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Toni Preckwinkle’s remarks on Reagan’s ‘place in hell’ will fade

Updated: September 23, 2012 6:27AM

We may never know whether Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle truly believes former President Ronald Reagan deserves “a special place in hell” for his role in the war on drugs. In her heart of hearts, I’d bet she very well may.

But she sure as heck knows now she never should have said so.

In less than a half revolution of the daily news cycle, Preckwinkle stuck foot squarely in mouth with her gratuitous swipe Tuesday at the late Republican icon, then scrambled to extract it again before the fallout got any worse.

As it stands, Preckwinkle will probably be the target of some slings and arrows at next week’s breakfast meetings of the Illinois delegation to the Republican National Convention, providing more red meat for the GOP faithful to go with Rahm Emanuel and his Chik-fil-A “Chicago values” remarks.

By quickly backing down, though, her turn on the national rotisserie should be short-lived. Any effect on her own future political ambitions will have to wait to be seen.

By the time I caught up with her Tuesday evening, Preckwinkle had already issued a statement expressing “regret” for her caustic remark made earlier in the day at a leadership conference in Champaign hosted by former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar.

The conversation I hoped to have with Preckwinkle was about how even a politician who is normally quite circumspect in her public utterances can get in trouble in the blink of an eye these days where everything is recorded and ready for dissemination on YouTube.

But except for allowing that “usually I’m more careful about my language,” Preckwinkle wasn’t about to oblige me by going off-script, having already done so once in the day, with unpleasant results.

Instead, she took each of my questions and spun them back into some version of her scripted talking points, emphasizing that her “inflammatory language” about Reagan had only served to distract from her larger point — that we can’t continue to treat drug use more as a criminal justice issue than a public health problem.

While Preckwinkle may have an image as a rather bland policy wonk in the style of the teacher she once was, the truth is that she has a sharp tongue on occasion and can be particularly outspoken and blunt about the issues on which she is most passionate — the nation’s long-running war on drugs being right at the top of that list.

Her emphasis on the need to decriminalize marijuana use as a way to take some of the cost pressures off the county court system and jail have been a hallmark of her first term in office.

She often says that it’s had the effect of a war on the nation’s African-American and Latino communities because of the large numbers of minorities incarcerated in its wake. She refers to jail as the “intersection of racism and poverty.”

Preckwinkle had been defending her position when she aimed her barb at Reagan, who popularized the concept of a “war on drugs” with his stepped-up enforcement policies.

Three decades later, however, it seems a little foolish to blame Reagan for a national approach that has been carried out by politicians of all political stripes ever since. And while the memory gets a little fuzzy, it was hardly viewed as revolutionary even in Reagan’s day, more a new way of talking about what we were already doing.

Preckwinkle acknowledged as much with her follow-up statement, allowing “this is too complicated to lay all of it out on President Reagan’s doorstep.”

Tuesday’s episode may prove an eye-opener for Preckwinkle, who has been allowing her name to be floated as a candidate for governor in 2014.

As she pursues a larger stage, Preckwinkle will find her words under the same scrutiny that more high profile politicians like Emanuel already do.

I would hope she learns more from the incident than being more circumspect when she’s in mixed company — that being a mix of  Democrats, Republicans and news media.

Preckwinkle can take heart from the fact that somebody will soon say something to make everyone forget her.

A week ago, we were still trying to understand how Vice President Joe Biden could say, “They’re going to put y’all back in chains.”

Then Missouri Senate candidate Todd Aikin introduced us to the concept of “legitimate rape.”

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