SAN DIEGO – Imagine the following pep talk that a young Ted Cruz might have gotten from his father, Rafael, about 35 years ago:
“My son, I was tortured in a jail cell in Cuba, but I managed to come to the United States and build a life so that you could live your dreams. I grew up speaking Spanish, but I made sure you spoke English so you could go far. If you study hard, you can attend great universities. You can clerk for the chief justice of the Supreme Court, become a great trial lawyer and argue nine cases before the high court, get elected to the U.S. Senate, and someday run for president. Then, after all the family’s efforts and sacrifices, one day, you can go on an interview program and be asked by a smug and clueless white journalist if you’re authentically Cuban.”
Watching Mark Halperin of Bloomberg Politics interview Cruz recently, I wasn’t just uncomfortable. I was actually nauseated.
As a journalist, I felt embarrassed for Halperin. As a Hispanic, I felt like I was watching a college fraternity have fun with racial stereotypes, like when staging a “border party” where people show up in serapes and fake mustaches. And as someone who doesn’t adhere to a party line to the point where I’ve been accused of being a “coconut” (white on the inside, brown on the outside), I was furious enough to – as Sarah Palin once said approvingly about Cruz – chew barbed wire and spit out rust.
The online interview show that Halperin co-hosts on BloombergPolitics.com is called “With All Due Respect.” But there was nothing respectful about the line of questioning. It started off innocently enough with Halperin asking the 2016 GOP presidential candidate about whether he thinks Hispanics will vote for him. He also mentioned a speech that Cruz had given to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and gave Cruz the chance to explain his argument that Republican economic policies help Hispanics.
Nothing wrong with that. But then Halperin made it personal, and the interview careened into a ditch. He told Cruz that people are curious about his “identity.” Then, the host asked a series of questions intended to establish his guest’s Hispanic bona fides. What kind of Cuban food did Cruz like to eat growing up? And what sort of Cuban music does Cruz listen to even now?
I’ve known Ted for more than a decade and I could tell he was uncomfortable. But he played along, listing various kinds of Cuban food and saying that his musical taste veers more toward country.
I kept waiting for Halperin to ask Cruz to play the conga drums like Desi Arnaz while dancing salsa and sipping cafe con leche – all to prove the Republican is really Cuban.
Just when I thought I’d seen the worst, it got even more offensive. Earlier that day, independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont had entered the presidential race. So, Halperin said: “I want to give you the opportunity to directly welcome your colleague Sen. Sanders to the race, and I’d like you to do it, if you would, en espanol.”
What nerve, treating a U.S. senator like a trained seal! Who does this guy think he is, trying to evaluate how well a Hispanic speaks Spanish? And what does that have to do with being authentic anyway?
You know who, by their own admission, don’t speak espanol well? Housing Secretary Julian Castro and his twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, both friends of mine. You could bet Halperin would never put those questions to the Castros because, as Democrats, they’re assumed to be closer to the masses than Cruz is.
I kept thinking to myself: “What if, instead of watching a Washington insider who is also an MSNBC contributor, I was watching Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly demand that one of the Castros say a few words in Spanish so O’Reilly could determine if he is legitimately Hispanic?”
The left would go apoplectic. They’d call O’Reilly a racist, and they’d be right. In this case, the Hispanic advocacy groups didn’t say anything.
Cruz responded: “You know, I’m going to stick to English, but I appreciate the invitation, Senor.”
I will also stick to English, Senor Halperin. You crossed the line. This was bad journalism, bad form, and bad manners.
I can’t wait for Halperin’s interview with Rick Santorum, another likely GOP presidential hopeful, where he asks him to discuss foreign policy in flawless Italian.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.