By Frank Rich — New York Times.
It’s kind of like that legendary stunt on the prime-time soap “Dallas,” where we learned that nothing bad had really happened because the previous season’s episodes were all a dream. We now know that the wave of anger that crashed on the Capitol as the health care bill passed last month — the death threats and epithets hurled at members of Congress — was also a mirage.
Take it from the louder voices on the right. Because no tape has surfaced of anyone yelling racial slurs at the civil rights icon and Georgia Congressman John Lewis, it’s now a blogosphere “fact” that Lewis is a liar and the “lamestream media” concocted the entire incident. The same camp maintains as well that the spit landing on the Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver was inadvertent spillover saliva from an over-frothing screamer — spittle, not spit, as it were. True, there is video evidence of the homophobic venom directed at Barney Frank — but, hey, Frank is white, so no racism there!
“It’s Not About Race” declared a headline on a typical column defending over-the-top “Obamacare” opponents from critics like me, who had the nerve to suggest a possible racial motive in the rage aimed at the likes of Lewis and Cleaver — neither of whom were major players in the Democrats’ health care campaign. It’s also mistaken, it seems, for anyone to posit that race might be animating anti-Obama hotheads like those who packed assault weapons at presidential town hall meetings on health care last summer. And surely it is outrageous for anyone to argue that conservative leaders are enabling such extremism by remaining silent or egging it on with cries of “Reload!” to pander to the Tea Party-Glenn Beck base. As Beck has said, it’s Obama who is the real racist.
I would be more than happy to stand corrected. But the story of race and the right did not, alas, end with the health care bill. Hardly had we been told that all that ugliness was a fantasy than we learned back in the material world that the new Republican governor of Virginia, Robert McDonnell, had issued a state proclamation celebrating April as Confederate History Month.
In doing so, he was resuscitating a dormant practice that had been initiated in 1997 by George Allen, the Virginia governor whose political career would implode in 2006 when he was caught on camera calling an Indian-American constituent “macaca.” McDonnell had been widely hailed by his party as a refreshing new “big tent” conservative star when he took office in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, in January. So perhaps his Dixiecrat proclamation, if not a dream, might have been a staff-driven gaffe rather than a deliberate act of racial provocation.
That hope evaporated once McDonnell was asked to explain why there was no mention of slavery in his declaration honoring “the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens.” After acknowledging that slavery was among “any number of aspects to that conflict between the states,” the governor went on to say that he had focused on the issues “I thought were most significant for Virginia.” Only when some of his own black supporters joined editorialists in observing that slavery was significant to some Virginians too — a fifth of the state’s population is black — did he beat a retreat and apologize.
But his original point had been successfully volleyed, and it was not an innocent mistake. McDonnell’s words have a well-worn provenance. In “Race and Reunion,” the definitive study of Civil War revisionism, the historian David W. Blight documents the long trajectory of the insidious campaign to erase slavery from the war’s history and reconfigure the lost Southern cause as a noble battle for states’ rights against an oppressive federal government. In its very first editorial upon resuming publication in postwar 1865, The Richmond Dispatch characterized the Civil War as a struggle for the South’s “sense of rights under the Constitution.” The editorial contained not “a single mention of slavery or black freedom,” Blight writes. That evasion would be a critical fixture of the myth-making to follow ever since.
McDonnell isn’t a native Virginian but he received his master’s and law degrees at Pat Robertson’s university in Virginia Beach during the 1980s, when Robertson was still a rare public defender of South Africa’s apartheid regime. As a major donor to McDonnell’s campaign and an invited guest to his Inaugural breakfast, Robertson is closer politically to his protégé than the Rev. Jeremiah Wright ever was to Barack Obama. McDonnell chose his language knowingly when initially trying to justify his vision of Confederate History Month. His sanitized spin on the Civil War could not have been better framed to appeal to an unreconstructed white cohort that, while much diminished in the 21st century, popped back out of the closet during the Obama ascendancy.
But once again you’d have to look hard to find any conservative leader who criticized McDonnell for playing with racial fire. Instead, another Southern governor — who, as it happened, had issued a Confederate Heritage Month proclamation of his own — took up his defense. The whole incident didn’t “amount to diddly,” said Haley Barbour, of Mississippi, when asked about it by Candy Crowley of CNN last weekend.
Barbour, a potential presidential aspirant, was speaking from New Orleans, where the Southern Republican Leadership Conference was in full cry. Howard Fineman of Newsweek reported that he couldn’t find any African-American, Hispanic or Asian-American attendees except for the usual G.O.P. tokens trotted out as speakers — J. C. Watts, Bobby Jindal and Michael Steele, only one of them (Jindal) holding public office.
New Orleans had last attracted G.O.P. attention in 2008, when John McCain visited there as part of a “forgotten places” campaign tour to deliver the message that his party cared about black Americans and that “never again” would the city’s tragedy be ignored. “Never” proved to have a shelf life of less than two years. None of the opening-night speakers at last weekend’s conference (Newt Gingrich, Liz Cheney, Mary Matalin et al.) so much as mentioned Hurricane Katrina, according to Ben Smith of Politico. When Barbour did refer to it later on, it was to praise the Bush administration’s recovery efforts and chastise the Democrats’ “man-made disaster” in Washington.
Most Americans who don’t like Obama or the health care bill are not racists. It may be a closer call among Tea Partiers, of whom only 1 percent are black, according to last week’s much dissected Times/CBS News poll. That same survey found that 52 percent of Tea Party followers feel “too much” has been made of the problems facing black people — nearly twice the national average. And that’s just those who admit to it. Whatever their number, those who are threatened and enraged by the new Obama order are volatile. Conservative politicians are taking a walk on the wild side by coddling and encouraging them, whatever the short-term political gain.
The temperature is higher now than it was a month ago. It’s not happenstance that officials from the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Virginia and Mississippi have argued, as one said this month, that the Confederate Army had been “fighting for the same things that people in the Tea Party are fighting for.” Obama opposition increasingly comes wrapped in the racial code that McDonnell revived in endorsing Confederate History Month. The state attorneys general who are invoking states’ rights in their lawsuits to nullify the federal health care law are transparently pushing the same old hot buttons.
“They tried it here in Arkansas in ’57, and it didn’t work,” said the Democratic governor of that state, Mike Beebe, likening the states’ health care suits to the failed effort of his predecessor Orval Faubus to block nine black students from attending the all-white Little Rock Central High School. That battle for states’ rights ended when President Eisenhower, a Republican who would be considered a traitor to his party in 2010, enforced federal law by sending in troops.
How our current spike in neo-Confederate rebellion will end is unknown. It’s unnerving that Tea Party leaders and conservatives in the Oklahoma Legislature now aim to create a new volunteer militia that, as The Associated Press described it, would use as yet mysterious means to “help defend against what they believe are improper federal infringements on state sovereignty.” This is the same ideology that animated Timothy McVeigh, whose strike against the tyrannical federal government will reach its 15th anniversary on Monday in the same city where the Oklahoma Legislature meets.
What is known is that the nearly all-white G.O.P. is so traumatized by race it has now morphed into a bizarre paragon of both liberal and conservative racial political correctness. For irrefutable proof, look no further than the peculiar case of its chairman, Steele, whose reckless spending and incompetence would cost him his job at any other professional organization, let alone a political operation during an election year. Steele has job security only because he is the sole black man in a white party hierarchy. That hierarchy is as fearful of crossing him as it is of calling out the extreme Obama haters in its ranks.
At least we can take solace in the news that there’s no documentary evidence proving that Tea Party demonstrators hurled racist epithets at John Lewis. They were, it seems, only whistling “Dixie.”