GOP congressman: Our party needs a 'great white hope'
Rep. Lynn Jenkins is apologizing “if her words have offended anyone,” a spokesman said. The first-term Republican says she didn’t realize the phrase “great white hope” had any racial connotations…
By JOHN HANNA
Associated Press Writer
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A freshman Republican congresswoman apologized Thursday for telling a gathering in her district that the GOP was still searching for a “great white hope” to stop President Barack Obama’s political agenda.
Rep. Lynn Jenkins used the phrase during an Aug. 19 forum as she discussed the Republican Party’s future and tried to reassure members that the GOP has promising young leaders. Someone in the crowd recorded video of the event in Hiawatha, about 65 miles northeast of Topeka, and gave it to the Kansas Democratic Party.
“She apologizes if her words have offended anyone,” Jenkins spokeswoman Mary Geiger told The Associated Press. “That was not the intent in any way, shape or form.”
At an event at University of Kansas in Lawrence, Jenkins denied she was speaking in racial terms and said she meant only that the GOP needs “a bright light.”
“I was unaware of any negative connotation, and if I offended anybody, obviously, I apologize,” Jenkins told the Lawrence Journal-World.
At the Hiawatha event, Jenkins was discussing the GOP’s future, with Democrats in control of Congress and Obama elected the nation’s first black president, in response to an audience question. Jenkins is white, as are three House colleagues she mentioned as future party leaders: Eric Cantor of Virginia; Kevin McCarthy of California and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
“Republicans are struggling right now to find the great white hope,” Jenkins said last week. “I suggest to any of you who are concerned about that, who are Republican, there are some great young Republican minds in Washington.”
The Democratic National Committee in Washington declined to comment Thursday.
“I saw that report,” White House spokesman Bill Burton said at a briefing on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, where Obama is vacationing. “I also saw that her spokesperson backpeddaled and said that was a poor choice of words. We obviously give congressman Jenkins the benefit of the doubt.”
The National Republican Campaign Committee in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for a comment.
Jenkins was not available for comment Thursday morning, but she was to hold an afternoon town hall meeting in Ottawa, about 55 miles southwest of the Kansas City metropolitan area.
The phrase “great white hope” often is associated with pre-civil rights-era racism and is widely believed to have entered usage in the U.S. when boxer Jack Johnson, who was black, captured the heavyweight title in the early 20th century. Many whites reacted to Johnson’s achievement by trying to find white fighters — or a “great white hope” — who could beat him. The boxer’s story inspired a play, then a movie, with that title, both starring James Earl Jones.
Geiger said she doubts Jenkins was aware of the phrase’s connection to the play about Johnson. Geiger said she’s never heard Jenkins use it before.
She said Jenkins simply was discussing how the GOP has faced challenges in recent years but has talented young leaders, adding, “That’s what she was saying, that was it, nothing more, nothing less.”
Tyler Longpine, a spokesman for the Kansas Democratic Party, called Jenkins’ comment “a poor choice of words” but said he doesn’t think it was anything more than that.
He said a Democratic Party supporter shot the video at Jenkins’ forum in Hiawatha and shared it with the state party.
“The thing that kind of strikes me was the partisan tone of it all,” Longpine said. “If she’d stick to talking about policy rather than politics, she could have kept her foot out of her mouth.”
Jenkins, 46, won the 2nd Congressional District seat for eastern Kansas last year by ousting Democratic incumbent Nancy Boyda. She previously served two terms as state treasurer and four years in the Kansas Legislature.
Associated Press writer Glen Johnson in Oak Bluffs, Mass., contributed to this report.