Haley Barbour and the GOP Confederacy of Dunces
Writing in Salon today, Rick Perlstein examines "what Haley Barbour's amnesia tells us" about Southern conservatives' historical revisionism. But largely lost in the imbroglio over Barbour's literal white-washing of the Jim Crow era is that the Mississippi Governor and would-have-been 2012 White House hopeful has plenty of company among the leading lights of the Republican Party. From flying the Confederate flag to talking up secession and nullification, Republicans for years have been casually trafficking in antebellum nostalgia.
In May, Texas conservatives approved an overhaul of the state's textbooks which would remove the word "slave" from the term "slave trade." Of course, that omission was in keeping with two others, as Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Mississippi's Barbour celebrated Confederate History Month in their respective states, each without mentioning slavery. As Barbour put it:
"To me it's a sort of feeling that it's just a nit. That it is not significant. It's trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn't matter for diddly."
As for Michael Steele and the Republican National Committee, they apparently considered "nits" like the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to Constitution unnecessary, at least judging from the RNC's May memo attacking Obama Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan:
"Does Kagan Still View Constitution 'As Originally Drafted And Conceived' As 'Defective'?"
As the health care reform debate reached its climax in March, Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia was among those longing for the days of the ante bellum South. Missing the irony that health care is worst in those reddest of Southern states where Republicans poll best, Broun took to the House floor to show that he was still fighting the Civil War:
"If ObamaCare passes, that free insurance card that's in people's pockets is gonna be as worthless as a Confederate dollar after the War Between The States -- the Great War of Yankee Aggression."
If you thought you had heard that outdated term of Dixie revisionist history recently, you did. In February 2009, Missouri Republican Bryan Stevenson took exception to President Obama's support for the Freedom of Choice Act, legislation which would codify the reproductive rights protections of Roe v. Wade nationwide:
"What we are dealing with today is the greatest power grab by the federal government since the war of northern aggression."
That expression was also a favorite of former Senate Majority Leader and later Minority Whip (really, you can't make this up) Trent Lott. Lott was a speaker in 1992 at an event of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a successor to the White Citizens' Councils of Jim Crow days. Among its offerings in seething racial hatred is a "Wanted" poster of Abraham Lincoln. Lott's also offered his rebel yell in the virulently neo-Confederate Southern Partisan, where in 1984 he called the Civil War "the war of aggression." That was years before he lauded the legendary racist and 1948 Dixiecrat presidential candidate, Strom Thurmond:
"I want to say this about my state: when Strom Thurmond ran for President, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
As Americans learned this week, Trent Lott is not the only Mississippi Republican to support groups like the CCC and honor the Confederate flag. Former Republican National Committee Chairman and now Governor Haley Barbour wore a lapel pin with the image during his 2002 campaigns for the state house - and to keep the CSA emblem flying over it. And as the photographs show, Barbour literally broke bread with CCC racists at a barbeque in 2003.
Another neocon (that is, neo-Confederate) is former Attorney General John Ashcroft. Ashcroft granted a long interview with the Southern Partisan, in which he stated:
"Your magazine helps set the record straight. You've got a heritage of doing that, of defending Southern patriots like [Robert E.] Lee, [Stonewall] Jackson and [Jefferson] Davis. Traditionalists must do more. I've got to do more. We've all got to stand up and speak in this respect or else we'll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda."
Then there's Bob McDonnell's predecessor of "Macaca" fame, George Allen. Long before the YouTube gaffe that derailed his 2006 Senate reelection bid, Allen's affection for the CSA was as clear as black and white. Allen, who in 2005 co-sponsored a resolution apologizing for the Senate's past use of the filibuster against anti-lynching legislation in the 1920's, displayed a Confederate flag and a noose at his home. While governor of Virginia, Allen declared "Confederate Heritage Month" and branded the NAACP an "extremist group."
But while George Allen as a Southern California teenager sported a Confederate flag lapel and "plastered the school with Confederate flags," former Arkansas Governor and 2012 White House hopeful Mike Huckabee continues to support the banner of the CSA. During the 2008 South Carolina primary, Huckabee announced:
"You don't like people from outside the state coming in and telling you what to do with your flag. In fact, if somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we'd tell them what to do with the pole, that's what we'd do."
And so it goes. While Texas Governor Rick Perry spoke of "secession" in the wake of the Obama stimulus program, health care reform opponents trot out the long-dead notion of "nullification." (Regarding the first of these Confederate talking points from the GOP, even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia remarked, "If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede.")
Hoping to stand the Civil War on its head, President Obama's Republican opponents are once again turning to nullification. Suggesting that South Carolina's effort to nullify federal tariffs starting in 1828 was a blessing, foes of the new health care reform law claiming state sovereignty trumps federal supremacy. The new "Tentherism" is embodied by failed Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. As TPM recounted earlier this year:
He has even proposed a state constitutional amendment that would allow federal laws to operate in Minnesota only if they were consented to by super-majorities of the state legislature.
(As TPM also concluded, these Republicans seek to defend the Constitution, just not the one you think.)
Emmer's defeat hasn't dampened the ardor of the nullification crowd in the GOP. As the New York Times reported, "potential presidential candidates like Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin have tried to appeal to anger at Washington by talking about the importance of the 10th Amendment, which reserves for states any powers not explicitly granted to the federal government in the Constitution." And now, the Times explains:
The same people driving the lawsuits that seek to dismantle the Obama administration's health care overhaul have set their sights on an even bigger target: a constitutional amendment that would allow a vote of the states to overturn any act of Congress.
That quixotic effort has virtually no chance of success. But as South Carolina's 150th anniversary "Secession Ball" showed this week, Southern conservatives' perpetual project to glorify the Confederacy continues unabated.
If only the Republican confederacy of dunces could follow the lead of the general that won the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant. As President, Ulysses Grant continued to offer not recriminations or retribution but respect to Southern sensibilities, an attitude still not reciprocated. In 1869, several Congressmen sought to add to the Capitol rotunda a huge mural depicting Lee surrendering to Grant at Appomattox. As authors Harold Holzer and Gabor Boritt wrote, Grant would have none of it. "He said he would never take part in producing a picture that commemorated a victory in which his own countrymen were losers." Grant is said to have remarked:
"No, gentlemen, it won't do. No power on earth will make me agree to your proposal. I will not humiliate General Lee or our Southern friends in depicting their humiliation and then celebrating the event in the nation's capitol."
As for the evil crusade to preserve slavery that Republican neo-Confederates insist on championing 150 years after the start of Southern treachery, a humbled General Grant remarked at Appomattox:
"I felt sad and depressed at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though their cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought."
And in today's Party of Lincoln, one for which they continue to fight.