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Tom Tangney

Seattle mayoral candidate's book reading proves controversial

Seven Seattle mayoral candidates were asked at a recent forum to choose a book, any book, that was particularly meaningful to them and read a passage from it.

One candidate's choice proved to be controversial.

There are countless pitfalls for a politician, and a lot of them are self-made. The latest example - Seattle mayoral candidate Peter Steinbrueck who's attracting a lot of attention for his efforts at reading aloud in a black dialect. You can see him read in the video above at the 37-minute mark.

He read, Sunday was sometimes a dull day at our place in the morning.

"By the way, this is a particularly difficult passage to read," Steibrueck said, interrupting himself.

It's not like Steinbrueck didn't warn us right off the bat. One sentence in to his interpretive reading of a passage by 19th century African-American writer Charles Chestnutt and he's already warning us how difficult it's going to be to read. Probably not a good sign.

Steinbrueck launched into five minutes of a story about an older black man with some crazy notions.

He read on. "Fact is," continued the old man in a serious tone, "I don't like to drive a mule. I's allus afeared I might be imposin on some human creetur. Ev'y time I cuts a mule with a hickory, 'pears to me most likely I's cuttin some of my own relations."

Near the end of the passage, Steinbrueck made a somewhat nervous assurance, "I'm almost finished." I'm wondering at what point he realized this reading was a bad idea. Maybe he never did and still doesn't. He has been defending his choice quite unashamedly.

I find his reading embarrassing. Truly cringe-worthy. I can't help but laugh every time I watch or hear it. For one thing, he's a terrible reader. He's right when he tells us it's difficult to read. But if you can't do it well, why do it at all? Choose something easier and save yourself the humiliation.

Then, even if he could do the dialect flawlessly, it's worth asking whether it's such a great idea for a mayoral candidate, white or black, to adopt an outdated dialect for any reason. It would seem he has a tin ear when it comes to racial sensitivity. Then again, he is honoring a lesser-known African-American writer by choosing him, over all others, to read, so maybe it's a wash. (As far as I know, the local African-American community hasn't weighed in on the matter, one way or the other.)

But I do find it odd that out of all the books in the universe for him to choose from, Steinbruek would select such a problematic text to read aloud from. It certainly wasn't the safe choice.

That route was left to a couple of the other mayoral frontrunners, Bruce Harrell and Ed Murray. Harrell chose a passage from "Team of Rivals," the Doris Kearns Goodwin book that inspired the Steven Spielberg movie "Lincoln." And Murray went with an essay by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

I think Mike McGinn made the smartest choice: "Catch-22." First off, that's an anti-authoritarian classic chosen by a sitting mayor. Clever. And unlike Steinbrueck's reading, McGinn's passage was intentionally funny.

McGinn read, "That's all he has to do, asked to be grounded?"
"That's all. Let him ask me," said Doc Daneeka.
"And then you can ground him?" Yossarian asked.
"No. Then I can't ground him."
"You mean there's a catch?"
"Sure there's a catch," Doc Daneeka replied. "Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy."

Steinbrueck may feel like he got caught up in his own "Catch-22."

Tom Tangney, KIRO Radio Host, Film & Media Critic
Tom Tangney is the co-host of The Tom and Curley Show on KIRO Radio and resident enthusiast of...everything. As the film and media critic on the Morning News on KIRO Radio, he espouses his love for books, movies, TV, art, pop culture, politics, sports, and Husky football.
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