WASHINGTON - In a country that asked itself just four short years ago if it was ready for its first black president, a joke by famed actor Robert De Niro at a star-studded Manhattan fundraiser for U.S. President Barack Obama has caused a curious stir.
"Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney. Now, do you really think our country is ready for a white first lady?" the actor said to roars of laughter from a crowd that included Michelle Obama.
When someone in the audience yelled: "No!" DeNiro continued, "Too soon, right?"
But in a nation where hot-button race issues loom large, Obama's re-election campaign team was quick to distance itself from the remark while Newt Gingrich, the Republican presidential hopeful with a fondness for hyperbole, demanded the president apologize for it.
"We believe the joke was inappropriate," Olivia Alair, campaign press secretary to Michelle Obama, said in a statement.
Gingrich went much further, calling it "inexcusable."
"On behalf of my wife and on behalf of Karen Santorum and on behalf of Ann Romney — I think that Robert De Niro's wrong," Gingrich said at a campaign stop in Louisiana. "I think the country is ready for a new first lady and he doesn't have to describe it in racial terms."
...De Niro's publicist, meantime, said the actor had no intention of responding to the criticism, calling his remarks "obvious satire."