One of my strangest radio interviews featured a gadfly named Joe Sweeney, who died a few years ago. Sweeney repeatedly ran for office, losing nearly every election. He seemed a harmless eccentric until he declared he was a “racist” when he ran for congress in 2004. He ran as a Republican and the desperate Republican party ran a conventional candidate against him in the primary. Sweeney trounced him and the GOP was apoplectic. Not the media. Sweeney was a legitimate candidate and a Sweeney interview was a reporter’s dream. I interviewed Sweeney when I was editor of the law school newspaper and looked forward to the return engagement.
I interviewed him again in 2004 during the “Inside Track” radio show with the late Emil Franzi, the show’s founder. I asked Sweeney about his racism and he quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. (“they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”). I expressed surprise that an avowed racist quoted MLK and told him, “Joe, I’ll take your word for it that you’re a racist. But I have to tell you, you’re not very good at it.”
I remember Sweeney as the media arcade pinballs the term “racism” from one speaker to another, all wondering if the American Czar is a racist and, more importantly, whether racism influences his policies. When a self-designated racist is unsure of the definition, it reminds us to use the term cautiously.