The trouble started on January 15, when Howard, then the liaison between Mayor Williams and the community, described a fund he supervised as "niggardly." The 16th-century word, which means "stingy," traces its origins to Old Norse. But other members of the mayor's staff were offended by what they thought was a racist remark. Howard, who is white, apologized immediately, but a stream of angry phone calls from citizens made it clear that the controversy would not go away, and he resigned Tuesday. Most troubling in the campaign of misinformation was Williams' acquiescence to the whole charade: In his comment on the matter, the mayor said Howard had shown "poor judgment" in using the word.
Stick around politics long enough and odds are you'll let something slip out that offends someone. Jesse Jackson took a lot of heat for calling New York "Hymietown," and former agriculture secretary Earl Butz's notorious remark correlating black people's ambitions with loose shoes, among other things, deservedly cost him his job. But what if the statement in question was offensive only to people who misunderstood its meaning? Just ask David Howard, a former aide to Washington, D.C., mayor Anthony Williams, who had to resign for using a word that was mistakenly considered to be racist.