Well, yeah.He was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama -- a "light-skinned" African American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one," as he said privately. Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama's race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination.
Sure, "Negro" is an outdated term, but as George Will pointed out on This Week this morning, there is nothing factually wrong with what Reid said. And, whether white people want to recognize it or not, "light-skinned" blacks have historically been favored in society--and thus more politically palatable. It is a fact of which black people are acutely aware.
Save Denzel, most blacks noted for their beauty, trustworthiness, or intelligence are light-skinned.* In the years since the abolition of slavery, even the most recognized civil rights leaders--as opposed to those relegated to support roles--have been predominantly light-skinned, with the much maligned Marcus Garvey being the most notable exception. This isn't to say there aren't other exceptions, but darker blacks are the exceptions to the unwritten light-skinned preference in both the black community and the American population as a whole.
I'm not saying it's right, mind you. But I remember how we, as black children, had a litany of insults for dark-skinned classmates and, also, their mothers. (cf.) Sure, it was just one aspect of many that were fair-game for ridicule, but there was just never a corollary for those of us 'light-skinneded' with "good hair" (cf.).
As for the dialect: if you didn't see the fundamental difference between the speaking styles evident in Rev. Al Sharpton's Sunday morning sermon-speak and the refined politicians in the debates when he last ran for the White House, you were clearly not paying attention and probably so drunk you went deaf. His "candidacy" was only given any airtime by the DNC because they wanted to throw a bone to the black vote--no one ever thought it was anything but a token gesture to appease the black vote by airing "black" issues. I was insulted that they even let him up on stage to embarrass himself and illustrate the difference between the educational haves and have nots. (That more women weren't similarly insulted by Sarah Palin's pride in her own incompetence four years later is astonishing to me.)
In sum, sure, it's embarrassing for the Senate Majority Leader to have this private conversation aired in public. But for all of my problems with him and what he's said, I'm much more concerned with his hyperbolic slavery analogies to those who oppose welfare for big insurance companies than I am his use of anachronistic language in describing a political reality. Reid is an out-of-touch old white guy, but I've heard nothing to make be believe he's a racist.
*One area of entertainment where skin tone seems to have no limiting effect is comedy. While both the very dark late Robin Harris and Bernie Mac waited longer for mainstream recognition of their acts than other less-funny comedians, I would attribute that to the blue nature of their comedy, not the very dark shade of their skin.