No one ever accused Richard Riordan of being a prisoner to political correctness, but the feisty former mayor of Los Angeles and now the state's education secretary may have outdone himself last week when he called a youngster at a book event a "stupid, dirty girl."
The incident took place Thursday at the Santa Barbara Central Library, where Riordan stopped in to promote a summer reading program. After reading a picture book to preschoolers and young elementary school pupils, he chatted with some of them.
California Education Secretary Richard Riordan and his wife, Nancy, arrive for a dinner at the Allen & Co.'s annual media conference Wednesday, July 7, 2004, in Sun Valley, Idaho. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac)
One girl asked whether he was aware that her name was that of an Egyptian goddess.
While her full name was not released, event participants said her first name is Isis, the archetypal Egyptian goddess who represents everything from motherhood to magic to the dead and is considered by some historians to have influenced Christian interpretation of the Virgin Mary.
Riordan apparently thought the girl was asking whether he knew what her name meant and, with a camera rolling from a local news station, made an inexplicable quip he would immediately regret.
"It means stupid, dirty girl," he said.
The story was carried by the Associated Press and circulated statewide over the Fourth of July holiday weekend.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who named the 74-year-old Riordan to his Cabinet, issued a stern statement calling his appointee's remark "unacceptable in any context." But Schwarzenegger went on to say that Riordan "would never knowingly or intentionally upset a child. ... I know he deeply regrets having made these unfortunate remarks."
Riordan apologized to the girl on the spot, said Carol Keator, director of the Santa Barbara public library system.
"She was just a supercool kid," Keator said. "It bothered her but she didn't cry. She didn't act out in any way. She just said, 'No, my name means Egyptian goddess.'"
Riordan, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, also issued a public apology but has not attempted to explain what inspired his outburst, saying only that it was a "misunderstanding."
© 2004 The Sacramento Bee