whether it is legal or not. And no, he does not think being gay is a choice.
“You just can’t simply say, oh, like, ‘Tomorrow morning I’m gonna stop being gay.’ It’s like saying, ‘Tomorrow morning I’m gonna stop being black,’” he said.
Those statements seem less explosive now than they did then, and Steele has been considering running for public office, perhaps for governor of Maryland.
“I am absolutely a Republican and very much a conservative and proud to be,” he says. “But I will be damned if I will let anyone label me. A party that litmus tests its members diminishes itself.”
He thinks Sen. Rand Paul might make a good Republican nominee for president — might — and Steele doesn’t say so, but perhaps Paul could do worse than selecting a big-tent African-American running mate.
“While government has a limited purpose, it still has a role,” Steele said. “Leadership can make a difference.”
Then he had to get on a plane for Washington. There was a TV show to do.