There may be arguments between Republicans and Democrats about what Reid meant by the latter remark. But there can be no challenge to the fact that he should have realized how it might sound to others before saying what he did.
Reid was at least sensitive enough to quickly apologize for the gaffe, to which the ever-forgiving president promptly said "the book is closed" as far as he is concerned. But not so with Republicans such as Republican National Chairman Michael Steele, another member of the same club.
Steele only recently had found himself in hot water with his own party by saying it couldn't regain control of Congress in the November midterm elections. He immediately called for Reid's resignation from his leadership post — something many Republicans are demanding of Steele himself.
In calling for the Nevada Democrat's scalp, Steel demonstrated once more his own tin ear by comparing Reid's gaffe to the one that in 2002 drove former Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott from that post.
Whereas Reid's remarks came in praise of Obama, Lott's bonehead comment was an ode to the good old days of racial segregation. At a reception for Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, he regretted that the old Dixiecrat had never been elected president because "we wouldn't have had all those problems over these years."
The unthinking, or simply unthinkable, Lott observation contradicted his Republican Party's long road back from the Deep South's struggle to remove its old political stain of racial discrimination and separation. His tin ear forced him to step aside.
Many other politicians of both parties have earned memberships in the club, though quite a few of them have survived their slips of the lip. Most recently, Democrat Joe Biden in 2008 was tarred by the gaffe police for off-handedly referring to Obama as "articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," all of which was true.
Steele and other Republicans are now ludicrously trying to compare what Biden said about Obama with what Reid said or, worse, what Lott said in regretting Thurmond's failure to reach the presidency. Undercutting any implications of racism regarding either of the Democrats is the long and strong record they share as staunch advocates of civil rights for all minorities.
The tin-ear affliction has had a long history among prominent American politicians. Perhaps the most memorable one that had clear negative ramifications on a candidate's aspirations was the interview of Republican presidential hopeful Gov. George Romney of Michigan in 1967.
On return from a trip to Vietnam to inform himself on his rather uncertain position on the war there, Romney was asked where he now stood.
He replied: "I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam. Not only by the generals, but also by the diplomatic corps over here, and they do a very thorough job."
The answer, suggesting his vulnerability to be sold a bill of goods, drove him from the race. The most biting response came from Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Eugene McCarthy when he cracked of Romney's brainwashing remark: "I would have thought a light rinse would have done it."
A good rule for politicians is: Don't say anything you wouldn't want to appear in print. But that's probably too much to expect, given the line of work they're in.
Jules Witcover's latest book, on the Nixon-Agnew relationship, Very Strange Bedfellows, has just been published by Public Affairs Press. E-mail: email@example.com.