January 10, 2003

Bush's southern strategy

How much political capital does President Bush need to act like a racist? Apparently not much. Less than a month after the resignation of Trent Lott amid accusations of his support for the segregationist policies of the old southern aristocracy, President Bush has decided to re-nominate Charles Pickering--a close friend of Lott--to the Federal Judiciary. "By taking on a member of his own party over race...he gained significant moral standing that can be used to argue [in favor of] Judge Pickering," said a White House official, quoted in yesterday's New York Times. Bush, in denouncing Lott and the "policies of the past" (i.e. segregation), seemed to genuinely hope for resolution and reconciliation with the minority communities that the Republican Party has demonized over the past 50 years. However, in the case the phrase "significant moral standing," means political capital. Pickering, one of the most controversial and racially divisive Judicial nominees in nearly 30 years, was rejected last fall by the Senate Judiciary Committee, citing his support for bans on interracial marriage and abortion, and his efforts to release a man from prison who had been convicted of burning a cross on the lawn of an interracial couple, as grounds for his unfitness to serve in the Federal Judiciary.

One month ago, John DiIulio, a full professor from the University of Pennsylvania and the former head of President Bush's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, confessed that, in the Bush White House, politics always comes before policy. Karl Rove has turned the White House into a machine that, as DiIulio said, "consistently talks and acts as if the height of political sophistication consists of reducing every issue to its simplest black and white turns for public consumption, then steers legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible."

What does this mean for civil rights? Unfortunately, the answer is not much. After seeming to deride Trent Lott's comments and having his operatives engineer Lott's resignation as Senate Majority Leader in order to appease the centrist suburban voters who got him elected, the President is back at it again, playing the "Southern Strategy." "What strategy?" you ask. Well, it all started when Ronald Reagan was running for President in 1980. He kicked off his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the murder of three civil-rights activists in 1964. He began his speech with the phrase "I believe in states' rights." That phrase--"states rights"--is still considered a code word for the southern aristocratic segregationist existence. Reagan was standing beside Strom Thurmond. Reagan used that speech and others like it to energize the remnants of the Dixiecrats--Thurmond's segregationist supporters.

George W. Bush, who claims to be a "compassionate conservative," used that same "Southern Strategy" to sweep the south in the 2000 presidential election. After losing the New Hampshire primary--badly--to John McCain, Bush set off to South Carolina with a vengeance. McCain and his wife had, 11 years prior, adopted a young baby girl named Bridget from Bangladesh. Karl Rove instructed pro-Bush groups to orchestrate a flyer campaign with the McCain family picture aboveaccusations that Bridget was the illegitimate child of McCain and a black prostitute. Bush then paid a visit to Bob Jones University, which at the time prohibited interracial dating among its students. These actions were meant to directly appeal to the extreme right flank of the Republican Party--the same people that Strom Thurmond represented when he ran for President in 1948 as a Dixiecrat.

After being soundly voted out of the Judiciary Committee last year on grounds of racist judicial decisions, the nomination of Charles Pickering was considered a dead issue. However, with a new Republican majority in the Senate, President Bush decided to re-nominate Pickering, hoping that with a majority on the Judiciary Committee, Pickering would be placed on the bench. Pickering's defenders point to the comparatively miniscule number of "racist" decisions he has made while on the bench, and how long ago his support for a ban on interracial marriage in the State of Mississippi was. Those are valid points--as we all know, people change, and they often change for the better. Unfortunately, Pickering still refuses to explain why he supported the release from jail of a man convicted of burning a cross on an interracial couple's lawn in 1994.

President Bush has once again tipped his hand to the American citizenry. If he were actually concerned with healing the wounds of racism caused by a segregated South and an uncaring Trent Lott, he would have realized how offensive Charles Pickering is to the majority of Americans, especially those minorities he is hoping to reach out to. There are many qualified men and women who are just as, if not more deserving of a spot on the Federal Appeals Court. And yet, even after he was soundly voted down less than a year ago, Bush has returned Pickering to the Judiciary Committee, and the public spotlight. Bush thinks that his words concerning Lott will "pay" for his actions concerning the millions of Americans whose civil rights he hopes Charles Pickering will be able to erode from the Federal Appeals Court. This "compassionate conservative" only cares about one thing: reelection. It seems that Bush's "Southern Strategy" is back at work.