I'm still trying to wrap my mind around Donald Sterling's "apology" on Anderson Cooper's CNN show. I'm not trying too hard, mind you, since I don't want my head to explode. At first glance, the apology part sounded heartfelt, almost Shakespearean "Am I not entitled to one mistake? Does not a man bleed if pricked?" But first glances lead into second glances and then more.
Two parts of the apology got the most attention. The passage of "It’s a terrible mistake, and I’ll never do it again," and his bizarre U-turn rant about Magic Johnson. But there were two small moments related to both of these that got completely ignored, not addressed at all, as far as I heard, which I think are as telling as the headline grabbers.
The first is that apology. As is well-known by now, in making what was heavily described as his apology, Donald Sterling kept talking about his mistake, and it's a terrible mistake, and he made a mistake, and isn't he entitled to one mistake? It was a mistake, just one mistake. The thing that keeps nagging at me, though, about this reported apology that never got commented on is -- what is the "mistake" Donald Sterling was referring to??? He never said. It shouldn't be up to other to hazard a guess, no matter how much we think we probably know. It sounds like we should know what he means, but in truth I don't have a clue what he actually thinks his "mistake" is. For all I know, in Donald Sterling's mind he thinks that his mistake is being tape recorded and not recognizing that. Or perhaps he thinks his mistake is that he didn't settle financially with his girlfriend before this. (In fact, he has said that!) Or his mistake is that he had this woman as his girlfriend. Does he perhaps consider his mistake to be that he said something racist -- or that he said something racist out loud? Is his mistake complaining about his girlfriend tweeting pictures of her with black people? Or complaining that she came to games with Magic Johnson? Or him talking to her about what she can do with black people? Or talking about black people at all? Or does he consider his mistake all of that -- which, if he does, is actually more than him making just "one mistake." The point is, I truly don't know what in the world Donald Sterling actually considers his "mistake." Indeed, his one mistake.
It would have been nice if Anderson Cooper asked during the interview what Donald Sterling considered that one mistake. It would have been nice for analysts asking the same question.
That aside, as long as we're on the subject, I also don't know why anyone should accept what he says, that he's just made one mistake. After all, there's a lot on the record for his problems in the past with black tenants. And his former black General Manager, NBA legend Elgin Baylor. And given Donald Sterling's problematic reputation for decades, it's hard to imagine that this is his first and only mistake.
Furthermore, when he asks plaintively if he's entitled to making just one mistake, I suspect the proper answer is -- well, y'know, it depends on what that mistake is. Some whoppers require a lot lot more than "My bad." Have an unblemished driving record for decades and then gun the pedal and drive full-bore into a crowd of pedestrians might get you into far more trouble than you wish, even if it's just your one mistake. Pleading to the judge, "Am I not entitled to one mistake?" won't get you great sympathy, or legal chits.
(But you do have to shake your head at a guy who, mid-rant, starts a sentence that begins, "Maybe I will get in trouble again..." and then barrels on blindly. Any sentence like that has a really good chance to go off the rails -- most especially when you're being interviewed about your racist remarks.)
That leads to the other part of his rant that hasn't gotten attention. It's what came after Donald Sterling went on and on and on about Magic Johnson not giving anything back to the black community, on and on, and he then offhandedly made a comment that's been overlooked.
After ranting and ranting about how Magic Johnson has done nothing for the black community, nothing for minorities, not given to hospitals, not done anything, nothing, after being emphatic about this, after being so informed about it, after being specific and detailed about it, damning Magic Johnson for not doing anything for minorities (which got all the attention in the press) Donald Sterling then says -- "What has he done for any group? I don't know. Maybe he's done a lot."
Hold on there, me bucko. "I don't know," he says??! "Maybe he's done a lot," he says?! So, after this whole long rant about Magic Johnson doing nothing (which is the passage that damningly got replayed endlessly), Donald Sterling in his own words says that He Doesn't Know What He's Talking About and that for all he knows, maybe Magic Johnson has "done a lot"!!
I don't know all the charities Magic Johnson has given to either, but then I have the good sense not to insist emphatically that he's done nothing. Especially when I do know he's raised $20 million for AIDS/HIV research, and has invested heavily in minority business in Los Angeles. But it would have been nice for the media, while playing Donald Sterling trashing Magic Johnson endlessly, to have addressed the point that Donald Sterling himself acknowledges he doesn't have a clue what he's talking about. Yes, I know that people likely dismiss Donald Sterling's rantings. But I'm sure not everyone did. And even those who do dismiss the fellow can't help but have a nagging thought lodged in a corner of their mind when it's been pounded there, even if during a racist rant. I think it's wrong to play the demeaning charges endlessly, and generally leave out playing or just mentioning that the man himself said that he doesn't know and for all he knows "maybe he's done a lot."
In the end, though, all of this and his rantings and pleadings aside, when I hear Donald Sterling say, "...and I'll never do it again," one thing above all leaps to my mind.
What I can't help thinking about when he says, "and I'll never do it again" is not asking about what evidence can he give to possibly support that he'll never do it again, but something else entire. The one thing that leaps to mind is the courtroom scene in The Producers, near the end when Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom have been arrested for their numbingly-devious scheme, and they've blown up the theater, and then Max -- with a look of angelic piety and his middle finger bandaged up and pointing to the world -- tells the judge..."And we will never do it again."
And in the very next scene in prison, they're doing it again.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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