I don't know...[warning: sports analogies, first two paragraphs] my dad had a friend, when I was a kid, who used to refer to the greatest heavyweight ever as "Clay." It seemed odd to me. Then, when I learned more about Ali and his career, I found out that some people deliberately called him Clay as an insult, and I thought, huh. Guess my dad's friend was a bigot.
And then I got older (but nowhere close to the current median age in the US Senate), and...well, I didn't start calling Ali "Clay" or anything like that, but I noticed that I do tend to call that team near Disneyland the "California Angels." I also have been known to call the new team that plays in our nation's capital the "Washington Senators." Also, I think I've referred to some ballplayers by their dads' names. I can't think of an example, but I know my dad was talking to me the other dad about Diego Segui on the HOF ballot (it's actually his kid, David). I don't think my dad has anything but the most sincere respect for David Segui; it just comes out wrong, sometimes.
You can see where this is going, I'm sure. Matt Yglesias says that "you can’t really apologize for being the sort of person who’d be inclined to use the phrase 'negro dialect'" (his emphasis) and that "[i]t’s just jarring for those of us under a certain age to think of an old white guy walking around saying “negro” and wielding political influence." He's right. It's a good reason, too, to regret how old our Members of Congress are. The thing is, I still don't know if my dad's friend was a bigot. If I was to try to figure it out, I'd look at what I knew of his whole life, and not just that one verbal tic, but I'd also pay a little attention to the verbal tic -- no one cares if I call the baseball team "California" instead of whatever they're going by this year, but people do care what they're called, and so I try to make sure that I respect that, and in my opinion it says something about me if I don't. There are some words that people used when I was a kid that I make damn sure never come out of my mouth. Others...well, it doesn't really matter very much.
Anyway, that's how I think about this type of thing. As I said before, however, the fate of Harry Reid (as leader -- his re-election is another story) has very, very little to do with what he said or what Republicans are saying now; it has everything to do with how his Senate colleagues and the White House thought of him before the flap erupted.