De Niro’s ‘white first lady’ joke, and the aftermath

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Michelle Obama. (Shutterstock)
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Newt Gingrich has successfully pushed the White House to disavow Robert De Niro's comments last night at an Obama fund-raiser, at which he joked that the country might not really be ready for a white first lady.

"Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney," De Niro said. "Now do you really think our country is ready for a white first lady?" 

The joke went over well last night, I can safely say, because I was the inglorious pool reporter stuck behind the (open) bar. 

De Niro was playing to the crowd more than a little bit. As I had previously reported, the entire host committee for the event, with the exception of De Niro, was comprised of African-American women, including De Niro's wife, Grace Hightower, Whoopi Goldberg, Star Jones, Angela Bassett, and Tina Knowles (better known as Beyonce's mother). The guest of honor was first lady Michelle Obama.

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De Niro's joke also seemed to reference the national debate in 2008, about whether the country was really "ready" for a black president, and as the crowd continued to laugh, he wondered aloud: "Too soon, right?"

That line has been rendered in headlines as De Niro suggesting it's "too soon" to return a white first lady to the White House, but it seemed just as likely that he was asking whether it was "too soon" for his own controversial joke.

Pool reporters don't get to ask follow-up questions—after a long wait in the main part of the restaurant in which the event was taking place, I was hastily shuttled in and out of the back room where De Niro and the first lady were, in time to hear the formal remarks. 

Newt Gingrich called it "inexcusable" and demanded an apology; Rick Santorum called it "sad;" Mitt Romney's spokesperson avoided it; and President Obama's campaign, following Gingrich's demand for an apology, called it "inappropriate."