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Clarence Page: America loses when leaders are offensive

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Clarence Page, Syndicated Columnist

Here's another question that, back in the days when we had a president who cared about such quaint old traditions as manners, we thought that we never would be asking ourselves: Should the White House decide whether we should be offended by something that the president has said?

Clarence Page
Clarence Page

That question came up Monday after President Donald Trump's notoriously short attention span got the better of him.

Standing alongside three Navajo code talkers in a ceremony to honor their service in World War II, Trump's restless stream of consciousness took him off-script and into a sarcastic side comment about Sen. Elizabeth Warren without mentioning the Massachusetts Democrat's name.

"I just want to thank you because you're very, very special people," Trump said softly. "You were here long before any of us were here, although we have a representative in Congress who, they say, was here a long time ago. They call her 'Pocahontas.'"

There he goes again.

No, there is no "they." Only Trump has tried as a candidate and as president to re-brand Sen. Warren with the name of the legendary 17th century Native American woman who is associated with the colonial settlement at Jamestown, Va.

Warren, a progressive consumer advocate and former Harvard Law School professor, came under fire in 2012 for claiming Cherokee roots earlier in her academic career. But the Washington Post's Fact Checker found no proof at the time that she ever marked a form to tell the schools about her heritage or that the universities knew about her lineage before hiring her. However, they did question Warren's judgment for relying on family lore rather than official documentation.

But, if anything, Trump's snide comment turned the spotlight back on his own impoliteness. Russell Begaye, the president of the Navajo Nation who was present at the White House event, called the president's remark "derogatory" and "disrespectful to Indian nations."

Warren easily joined that view in a later interview. "It should have been a celebration of their incredible service," she said. "But Donald Trump couldn't make it through without tossing in a racial slur."

"Ridiculous," said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. "What most people find offensive, she said, "is Sen. Warren lying about her heritage to advance her career."

But as much as that charge has been made by her critics, evidence that she had benefited professionally from the claim has yet to be found. Warren has since become a favorite in the Democratic Party's progressive wing as a possible presidential candidate. That makes her fair game for political attacks but not, as a matter of common decency, racial slurs.

Should Trump be the judge of who should be offended by Trump? Not hardly. But as long as he has that loyal conservative base hungering for more liberal-bashing red meat, we can expect Trump to dish it up.

His Warren go-round erupted on the heels of another racially tinged Trump eruption. Trump and LaVar Ball, outspoken father of Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball and UCLA forward LiAngelo Ball, went back and forth for days after LiAngelo's shoplifting arrest in China.

Trump wanted to bask in credit for getting LiAngelo and two UCLA teammates back to the U.S., but LaVar instead questioned whether Trump had any role in the process. Not surprisingly, Trump launched a Twitter feud in which he called Ball an "ungrateful fool" and "a poor man's version of Don King but without the hair."

Ball offered to bury the hatchet by sending Trump a pair of Lonzo's high-priced signature gym shoes, courtesy of the Big Baller Brand, which papa Ball founded.

Frankly, my response to both of these self-promoting blowhards echoes the sentiments that Henry Kissinger allegedly expressed about the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s: "It's a pity they both can't lose."

The big losers are those of us who long for some seriousness in government, especially when the time comes to salute brave heroes like the Navajo code talkers.

CLARENCE PAGE writes for the Chicago Tribune. His column is distributed by Tribune Content Agency.