Commentary: Let's stop obsessing over dirty words
Commentary by Ronald A. Klain, a Post contributing columnist, served as a senior White House aide to both Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and was a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
In 1995, Jim Lehrerwrote a novel about a conservative candidate for president (coincidentally named Donald) who was unmasked as a bully and abuser by a panel of journalists during a televised debate. In the novel, as proof of his wrongdoing mounts, Donald responds by hurling racist and sexist insults at his questioners. Ultimately, however, it is not these statements that prove the most devastating to Donald: It is his use, during his outburst, of an "f-bomb." It was the extreme cursing that dominated the nation's reaction.
Lehrer's tale seems apt as the national conversation is again consumed by curse words spoken by Donald Trump. As with the "Access Hollywood" recording released in October 2016, however, the real issue should not be whether Trump caused the media to broadcast one of George Carlin's forbidden words. In both instances, ironically, Trump has been lucky that so much attention has been placed on the coarseness of his speech rather than its underlying content.
Once again, our obsession with dirty words has helped Trump avoid accountability for his real offenses. The focus on the "locker room talk" found on the "Access Hollywood" tape obscured Trump's direct acknowledgment that he had sexually assaulted women. Likewise, the attention in recent days on Trump's "s-word"(and which s-word he used) misses the point. Even if Trump used a G-rated adjective to describe Haiti, El Salvador and African countries - or even if he used no adjective at all - his remark would have been offensive, because of his view that immigrants from wide swaths of the world have nothing to contribute to the United States. Our obsession with the Presidential Potty Mouth, and the rebuke from countries he besmirched, obscures the horrible judgment about immigrants reflected by Trump's statement.
"Why do we want people [from such countries]?" the president asked. Hard facts provide the answer. Immigrants from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean make up about 43 percent of foreign-born members of our armed forces, while those from Europe account for about 6 percent. African immigrants specifically are more likely to have a college degree (about42 percent) than immigrants from other regions (30 percent), or even native-born Americans (32 percent); notably, a higher percentage of African immigrants are college graduates than immigrants from Norway (38 percent). African immigrants are also more likely to have law, medical or scientific graduate degrees than U.S. natives. Quality of life in one's home country seems to have little correlation to the quality of the contribution that immigrants from that country can make to ours.
At a time when the United States is trying to compete globally, immigrants from some troubled places can offer us a critical edge. Steve Jobs was the son of a refugee from one of the world's most distressed corners, Syria; Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Google, America's most important Internet company, grew up in two-room apartment in Ashok Nagar, India. The examples are nearly endless.
Beyond these economic contributions, selfless acts of heroism by immigrants from countries Trump insulted (like the well-known case of Ghanaian immigrant Emmanuel Mensah) have been in the news in recent days. Top of my mind since the president's tirade has been Dr. Martin Saliaat whose funeral I spoke during my work on the Ebola response. Salia was an African immigrant who worked in church-sponsored medical clinics around the United States. In 2014, he and his wife were raising their two sons in the D.C. area when Ebola ravaged his native land, Sierra Leone.
As West African medical workers died from Ebola at an alarming rate, a call went out for émigrés to return and fill the void. Salia was among the many doctors and nurses who answered. Knowing the danger, he went to serve in a church-run hospital in Freetown, along the country's coast. While performing surgery, Salia was unknowingly exposed to Ebola. Initially misdiagnosed by a local laboratory, his condition was too advanced by the time he was transported back to the United States for treatment. Of the many Americans - native-born and immigrant - who went to West Africa to fight Ebola, Salia was the only one who died.
In the end, maybe we should not be surprised that the president believes that immigrants like Martin Salia have no place in our nation. This is not just because of the color of Salia's skin, or the faraway location of his birth; Salia - like so many immigrants - exhibited a commitment to faith and service, sacrifice and humility, compassion and concern that is profoundly alien to the self-centered occupant of the Oval Office. It is their character, even more so than their country of origin, that may make such people so foreign to the hateful man in the White House.